Seminary board strips Paige Patterson of title and benefits in dramatic turnabout

(RNS) — After considering fresh evidence of an alleged rape cover-up, the board of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth voted to strip embattled former President Paige Patterson of the title and benefits it had granted him a week ago.

In a statement posted to its website Wednesday (May 30), the board of trustees took away “all the benefits, rights and privileges provided by the May 22-23 board meeting, including the title of President Emeritus, the invitation to reside at the Baptist Heritage Center as theologian-in-residence and ongoing compensation.”

Patterson’s swift firing represents the most dramatic example of the #MeToo movement pervading the top reaches of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The new evidence, the statement said, related to an allegation that in 2003 Patterson, then president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., incorrectly handled an allegation of sexual abuse.

It did not specify further. But The Washington Post reported last week that Patterson told a female student not to report an alleged rape to the police and to forgive her assailant when he was president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

The about-face from the board caps a dramatic fall for Patterson, one of the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention’s theological shift to the right, and once a lionized figure within America’s largest Protestant denomination.

“There’s no joy in my heart over this decision,” said Wade Burleson, an Oklahoma pastor and blogger and one of Patterson’s most prominent critics. “However, this action declares to the world that the Southern Baptist Convention is able to self-correct. It may take time. It may be ugly at times. But in time, the SBC will do the right thing.”

Last week, the board appointed D. Jeffrey Bingham, dean of the School of Theology, to the position of interim president.

According to the seminary statement, “new information confirmed this morning was presented regarding the handling of an allegation of sexual abuse against a student during Dr. Paige Patterson’s presidency at another institution and resulting issues connected with statements to the Board of Trustees that are inconsistent with SWBTS’s biblically informed core values.”

Board members have remained mum about their deliberations. But one source with close ties to Southwestern leaders, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the trustees received several files from Southeastern seminary that may have shed new light on the alleged rape coverup, especially when compared with the account that Patterson gave to trustees.

On Monday, the woman who said she was raped in 2003, outed herself on Twitter. She is Megan Lively, a social media strategist who lives in Wilson, N.C. Lively declined an interview, saying she was only speaking to a local Christian publication.

Demands for Patterson’s ouster had already multiplied in the wake of recently surfaced recordings in which he boasted that he advised a woman to stay with her abusive husband and “be as submissive as you can” and objectified the body of a 16-year-old girl.

Those remarks led more than 3,200 Southern Baptist women to sign an online letter asking the trustees to take action against Patterson.

“Many within the inner circles of the SBC knew and understood that the matters that were addressed in the petition I, and three thousand others, signed were the tip of the iceberg,” said Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University and a Southern Baptist. “It was just a matter of uncovering what lay beneath the surface. I’m sure there is much more.”

Prior said she and other women feel justice has been done.

“I’ve seen people remark that the arc of justice has moved,” she added.” It has moved slowly, but better slowly and later than not at all. Many who were frustrated with the board’s earlier decisions are happy, even if it feels like the decision could have been sooner and should have been made sooner.”

Patterson, the architect of the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1980s, is also known for using his position to push back against feminism and the women’s movement. He helped reinstate a biblical literalism with regard to marriage, family and the role of women. He also helped push an amendment to the denomination’s statement of faith that says “a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.”

Patterson is scheduled to give a keynote sermon to pastors during next month’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas.

But already several resolutions are being drafted to affirm the denomination’s commitment to protecting women from abuse. One is titled “On Repudiating Predatory Behavior.” Another drafted by Jason K. Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, reads in part: “We denounce not only sexual impropriety and abuse but also anyone who would facilitate or knowingly cover up such acts.”

The Southern Baptist Convention meets June 12-13 in Dallas.

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