NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) — In the middle of 2010, not long after his term as Southern Baptist Convention president ended, Johnny Hunt took time off for his annual vacation.
He planned to return to the pulpit at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia, in early August. But just before his first Sunday back, Hunt announced he was taking a leave of absence, citing his health and a sense of exhaustion.
What no one knew at the time was that Hunt had another reason for his leave.
On July 25, 2010, while vacationing in Florida, Hunt had kissed and fondled another pastor’s wife in what his attorneys would later call a “brief, consensual extramarital encounter.”
Then Hunt spent more than a decade covering the incident up.
Without telling his congregation — or the millions of Southern Baptists he had represented as their president — Hunt went through a secret restoration process that included counseling sessions with the woman he had fondled and her husband. He then returned to the pulpit.
For a dozen years, no one was the wiser. Hunt retired from First Baptist in 2019 and took on a new role as a senior vice president for the SBC’s North American Mission Board and continued his busy and often lucrative career as a preacher and public speaker.
Then, in 2022, an investigation into how SBC leaders dealt with the issue of abuse was released, and his name was included in the report.
Over the course of their inquiry, investigators from Guidepost Solutions, the firm hired by the SBC, had heard about Hunt’s misconduct and learned that the woman involved in the incident — who has not been named publicly — described it as a sexual assault and as non-consensual.
“We include this sexual assault allegation in the report because our investigators found the pastor and his wife to be credible; their report was corroborated in part by a counseling minister and three other credible witnesses; and our investigators did not find Dr. Hunt’s statements related to the sexual assault allegation to be credible,” investigators from Guidepost concluded.
When the report became public, Hunt first denied it and claimed the incident was consensual. He resigned from NAMB, went through another restoration process, then made a defiant return to the pulpit earlier this year.
This past spring Hunt filed suit against the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee and Guidepost, claiming they had ruined his life by revealing his misconduct and including him in an abuse report.
The heart of Hunt’s claim of invasion of privacy and defamation was summed up in a recent court ruling filed by his attorneys. Hunt’s sins, they wrote, were a private moral failing that should have been kept confidential.
“Pastor Johnny was not the president of the SBC or a member of the Executive Committee at the time of the incident,” they wrote in a memorandum, opposing the denomination’s attempts to have the case dismissed. “He was merely a private citizen whose marital fidelity was nobody else’s business.”
That claim raises a series of questions.Can a pastor’s sins ever really be private? Can a pastor who has made a living urging others to follow a morality code then claim his own failings are no one else’s business? And was the harm done to Hunt’s reputation primarily due to his own acts — both the misconduct and the subsequent coverup?
George Freeman, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center and a former assistant general counsel for The New York Times, said Hunt’s claim to privacy will likely go nowhere in court.
Hunt is undoubtedly angry and embarrassed that his personal failings have been publicized, which is understandable, said Freeman. But as a religious leader who was outspoken about family values and ethical living, his wrongdoings are a matter of public concern, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
“That’s life,” Freeman said. “That’s not a lawsuit.”
In their court filings, Hunt’s attorneys also claim that including Hunt in a report about abuse could have led readers to think he had committed a crime rather than a moral failing.
“By using this incorrect term and then featuring the information about Pastor Johnny in their public Report that otherwise focused on criminal conduct, the Defendants created the false impression that Pastor Johnny is an accused sex criminal, even though Defendants now concede — as they must — that the allegations against him do not fit the definition of a crime,” they wrote in opposing a motion to dismiss the suit.
Lawyers for the SBC argued that the Guidepost report did not accuse Hunt of a crime—saying nothing in the report stated that the incident involved a minor.
“The Guidepost Report simply reported its investigation into a report of sexual assault against Plaintiff, who was the immediate past president of the SBC at the time, brought to the Guidepost investigators by an SBC pastor and his wife,” attorneys for the SBC wrote.
The former SBC president’s defamation claim could have some merit if the allegations against him are proven false. But even then, Freeman said, Hunt, a prominent evangelical leader and speaker, would likely qualify as a public figure — making the defamation claim harder. Especially since he had long made public statements about morality, including his signature on the Nashville Statement, a 2017 statement by evangelical leaders that rejects both same-sex marriage and any extramarital sexual activity as sinful.
Hunt would also have to prove the Executive Committee and Guidepost knew the allegations were likely false and still published them. That’s a harder argument to make, given that the woman involved in the incident, who has not been named, insists it was not consensual.
“You have to prove that there was actual malice,” Freeman said. “And that will be hard to do.”
Hunt’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Guidepost Solutions also declined to comment.
“Because litigation is ongoing, we have no further comment beyond our filings,” Scarlett Nokes, special counsel for the Executive Committee, told RNS in an email.
Christine Bartholomew, a law professor at the University at Buffalo School, said Hunt’s public statements about morality undermine his claim of invasion of privacy.
“You can’t have it both ways,” she said. “You can’t publicly take a position on something and then say ‘If it applies to me — hold up, it’s completely private.’”
Bartholomew said Hunt seems to be claiming a kind of personal version of clergy-penitent privilege in this case. Confessions made to priests or other clergy are considered confidential — and that confidentiality at times has led church leaders not to report abuse or misconduct.
“Just because you’re going to have to answer to your maker doesn’t mean you’re absolved from any public discussion of your misconduct,” she said.
If Hunt’s argument were to prevail, Bartholomew said, no church or religious group would be able to publicize misconduct by leaders. And even if Hunt did not break criminal law, his conduct may have broken civil laws. Hunt’s defamation claim will depend on the facts and whether he can prove the claims made in the Guidepost report are false. Even then, he will have to prove that those false statements — and not his own misconduct — caused him harm, she said.
Robert Callahan, a Texas attorney who has represented survivors of clergy misconduct and abuse, also said Hunt’s claim of invasion of privacy will likely fail. He said the defamation claim may survive attempts to dismiss the case.
But Hunt’s legal filings likely undermine the defamation claim as well.
“He had to admit that he had participated in disqualifying behavior,” said Callahan.
The outcome of Hunt’s lawsuit could also impact future attempts to address clergy misconduct and abuse. For years, fear of lawsuits kept Southern Baptist leaders from taking any steps to address abuse, and churches had long avoided making public statements about clergy misconduct for fear of being sued.
Legal worries have also slowed the SBC’s “Ministry Check” website, a database of abusive clergy. Southern Baptists approved the development of the site in June of 2022, but more than a year later, no names of abusive pastors currently appear on the site, not even those who were convicted of crimes.
The committee in charge of implementing the Ministry Check website is scheduled to give an update on its work during the Executive Committee’s meeting in Nashville this week.
The Executive Committee has also faced fiscal woes due to the ongoing legal costs related to the sexual abuse crisis and investigation. In February, the SBC leaders announced the committee’s financial situation was unsustainable after using $6 million in reserves to pay legal bills. Last week, the committee laid off five full-time staffers and two contractors due to fiscal challenges.