Scandal at Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary set the tone for this year’s Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Dallas from start to end.
The seminary’s longstanding president, Paige Patterson, an icon in the denomination, was fired May 30 over how he handled allegations of sexual abuse. He became embroiled in a PR nightmare when old comments he made about urging abused women to submit to their husbands resurfaced in late April, and the scandal culminated in a published report that he had told a woman not to report her rape.
The interim president of the seminary, Jeffrey Bingham, took the convention stage Wednesday morning to present a seminary report. He did not wait to address what, exactly, had brought him to his new position.
"Let me state without any lack of clarity: My intention, my priority, is to create a safe environment and a campus culture that protects and cares for the victims of abuse,” Bingham said.
Each Southwestern Seminary faculty and staff member is now required to complete a course in sexual harassment by July 31. The seminary is working with third-party agencies and ministries to evaluate how they deal with reports of abuse.
Looming over his speech was a motion to be discussed later on whether to fire Southwestern’s executive board of trustees, the group that had made the decision to fire Patterson. With that in mind, an attendee from the floor asked Bingham whether he was confident in the executive committee.
“May I remind all of us please that the executive committee is made up of 12 Godly men and women?" Bingham asked. “I have seen the tears stream from their eyes as they have had to make decisions which cause them deep inner anxiety and agony."
It took three more hours for the discussion on whether the executive trustees would be summarily fired to come to the floor. Another motion made Tuesday, as to whether the full board should reconsider the actions of the executive board, already had gone through. The full board had voted May 23 to make Patterson the president emeritus and theologian-in-residence with a salary, a position he held for a month.
While the full board will report on its actions in a year, it’s highly unlikely Patterson will be reinstated.
The man who made the motion to fire the executive board, Thomas Hatley, spoke first from one of the many microphones scattered across the convention hall. Reading from a printed sheet, he listed his issues with the executive committee: “hastiness,” a “lack of investigation, and a failure to allow the accused to respond.”
It took four warnings that he was over his allocated time to get Hatley to end his presentation.
Wayne Dickard, a Southwestern trustee from South Carolina, spoke up in support of the motion.
"If we can be overruled by the executive committee, why serve?” he asked.
A member of Southwestern’s executive committee took the microphone himself in a speech that spurred many in the convention hall to a standing ovation.
Bart Barber of Texas said he was the last one to come to the decision to fire Patterson. But he said it was Patterson who effectively brought it on himself.
Patterson was asked by the trustees to issue his first news release after the abuse tape circulated, and he didn’t. Patterson was repeatedly asked to meet with the trustees as more allegations came out, and he didn’t. He was pushed to president emeritus, and, Barber said, the first thing Patterson did was have his lawyer send an email questioning the legality of the move.
“What’s your board to do when your president emeritus is working to undermine the legitimacy of the board of trustees?” Barber asked.
The motion went down overwhelmingly.
While he has his tenure as interim president, Bingham is moving the seminary toward inclusivity.
"We refuse to be a seminary that defines itself in opposition to this difference or to that difference within the SBC,” he said.