The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Angry donors threaten to withhold money from seminary that fired Paige Patterson

Paige Patterson speaks in 2011. (Joyce Marshall/Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

Thousands of Southern Baptist women decried the way Paige Patterson, for decades a revered leader in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, talked about women from the pulpit. Then two allegations came to light that Patterson had not gone to police when a rape was reported to him, and the trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary fired him from his post as president of the seminary.

But Patterson’s defenders are still numerous in this conservative evangelical denomination. At the denomination’s annual meeting last month, they made a resolution — which was soundly defeated — to fire all the trustees who had fired Patterson.

Now, they have fired their latest salvo: a letter from more than two dozen major donors, claiming the trustees acted improperly in ousting Patterson and vowing to withhold their donations from the seminary unless the decision to fire Patterson is reopened.

How women led to the rise and fall of Paige Patterson

“Dr. and Mrs. Patterson continue to have our absolute and unwavering support. They are both esteemed scholars and were stately ambassadors for the Seminary. Your treatment of them is a travesty that must not go unaddressed,” the group of 16 individuals and couples wrote. They say they have given millions of dollars to the seminary and would potentially give tens of millions more, including bequests from their estates.

The seven-page letter also threatens that the school could lose its accreditation and face investigation by the Texas attorney general’s office because, the letter writers claim, the trustees violated school bylaws by convening the meeting at which they fired Patterson without giving him proper notice.

Kevin Ueckert, the board chairman, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did representatives for the seminary and for Patterson.

Some of the signers of the letter told The Washington Post that they would not discuss it. Others did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. One hung up when a reporter called.

Southern Baptists debate the handling of their own #MeToo case

For some women who endured months of debate about Patterson in the spring, the donors’ letter prolonged the conversation.

“What we’re seeing is people who are committed to a person rather than to an institution or to the convention, putting their loyalty to a person ahead of their adherence to the principles of the institution,” said Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Liberty University.

She said she wasn’t surprised to see the fight continuing but that the defeated resolution at the annual meeting should have put an end to it.

“It’s ironic, actually, that this letter, which is making complaints about alleged lack of due process, is also failing to follow due process within the Southern Baptist Convention. Due process in the Southern Baptist Convention looks like what happened at the annual meeting a few weeks ago, when a motion was brought before the convention to remove the executive committee for its decision about Paige Patterson, and that motion did not pass,” she said. “Since that was defeated, now we see something else enter into the picture, which is huge amounts of money. And there’s nothing Baptist or Christian about that.”

The Baptist bombshell: Why Paige Patterson was fired

Ueckert has said that Patterson was fired because of two instances of misconduct, both of which the donors disputed in their letter.

First, The Post reported in May that a former student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary told Patterson, when he was the president of that seminary, that she had been raped; Patterson told her not to go to the police and to forgive her rapist. The donors quoted from four letters exchanged between Patterson and the woman, Megan Lively, including Lively’s statement when Patterson left for Southwestern of “how blessed the Southwestern faculty and students” would be to have him as president.

Lively alleges that Sharayah Colter, the wife of Patterson’s chief of staff, not only improperly published those letters between her and Patterson, but also edited them. But the donors saw exculpatory evidence for Patterson in them. Their exchange reveals a “very affirming and favorable relationship that they had with one another,” the donors wrote.

“Anyone who knows the smallest amount about typical responses from victims of sexual assault knows that the thing they are most prone to do is to blame themselves,” Prior argued. “That possibly illegally published correspondence from Megan to Patterson in no way proves that her story wasn’t true. To me, her language models textbook sexual assault victim guilt.”

Second, Ueckert said that Patterson claimed to meet with another woman who alleged a sexual assault in 2015 to “break her down.” The donors say those three words were taken out of context. They say that the woman’s rape allegation was false and that Patterson was trying to deter her from making a false statement to police. Their letter called Ueckert’s quotation of Patterson’s “break her down” words “one of the most perfidious, dishonorable, and manipulative ploys ever conceived to disseminate false and deceptive information. The only assumption that can be drawn is that Mr. Ueckert . . . acted in a premeditated manner and with malice aforethought to intentionally mislead others, while simultaneously defaming and disparaging the honorable name of Dr. Patterson.”

The writers don’t necessarily ask that Patterson be reinstated as president. But they do ask that the board restore the plan that they had settled on earlier and then stripped away when the allegations about the two reported rapes came to light — that Patterson be allowed to retire in housing provided on campus, with a pension and the title of president emeritus.