Black Collar Crime: Southern Baptist Leader Paul Pressler Faces Civil Suit Over Sexual Abuse Allegations
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Southern Baptist luminary Paul Pressler faces a civil suit alleging that he sexually abused a teenager.
The attorney representing a man suing former Southern Baptist Convention leader Paul Pressler for alleged sexual abuse has filed the first of what he says will be a series of affidavits corroborating his client’s claims.
An attachment to a motion filed April 3 in the United States District Court for the Second District of Texas Houston Division identifies a married man in his 50s living in New York who says he believes Pressler “had designs” on him when he was a teenager.The witness, a member of a youth group that Pressler led at a Presbyterian church in Houston in the 1970s, said during one weekend retreat at the Pressler Ranch, when he was 16 or 17, Pressler told him there was a shortage of beds and asked if he would mind if they shared a bunk.
He said he recalls “feeling a typical teenage aversion to sleeping beside him,” but did not at the time think the request was unreasonable. During the night, he said, Pressler told him he was cold and rubbed his feet against his under the covers without asking.
The affidavit also says Pressler used to take boys from the youth group to saunas and showers at the Houston Oaks Country Club, typically when no other club members were around. They usually would carpool after Bible study in groups of four to 12, but one night he rode with Pressler and noticed he was the only passenger. He asked who else was going, and Pressler said they were the only two.
He suspected nothing, the affidavit says, until Pressler groped him when they were alone in the steam bath.
“I was absolutely not aroused,” the statement says. “I froze. Shocked, stunned and utterly frightened, I had no idea what to expect next. I was naked and trapped — miles from home — and I needed to be beyond Pressler’s reach.”
“My instincts told me to carry on as though nothing had happened — to end the incident with no further incident. With great difficulty, I talked calmly, while staying alert. We returned to the locker room and dressed. Then Pressler drove me to my car without further incident. I went home and from that moment I have stayed away from him.”
Houston attorney Daniel Shea said in the April 3 motion the allegation is just one of “affidavits and material corroborating witnesses” in preparation and partially completed in the case. Shea said they span a period from as early as 1977-78 to as recently as unwanted sexual advances claimed by a man in 2016. Shea said “other affidavits will follow” and “new corroborators continue to come forward.”
Shea’s motion came in response to a motion for summary judgment filed March 30 by the Southern Baptist Convention, one of a number of organizations and individuals accused in the lawsuit of being co-conspirators. While denying any wrongdoing, the SBC argued that the lawsuit is barred by statute of limitations.
Allowing the case to proceed, the motion said, “would involve discovery regarding documents, events and people spanning 40 years.”
“The attendant costs to SBC, taxpayers and judicial resources constitute an abuse of the civil justice system,” the motion said.
Shea opposed the motion, saying he has not yet had a chance to depose Pressler.
According to legal websites, depositions — the taking of an oral statement of a witness before trial, under oath — are part of the right that all parties in a lawsuit have to “discovery,” a formal investigation to find out more about the case before going to trial.
Depositions for Pressler and his wife, Nancy, were initially set for Jan. 16 but were “quashed” — declared legally void — by the defendants. March 13 depositions ordered in state court were intercepted when defendant Second Baptist Church in Houston filed a motion March 12 moving the case to the federal bench.
“The depositions sought will be confrontational,” Shea said. “Either Paul Pressler will admit or deny the abuse, admit or deny the corroborators, or provide some unknown response.”
Shea’s client, Gareld Duane Rollins Jr., claims that Pressler assaulted him over the course of 35 years, beginning when he was 14.
Pressler, a former justice on the Texas 14th Court of Appeals, has denied all allegations in the lawsuit. His attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
The lawsuit alleges that Paul Pressler, a former justice on the 14th Court of Appeals who served in the Texas state house from 1957–59, sexually assaulted Duane Rollins, his former bible study student, several times per month over a period of years. According to the filing, the abuse started in the late 1970s and continued less frequently after Rollins left Houston for college in 1983.
In a November court filing, Pressler “generally and categorically [denied] each and every allegation” in Rollins’ petition.
The abuse, which consisted of anal penetration, took place in Pressler’s master bedroom study, the suit alleges. According to the lawsuit, Pressler told Rollins he was “special” and that the sexual contact was their God-sanctioned secret.
Pressler is a leading figure on the religious right in Texas and was a key player in the “conservative resurgence” of Southern Baptism, a movement in the 1970s and 1980s that aimed to oust liberals and moderates from the church’s organizational structure. Pressler’s wife Nancy, his former law partner Jared Woodfill, Woodfill Law Firm, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and First Baptist Church of Houston are also named as defendants in the suit.
Rollins seeks damages of over $1 million.
When asked about the suit, Ted Tredennick, Pressler’s attorney, pointed to Rollins’ record, which is peppered with arrests on DUIs and other charges over the last several decades.
“Mr. Rollins is clearly a deeply troubled man, with a track record of multiple felonies and incarceration, and it is the height of irresponsibility that anyone would present such a bizarre and frivolous case — much less report on it,” Tredennick said. He would not give any further comment or respond to specific questions.
Rollins and his lawyer, Daniel Shea, say his past legal troubles stemmed from behavior fueled by alcohol and drug addictions sparked by the childhood sexual abuse. In 1998, Rollins was jailed for 10 years on burglary charges. Pressler advocated for Rollins to receive parole in 2000, when he was first eligible, and then again in 2002. In his 2002 letter to the parole board, Pressler pledged to employ Rollins and be “personally involved in every bit of Duane’s life with supervision and control.”
Woodfill called the accusations against Pressler “absolutely false” and described the lawsuit as “an attempt to extort money.” He also said he plans to file counter charges against Rollins and his lawyer for a “frivolous and harassing lawsuit.”
Shea said Pressler previously settled with Rollins over a 2004 battery charge for an incident in a Dallas hotel room. That settlement is not public, Shea said, but reference is made to such an agreement in recent court filings.
Shea said that though Rollins filed that assault charge more than a decade ago, he had a “suppressed memory” of the sexual abuse until he made an outcry statement to a prison psychologist in November 2015. Harvey Rosenstock, a psychiatrist who has been working with Rollins since August 2016, wrote in a letter included in the suit that Rollins is a “reliable historian for the childhood sexual trauma to which he was repeatedly and chronically subjected.”
According to an October 19, 2018 news report, some of the claims against Pressler have been dismissed.