For nearly 60 years, the Southern Baptist Convention has retained the same general counsel: Guenther, Jordan & Price of Nashville, Tennessee. But now that’s changing, following several months of turmoil within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Last week, the SBC Executive Committee finally agreed to the will of numerous sexual abuse survivors and their advocates and agreed to a fully transparent investigation into numerous cover-ups.
Part of that transparency was a waiver of attorney-client privilege, a decision that caused a bitter rift among the Executive Committee even after SBC Messengers voted for it. The Executive Committee voted against following the Messengers’ will for several weeks until the resolution finally passed, though several members of the leadership team resigned in protest.
And the SBC lawyers are moving on as well, citing the waive of attorney-client privilege in the investigation as their reason.
“We simply do not know how to advise a client, and otherwise represent a client, with the quality of advice and representation the client must have, and in keeping with the standard of practice our firm tries to uphold, when the client has indicated a willingness to forego this universally accepted principle of confidentiality,” the team wrote in a letter to Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd.
Many members of the Executive Committee argued that waiving attorney-client privilege would expose the SBC to lawsuits that could potentially bankrupt the entire convention. Guenther, Jordan & Price, who have advised the SBC since 1966, have said that maintaining local church autonomy helps protect the SBC legally. From a liability standpoint, that advice has served the SBC well. The firm has represented the SBC in around 50 cases and “have never lost an ascending liability,” according to the Baptist and Reflector, which was the first to report the legal team’s split.
But when confronted with the Houston Chronicle’s report of a culture of sexual abuse coverup, advocates for survivors of sexual abuse called for a full investigation. At first, the Executive Committee attempted to commission its own investigation into itself, but delegates from local SBC churches across the country voted for a full, third-party investigation instead. The Executive Committee’s attempts to squash such an investigation were ultimately struck down by vote.
“The attorney-client privilege has been portrayed by some as an evil device by which misconduct is somehow allowed to be secreted so wrongdoers can escape justice and defeat the legal rights of others,” Guenther, Jordan & Price wrote. “That could not be further from the truth.”
On Twitter, Baptist pastor Bart Barber pushed back against the law firm’s characterization. “The point never was that attorney-client privilege is evil,” he wrote. “The point is that the @SBCExecComm cannot lie beyond the investigatory power of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“But if the EC gets to determine the terms of how it is investigated or which materials are or are not subject to investigation, then the EC effectively lies beyond the investigatory power of the SBC,” he continued. “The very idea that the EC could be unaccountable to the convention’s messengers is evil, whether it is shielding any other evil thing or not. Under those terms the SBC would never have consented to form the EC nor to grant it ad interim power on the messengers’ behalf.”