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Longtime Southern Baptist leader Paul Pressler, who was accused of sexual abuse, dies at 94

AP

Paul Pressler, a leading figure of the Southern Baptist Convention who was accused of sexually abusing boys and young men and later settled a lawsuit over the allegations, has died. He was 94.

Pressler’s death, which happened on June 7, was announced in an obituary posted online by Geo. H. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home in Houston. A funeral service for Pressler was held on Saturday. A cause of death was not disclosed.

The news of Pressler’s death was first reported by Baptist News Global.

Pressler was one of the co-architects of the Southern Baptist Convention’s “conservative resurgence,” an effort in the 1980s that reshaped the direction of America’s largest Protestant denomination. Pressler and others pushed out more liberal leaders, helped forge an alliance between white evangelicals and Republican conservatism and focused on electing GOP candidates to public office.

The Southern Baptist Convention has over 47,000 churches, with a total membership of nearly 13 million people, according to its website. As many as 200 are counted as “mega-churches” but the vast majority have less than 200 people in weekly worship. Most of its churches are located in the southern U.S. The denomination's executive committee is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.

In a 2015 video in which he endorsed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz during his failed presidential run, Pressler said he’s dedicated his life “to the conservative principles on which our country was founded.”

“I think that people are genuinely upset with the directions in Washington. I believe if we do not have good people in Washington, we are not going to save our nation,” Pressler said.

But Pressler’s religious legacy was stained after he was accused by a former assistant, Gareld Duane Rollins, of sexual assault. In a lawsuit filed in 2017 in Harris County, where Houston is located, Rollins alleged that Pressler raped him when he was 14 years old after the two met at a Bible study group led by Pressler, according to court records. Rollins alleged that Pressler continued to periodically sexually assault him over the next 24 years.

The Associated Press usually does not name victims who allege sexual assault or abuse but Rollins and his lawyers publicly identified him in court documents.

Rollins also sued the Southern Baptist Convention and others whom he alleged covered up or enabled Pressler’s behavior. As part of the lawsuit, at least seven other men also came forward with their own accusations against Pressler of sexual abuse.

The claims by Rollins prompted a major investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News of allegations of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention. The series of stories revealed that top leaders had ignored or downplayed warnings about a sexual abuse crisis within the Protestant denomination, and it led to significant reforms.

In December, Pressler, the Southern Baptist Convention, and others reached a confidential agreement to settle the lawsuit.

Pressler denied the accusations against him and was never criminally charged.

The Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting last week but did not appear to acknowledge Pressler’s death during the event. A spokesperson for the Southern Baptist Convention did not immediately return emails on Sunday seeking comment.

Pressler also served in the Texas House, representing the Houston area in the late 1950s. In 1970, he was appointed as a state district judge. Eight years later, he was appointed as a state appeals court judge and served in that position until retiring in 1993, according to his obituary posted online.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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