Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Broad Brushes and Oopsies

In 2018, Al Mohler bemoaned the state of the Southern Baptist Convention in the words, “The judgment of God has come.” I wrote about it back then, concerned that Mohler was using the word “abuse” to cover far too broad a spectrum of sins, from the comparatively trivial to the genuinely awful. One of those alleged offenders to whom Mohler made subtle reference was Paige Patterson, then-president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS), who was terminated shortly thereafter.

And yes, SWBTS used the word “abuse” in its letter of dismissal as well. Seven times, in case anyone missed it.

“We Know in Part …”

Subsequent events proved Mohler’s knowledge about what was actually going on in the Southern Baptist Convention was partial at best. He was apologizing reflexively in the face of accusations that had nothing to do with him personally, and the truth of which he could neither affirm nor deny because investigation was still ongoing. But faced with the choice between being perceived as whitewashing criminal behavior or waiting to confirm the truth of the accusations made, he went full bore into conceding that the “wrath of God” had been unleashed on the SBC. Southwestern was arguably worse, terminating Patterson before his guilt had been substantiated.

A second set of allegations also surfaced concerning Patterson’s handling of a similar 2003 incident at another seminary. They created a flurry of noise in the Christian media and probably gave impetus to the drive to oust Patterson at SWBTS, but did not lead to any legal action. Like the more recent incident, many things were alleged and few, if any, rigorously proven.

Regardless, kneejerk responses make nobody look good. Whether charges of abuse or enabling abuse are serious or trivial, old or new, one can at least wait for due diligence before stripping a man of his position, pension and benefits. The alleged rape victim then sued Patterson anonymously under the name “Jane Roe” for “negligence” and “gross negligence” in his handling of her claim, and for creating the conditions that led to her assault. Patterson denied all charges.

Justice Moves On

Spoiler alert: the alleged rapist has been in the ground for over four years, so we will never know what really happened there. The “Doe” referred to repeatedly in the legal proceedings was Sean Cole, who passed away in November 2018 at age 30, rendering criminal prosecution moot. Nobody will talk online about how Cole died, which is suggestive. I’m pretty good at digging up details, and in Cole’s case there are no more to be had. A suicide might well produce this sort of muted response from family members, but what do I know? One of the commenters in the guest book for Sean Cole’s funeral referred to him as a “bundle of blessings”. That was not the opinion of the woman he allegedly raped, but then all we have to go by as readers of the mainstream secular and Christian media are suppositions and accusations.

Regardless, the “Roe” claim against Paige Patterson moved on, potentially more lucrative than any claim against the estate of Sean Cole, who was a mere student and journeyman plumber.

The Non-Rush to Judgment

Fast forward to 2023, when the United States District Court has finally weighed in. It’s five full years after the lawsuit was filed and eight years after the relevant events. That’s how justice works these days. It takes forever. Allegations spread overnight; getting them looked at legally can take a decade. Worse, at least for Mohler and SWBTS, Roe v. Patterson never even went before a jury. That requires some explanation and a little bit of context.

This was a summary judgment. Getting dismissed right off the bat is fairly unusual in a case with these sorts of complexities. In Canada and elsewhere, the legal system is far too eager to reap the proceeds of endless motions and countermotions, a lucrative process in which the constituent parts of the legal machinery all prosper. A summary judgment is an indication of an exceptionally weak case, a basket of arguments that would not survive even the most cursory legal scrutiny by a well-instructed jury.

In this case, the judge gave Roe’s complaint a whole lot more than cursory scrutiny. There are forty pages here, and I read them all, having had a few years of relevant experience interpreting such things. Sean D. Jordan, the judge in question, is a 57-year old white Texan male appointed by Donald Trump when president. This is either a bug or a feature, depending on your political leanings. What I will say is that to an unbiased observer from a much more lenient legal culture, Jordan’s analysis of the case is painstaking, and scrupulously fair to both parties. He anticipates every possible bone of contention and cites endless legal precedents in either upholding or dismissing the most trivial and technical claims from either side. For anyone interested, here is the transcript of his ruling.

Unforeseeable and Unreported

And here are some of the more notable and less technical conclusions:

“Therefore, even accepting Patterson’s testimony as framed by Roe, (Dkt. #285 at 19), it is clear that Roe’s alleged assaults remained unforeseeable to Patterson.”

“Indeed, it is undisputed that Roe never told anyone at SWBTS of her concerns about Doe. Roe did not even go so far as to speak with Dr. Knight or his wife directly, even though the Knights were family friends of Roe and her mother, and even though Roe was a student in a class taught by Dr. Knight.”

“Roe’s assertion that ‘women who tried to report sexual harassment and sexual abuse were ignored, dismissed or disciplined themselves’ is a gross distortion of the evidence before the Court.”

The only potential negative for Patterson was the following line:

“Patterson’s approach to further communications with Roe may well have been misguided and inappropriate.”

What it wasn’t, in the eyes of the court, was abusive, nor did it enable abuse.

Insufficient Evidence

Whether Paige Patterson is a good man is a question about which I have no opinion. I don’t know anything more about him than you can access by Googling. Given my confirmed dislike of all things institutional in the evangelical world, as well as most salaried positions in Christian organizations, Patterson would be an unlikely candidate for my shortlist of heroes of the faith. I am no fan of the power structures in the Southern Baptist Convention, and media comments to the effect that Patterson “inspired fear”, if true, are not flattering.

Nevertheless, what the court proceedings demonstrated is that there is no proof meeting the legal standard that he is anything but a competent administrator who did his job as required, and even exceeded expectations in some respects. There was nothing remotely approximating sufficient evidence provided to convict him of any wrongdoing. I will stop short of using phrases like “fully vindicated”, as some do. Sadly, no summary judgment can do that. All a summary judgment can really demonstrate is that this particular set of allegations did not hit the mark. Nobody can stop Patterson’s critics from hinting darkly that a better constructed case might have gotten the job done.

Public Accusations and Invisible Exonerations

This is the worst thing about public accusations. Even winning in court doesn’t really clear you. The lawsuit against Patterson got all kinds of media play, including Christian media, all in the gleeful spirit of “Look, we nailed another one!” The complete failure to establish his guilt is almost entirely invisible online, which is why I’m giving it a push here. Meanwhile, he lost his job in the SWBTS board’s failed attempt to short circuit some bad press, and there is no evidence he abused anyone or enabled anyone else to. Even a secular judge declined to characterize Patterson’s actions as “weaponizing authority”, as Mohler alleged in his (somewhat premature) confessional opinion piece.

There is a reason the apostle Paul told Christians not to sue one another. Nothing about this proceeding has glorified God or helped anyone. One man is dead, another man’s career is destroyed, the woman who brought the charges is on record as grossly distorting evidence (Christians sometimes refer to that as “lying”), and the institution in which this all occurred is still much maligned. Nobody made out well, and nobody really knows what happened.

In the intervening five years, Christians didn’t get any less sloppy about the way they use the word “abuse” either.

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