In a bombshell announcement Friday night, leaders of a Southern Baptist seminary explained the reasons they decided two days earlier to fire their president, a longtime leader of the denomination. In a statement, they asserted that Paige Patterson lied about his treatment of an alleged rape victim in 2003, and that in 2015 he tried to meet, with no other officials present, with another woman who had reported a sexual assault so he could “break her down.”
Concerns surrounding the behavior of Patterson, who until a few weeks ago was a towering figure in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest U.S. Protestant denomination, with about 15 million members, have roiled conservative evangelical circles since recorded remarks surfaced this year that were viewed by many as demeaning toward women. They included Patterson’s advice to a woman to return to her abusive husband.
On May 22, the seminary’s trustees demoted the 75-year-old Patterson from his position as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, citing vague reasons about his leadership that did not include mention of comments about or treatment of women. Many Southern Baptists considered that decision too lenient because it allowed Patterson to remain on staff as “president emeritus” with compensation and the ability to retire with a campus residence.
Then on Wednesday night, the board’s trustees announced that Patterson had been fired, citing his mishandling of an unspecified rape allegation. His firing stripped him of the benefits he would have kept otherwise. The Washington Post reported on May 22 that a woman who was a student at North Carolina’s Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2003 when Patterson was president there had come to Patterson alleging she had been raped by her then-boyfriend and was encouraged by Patterson not to go to police and to forgive the man she said had assaulted her.
The Post does not identify victims of sexual abuse, but this week, Megan Lively identified herself on Twitter as the person in the Post article.
Patterson, who is reportedly out of the country, did not respond to requests for an interview made through Scott Colter, who served as his chief of staff.
The seminary had declined to confirm to The Post for two days whether the executive committee’s decision on Wednesday to unanimously fire Patterson was connected to the alleged 2003 sexual assault at Southeastern — until Friday night.
“We confirmed this week through a student record, made available to me with permission, that an allegation of rape was indeed made by a female student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2003,” Kevin Ueckert, the chair of Southwestern’s board, said in a statement.
The information, Ueckert said, contradicts a statement previously provided by Patterson in response to a direct question by a board member regarding the incident at Southeastern. “The 2003 rape allegation was never reported to local law enforcement,” he said.
Patterson is revered in the Southern Baptist Convention for his role in steering the denomination in a conservative direction in a fight that goes back decades. He had been scheduled to deliver a key sermon to an audience of thousands at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Texas this month, but it is unclear whether he will still speak.
“People have always been afraid of him. Not anymore,” Lively said Friday night.
In his statement, Ueckert said Scott Colter’s wife, Sharayah Colter, published a blog post contesting Lively’s account of the event in 2003 and attached documents without the permission of the students mentioned in the documents or with the approval of leaders of either seminary. “I believe this was inappropriate and unethical,” Ueckert said.
In the blog post published Thursday, Colter said Patterson “is not guilty of all of which he has been accused in recent days.” She posted letters, appearing to show correspondence between Lively and Patterson, that do not state that the two of them met in person as Lively has maintained. However, the documents do not appear to directly contradict Lively’s story. Lively said that the documents Colter published had been altered and that the originals refer to three meetings with Patterson.
Ueckert told The Post that the seminary cannot comment on the authenticity of the documents. He also said Sharayah Colter, who is a student at Southwestern, does not speak for the seminary or its board. The Colters did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
The board’s statement released to the media when it made the decision to demote rather than fire Patterson on May 22 said, “Evidence exists that Dr. Patterson has complied with reporting laws regarding assault and abuse,” but it did not identify any specific incidents.
Ueckert told The Post last week that the board was referring at that time to another incident, raised in 2015 at Southwestern in Texas, not the woman’s allegations regarding Patterson’s response at Southeastern in North Carolina in 2003. It is unclear who raised the first incident for consideration.
In his statement Friday, Ueckert said police were notified after a woman said she had been raped in 2015.
Ueckert said Patterson wrote an email to the chief of campus security at the time in which he “discussed meeting with the student alone so that he could ‘break her down’ and that he preferred no officials be present. The attitude expressed by Dr. Patterson in that email is antithetical to the core values of our faith and to [Southwestern]. Moreover, the correlation between what has been reported and also revealed in the student record regarding the 2003 allegation at Southeastern and the contents of this email are undeniable.”
“As I’ve said before, he shamed the crap out of me,” Lively said after seeing the statement. “He tried to ‘break her down.’ My story is almost identical to this girl’s story.”
Danny Akin, who is now president at Southeastern, said seminary documents show that after her alleged rape, Lively went to administrators and was sent to meet with Patterson on three separate occasions with three other men present. The seminary’s attorney and chief of security were never notified, and a police report was never filed, Akin said. “Those are clear, unmitigated, fully witnessed facts,” he said.
Referring to the letters between Lively and Patterson posted this week by Sharayah Colter, Akin said, “That [Lively] would in turn write a letter to someone she looked up to and done what he had asked her to do, that doesn’t surprise me in the least,” he said. “That doesn’t change any of the facts with the assault and no report of it.”
Akin said he did not know about the 2003 incident involving Lively until May 11, when Lively emailed his provost, who forwarded the email to Akin. He told Lively the seminary would support her if she decided to press charges against her alleged assailant.
“For 15 years of my life, I thought I did something wrong,” Lively said. “It wasn’t until Dr. Akin told me I didn’t that I firmly believed it. That’s how strong and impressionable Dr. Patterson was to a 23-year-old woman who believed in who he was.”
The recent controversy around Patterson began after the publication of statements he made starting in 2000 about the Bible’s view of women and his belief that spousal abuse is not grounds for divorce. Patterson also commented on a teenage girl’s body and told his female seminary students to pay more attention to their physical appearance.
Patterson was Akin’s preaching professor, and they worked together for nine years, Akin said, adding that he had admired Patterson for decades.
“This is a man I love. Do I think he gave horrible, horrible counsel? I absolutely do,” Akin said, referring to Patterson’s 2000 comments.
Akin said he thinks files that would help an investigation of the incident were taken from Southeastern when Patterson left. Ueckert said in a statement that Southwestern has found those documents and is working on returning them to the seminary.
Ahead of the board’s May 22 decision to demote Patterson, two Southern Baptists on President Trump’s evangelical advisory board, Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas and Richard Land of Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina, commented in support of Patterson in conservative media.
Patterson’s comments about abuse and women’s physical looks prompted thousands of Southern Baptist women to sign a May 6 petition calling for him to lose his job. Ueckert said the board based its decision on Patterson’s job performance and “did not allow the legacy of Dr. Patterson or the #MeToo pressure to steer the outcome.”
Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.
This story has been updated.
The Washington Post’s complete coverage of Paige Patterson: