Several months ago, the SBC Executive Committee, in a rare move, issued a personal apology to Ms. Jennifer Lyell for failing to “adequately listen, protect and care” for her after she came forward with allegations of sexual abuse by her professor, as well as acknowledging the “unintentional harm” they caused her by not correctly reporting her case and framing what happened to her in a blameworthy and distressing manner, resulting in a confidential monetary settlement to Lyell.
By way of backstory, a couple of years ago, Lyell, then a Vice President at Lifeway Christian Resources, admitted to being involved in a sexual relationship with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor David Sills for over a decade. She claimed that it resulted from him ‘grooming’ her while enrolled in a missions class at the seminary in 2004 when she was 26 years old, ending 12 years later when she was 38 and having long moved on. She says that he “sexually acted” against her, but never details much more than that, or what the grooming looked like over the course of their relationship, particularly when they were away from each other for months at a time. Once their affair was revealed, however, it resulted in his swift termination and public disgrace.
The Baptist Press, overseen by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, reported on the story but framed their involvement as a “morally inappropriate relationship” (repeating her words) with her former professor. Outrage ensued, and the paper eventually apologized and retracted the offending article, but not before supposedly damaging her reputation, on account of readers decrying her as ‘an adulteress,’ among other things.
In March 2019, Lyell would write:
“So that day when I shared what had happened to me with my boss at LifeWay and then later with SBTS President, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, I was quick to also share the responsibility I bore for being compliant at times, for not telling immediately, and for so idolizing the idea of a whole family that I protected it despite what was happening within it. I am not a sinless victim. But I am a victim nonetheless.”
A year later, she would seemingly walk back any suggestion that she was guilty of any sin for the relationship, explaining in an update that just because she was ‘compliant’, it did not mean their relationship was ‘consensual.’
As her understanding of her role in the whole affair continued to evolve, she also appeared to dispel the notion that there was any sin on her part for which she ought to apologize, supposing that she was and remains a complete, guiltless victim in every sense of the word, sharing the same culpability of a 4-year-old being, molested by her step-father.
The SBC Committee ultimately agreed with her victim status, with their release framing the 12 years together as one long incident of “nonconsensual sexual abuse” between adults.
Of course, there are questions. Peter Lumpkins asks in his own 2019 article:
“Assuming a unilateral manipulative, exploitative, wrongful beginning (“grooming”) of the relationship by the perverted professor, at what point does a 12-year voluntary but illicit sexual relationship between two grown adults, at times, miles apart, cease to be a unilaterally manipulative, exploitative, and wrongful relationship? Or does it? Are we to understand that a 38-year-old woman who is having a sexual relationship with a married man, and does so at long distances, is doing so because she is trapped in a sexual abuse scandal in which she cannot escape?”
Listen to Lyell’s words again, words she wrote to describe the fiasco not words Baptist Press used to describe the relationship:
“But a family relationship did develop. Over the years I spent weekends with them, my holidays with them, became an “aunt” to their grandchildren, and their grown children became like siblings to me. It looked idyllic on the surface. Except the pattern of inappropriate sexual activity continued throughout the relationship (emphasis added)“
Lyell said she spent weekends with the family; enjoyed holidays with them; and became very close to their grandchildren. Apparently, Lyell must have been close to Mrs. Sills during this time. Friends. Except for one qualifying factor that made it different–Lyell continued the pattern of “inappropriate sexual activity” with her friend’s husband.
…More problematic still is the notion that the definition of ‘nonconsensual sexual abuse’ has now been broadened to include voluntary sexual affairs by two consenting adults. It’s true that powerful people in authoritative positions can exploit, manipulate, and deceive others into an initially unwanted relationship. Granted. No one is suggesting otherwise, and we rightly condemn it when it undeniably takes place.
However, to argue that an illicit relationship between two adults that started by devious exploitation of one over the other while the other was under the manipulative person’s authority but continued on years later after no such authority was present, remains morally absurd.”
Not according to the SBC leadership.
Despite the Sexual Abuse Task Force dedicating approximately 35 of its 288 pages to Lyell’s story and the circumstances surrounding it, repeatedly castigating Sills not as an “alleged abuser” but a definite, for sure, unequivocal “abuser,” what was not mentioned was that Lyell received massive payouts for her trouble and that there’s no real corroborating evidence for those claims. In Megan Basham’s investigative report, she reveals:
Executive committee sources who agreed to speak with me anonymously say that the SBC’s insurance agency did not want to settle with Lyell, believing she did not have a strong case. But already facing bad press over Denhollander’s conference comments, committee members feared further fallout from dragging the issue out. In May 2020, the same sources say the committee paid Lyell just over $1 million, thinking that would be the end of the matter. It wasn’t.
We can reveal that the initial payout was authorized by Ronnie Floyd, who was president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee at the time, but that was just the first payment. Later on, she reportedly received an additional settlement that is estimated to be between $500,000 and $700,000, according to former Executive Committee member Rod Martin, who also revealed that at least one of the payments was covered by insurance, but the other may not have been.
Basham goes on to detail how claims that the relationship between Sills and Lyell was not so one-sided as Guidepost and her defenses have made it out to be- this manipulative machiavellian hellscape- by demonstrating that her version of events wasn’t corroborated in any meaningful sense, finding friends and acquaintances of Sills who call into question her characterization of him and the relationship, and all the while questioning some of the factual details. (Lyell says she reported Sills to the Jefferson Town Authorities, but the department said they were not able to “locate anything on either Sills or Lyell in their system.”)
Despite making Sills out to be the quintessential abuser of the SATF, the article concludes by suggesting there is no basis for this assertion, and that Guidepost’s reputation for thoroughness leaves much to be wanting.
Perhaps the most significant reason Guidepost investigators did not find evidence to suggest Sills was not an abuser was simply because they didn’t ask him. Sills, who has declined all requests to speak to the media, relayed through an intermediary that, as far as he knows, Guidepost never tried to contact him.
While Lyell’s allegations have resulted in numerous stories that portray her sympathetically, Guidepost’s assertions of Sills’ guilt have now led to reports that claim he not only committed crimes, but confessed to them. For example, Religion News Service reporter Bob Smietana incorrectly reported on May 27, “[Sills] resigned in 2018 after admitting to abusing a former student.”
Sills relayed through intermediaries that he has never admitted to sexual violence or assault, yet because his name is associated with abuse rather than simply infidelity, he has been unemployable in his field.