Mr. James P. Guenther, Esq.
Jordan, Guenther, & Price, PC
2100 West End Avenue
Nashville, TN 37203
Dear Mr. Guenther:
“It is our law firm that defends the Southern Baptist Convention. Are we going to recommend to you [actions] which make our task more difficult?”
You spoke these words to messengers of the 2005 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention gathered in Nashville, Tenn. Indeed, the trust that Southern Baptists have had in your legal counsel and representation in the face of lawsuits in many jurisdictions and across many tortious claims is rooted in a longstanding confidence that you are both an immensely competent officer of the court and a principled advocate for our convention. I am grieved to learn of anecdotal accounts and to read of events that now threaten this longstanding trust.
On October 15, 2019, Baptist Press issued a statement disclosing that material previously published on March 8, 2019, “did not accurately communicate the allegations” of a survivor of sexual abuse. The statement further revealed that the story “in its original draft form . . . clearly communicated the emotional and sexual abuse” that was perpetrated against a young female student by a professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
However, Baptist Press admitted that persons involved with the editing and final publication of the story “failed” to convey the truth about “sexual abuse by a trusted minister in a position of power.” The original story “made concessions to legal and policy concerns,” without accurately reflecting the allegations made by the female victim. This failure – which may result in a libel lawsuit against an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention – caused the “reputation” of the female victim to be “besmirched” as well as “pain and sorrow.” For this, Baptist Press has expressed a sense of “deep sorrow” and offered a “sincere apology”
Mr. Guenther, you have long represented the Southern Baptist Convention. Your counsel to the nation’s largest Protestant denomination has helped the nearly 15 million-member body and its 47,000 churches defend itself against numerous lawuits, many of which have involved allegations of sex abuse and sexual misconduct.
As you know, the Southern Baptist Convention is a Georgia corporation, while the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention is a corporation in Tennessee, where you have been licensed to practice law since 1958.That professional licensure, as you may know, is contingent on an officer of the court’s strict adherence to the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct.
Among these rules are:
- “As a representative of clients, a lawyer performs various functions. As an advisor, a lawyer provides a client with an informed understanding of the client’s legal rights and obligations and explains their practical implications;”
- “As a negotiator, a lawyer seeks a result advantageous to the client but consistent with requirements of honest dealings with others;”
- “As an evaluator, a lawyer acts by examining a client’s legal affairs and reporting about them to the client or to others.”
Moreover, the Rules of Conduct state the following:
- “Failure to comply with an obligation or prohibition imposed by a Rule is basis for invoking the disciplinary process.”
- “These Rules are not intended to govern or affect judicial application of either the attorney-client or work product privilege. Those privileges were developed to promote compliance with the law and fairness in litigation. In reliance on the attorney-client privilege, clients are entitled to expect that communications within the scope of the privilege will be protected against compelled disclosure. The attorney-client privilege is that of the client and not of the lawyer.” (emphasis added)
Elsewhere, the Rules state:
- “When the client is an organization or group, it is often impossible or inappropriate to inform every one of its members about its legal affairs; ordinarily, the lawyer should address communications to the appropriate officials of the organization.”
- “A lawyer may not withhold information to serve the lawyer’s own interest or convenience or the interests or conveniences of another person.”
I could continue with numerous citations from the Tennessee Bar Association’s Rules of Professional Conduct, though I am confident you are sufficiently aware of the rules and their ethical application in your decades-long representation of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Executive Committee.
Given that Baptist Press has now publicly admitted that past editorial decisions resulted in potentially libelous misrepresentation of an abuse survivor, and given that these decisions have caused the female victim to suffer damage to her reputation, “trauma,” “tremendous pain,” and “sorrow,” I am concerned that these decisions were guided by “concessions to legal and policy concerns.”
As the lawyer who represents both the Southern Baptist Convention and its Executive Committee, you were surely consulted regarding these “legal and policy concerns.” If not, then the circumstances that give rise to my concern are even more troubling.
Therefore, I would like to know the following:
- Did you provide legal counsel to officers of the Southern Baptist Convention regarding pre-publication editorial decisions made concerning the March 8 story?
- To which officer(s) of the Convention did you provide this counsel?
- Did you provide legal counsel to officers or employees of the Executive Committee regarding pre-publication editorial decisions made concerning the March 8 story?
- To which officer(s) or employees of the Executive Committee did you provide this counsel?
- Were you aware of editorial decisions made by employees of the Executive Committee and Baptist Press that did “not accurately communicate” a victim’s allegations, “omitted references to abuse,” and “failed to convey” the truth of the allegations in deference to “legal and policy concerns?”
- When did you become aware of these decisions, and what counsel did you provide to convention officers and committee employees as a result?
- Did you advise Baptist Press to issue a “sincere apology” for actions which may have “contributed to a perception that the Southern Baptist Convention is not a safe place for sexual abuse survivors to disclose.”?
Thank you for your careful consideration of my questions, and your willingness to represent both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Executive Committee with the highest commitment to professional ethical standards. I anticipate receiving answers to my questions in writing before the annual meeting of the 2020 Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando, Fla. Otherwise, I anticipate these questions – and potentially others – concerning your actions in this matter will be brought to the floor of the convention.
The Baptist Blogger