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Paul Pressler, a former Southern Baptist leader accused of sexual abuse, dead at 94


Paul Pressler, a former Southern Baptist leader accused of sexual abuse, dead at 94

Jun 15, 2024 | 7:40 pm ET
By Robert Downen
Texas state capitol

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Paul Pressler, the monumental Southern Baptist leader and Republican activist at the center of a massive sex abuse scandal, died on June 7. He was 94.

It’s unclear what Pressler’s cause of death was, but a funeral service was held for him Saturday in Houston. Pressler was one of the most influential, if lesser-known, evangelical figures of the last half-century, having co-led a movement in the Southern Baptist Convention that pushed the nation’s second-largest faith group to adopt literal interpretations of the Bible, strongly condemn homosexuality and more closely align with the Republican Party.

His death came barely six months after he confidentially settled a high-profile lawsuit with a former member of his youth group who accused him of decades of rape. As part of the suit, at least six other men came forward alleging that they were abused or solicited for sex by Pressler in a string of incidents dating from 1978 to 2016. Pressler denied the allegations and was never criminally charged.

Monumental as Pressler’s legacy was, his death was largely kept quiet until Saturday, when a Baptist outlet first reported on the memorial service. Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting, and it does not appear that any leaders made any remarks about his passing.

Herman Paul Pressler III was born in Houston in 1930 and attended New Hampshire’s exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy before attending Princeton University. After graduating from Princeton in 1952, he attended the University of Texas at Austin’s law school and, as a 27-year-old student, was elected to represent a Houston-based district in the Texas House. He was later appointed by Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe to a powerful seat on Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals, where he served for 14 years.

While on the bench, Pressler helped plot and lead the SBC’s “conservative resurgence,” a 20-year power struggle in which Pressler and his allies drove more moderate Baptists from the denomination, successfully pushed for bans on female pastors and solidified white evangelical support for the Republican Party.

Pressler was also an early member of the Council For National Policy, a secretive network of powerful business, religious and media elites that has pushed the GOP toward deregulation and to further infuse their conservative Christian views into public life. In 1989, Pressler was nominated to lead the Office of Government Ethics under President George H.W. Bush, though his nomination was later withdrawn.

From 2000 and onward — and with the battle for the SBC won — Pressler increasingly focused on Republican Party politics. In 2007, Louisiana College announced its plans for the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law, though the school never opened due to funding and accreditation issues. The school’s trustee board included Family Research Council leader Tony Perkins and David Barton, the Texas activist who has for years claimed that church-state separation is a “myth.” The school’s dean was Mike Johnson, who was later elected speaker of the U.S. House.

In 2012, as U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, led in the GOP presidential primary, Pressler gathered some of the nation’s most powerful Christians at his West Texas ranch, rallying them over two days to back fellow evangelical Rick Santorum. In 2013, the Texas House honored his service to the conservative, Christian cause in a resolution that was presented on the chamber’s floor. A year later, Pressler served on the advisory team for incoming Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. And Pressler was an early and key endorser of Ted Cruz in his Senate campaign and as he ran for president in 2015.

As Pressler continued to wield political influence, he also allegedly raped, groped or solicited at least six men, including one who says he was 14 when he was first sexually abused while a member of Pressler’s youth group. Those allegations were outlined in a 2017 lawsuit that also accused prominent Southern Baptist leaders and churches of concealing or enabling Pressler’s behavior, which they deny.

The lawsuit was the impetus for a major 2019 investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News that found more than 400 Southern Baptist church leaders or volunteers had been charged with sex crimes since 2000. The series prompted reforms in the SBC, as well as an ongoing Department of Justice investigation into the denomination’s handling of sex abuse complaints.

Pressler was a member of Houston’s First or Second Baptist churches for nearly all of his adult life.

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