CLARIFYING MATTERS: A STATEMENT FROM TOM AND JENNIFER BUCK

On the evening of June 8, 2022, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s president, Dr. Danny Akin, and the Board of Trustees at SEBTS released “Statements from Southeastern on Matters Surrounding the Buck Essay.”

These statements came out just as Pastor Tom Buck and his wife, Jennifer, had left their home to travel to Anaheim, Calif., for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Meeting.

Since early April, the Bucks have been trying to find out who made the unauthorized leak of a rough draft of Jennifer’s testimony about God’s redemption after marital abuse. That rough draft — which contained personal details about abuse that Jennifer suffered prior to her marriage and did not want publicized — has now made the rounds in SBC circles and has been weaponized as a means of blackmail against both Jennifer and Tom. The Bucks’ quest for the truth led them to contact officials at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, since Jennifer originally gave the rough draft to only one person for feedback in 2018. That person was SEBTS professor Karen Swallow Prior.

I am releasing this statement on the Bucks’ behalf for two reasons. First, Tom and Jennifer are unable to compose their own statement while they are traveling. Second, I have been in continual contact with Tom and Jennifer since April. Because of my journalism experience as a reporter and editor, the Bucks had asked me to read and evaluate Jennifer’s rough draft, which I did. I also read Jennifer’s April 7 testimony at the G3 Ministries website. And this week, Tom released to me all the emails, texts and direct messages that he and Jennifer have exchanged with Dr. Akin, Dr. Prior and others, which I have read, as well. In addition, I have watched the recordings of two Zoom meetings among the SEBTS faculty/staff/board members, the Bucks and their church elders and victim advocate Rachael Denhollander. The Bucks, therefore, have authorized me to release the following rebuttal to the June 8 SEBTS statements, with their full permission, input and cooperation.

Before offering the rebuttal, it is important to answer a question many Southern Baptists may have: “Why should this issue even matter to Southern Baptists? The leak of a rough draft isn’t that important.” In fact, it’s very important.

As many know, the SBC’s Sexual Abuse Task Force recently released a report on the Executive Committee’s handling of sexual-abuse cases. The task force members stated, in part: “We lament on behalf of survivors for how they have not been protected and cared for as they deserve and as God demands. With broken hearts, we want to lead the way by publicly repenting for what has happened in our convention.” But do Southern Baptist leaders really care about all abuse survivors?

Jennifer is an abuse survivor, as is Tom. Yet as the rebuttal below will demonstrate, Southern Baptist leaders not only haven’t protected or cared for the Bucks as they deserve and as God demands; Southern Baptist leaders have stayed almost universally silent as the Bucks have been blackmailed and subjected to a political hit job designed to destroy the couple’s reputations. Thus far, every person who has admitted to reading the rough draft and knowing the identity of the original leaker has refused to disclose the name of the leaker. SEBTS leaders have added to the Bucks’ pain with their latest actions. If SBC leaders can treat the Bucks this way, what confidence can any Southern Baptist have that the current leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention really cares about all abuse survivors? 

What follows is the Bucks’ rebuttal to sections of Dr. Akin’s June 8 statement.

1. Statement from Dr. Danny Akin on Matters Surrounding the Jennifer Buck Essay: Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has concluded a careful investigation into the involvement of any SEBTS faculty and staff in the sharing of an essay written by Jennifer Buck, and with the intention of blackmailing her husband, Tom Buck. Questions arose regarding the involvement of two faculty members, Karen Prior and Keith Whitfield. The Board of Trustees and the administration took those allegations seriously. Multiple video, text, and email conversations have taken place between the Bucks and SEBTS leadership. The last video call consisted of representatives from the SEBTS Board of Trustees, representatives from the Elders of FBC Lindale, Dr. Akin, Dr. Whitfield, Dr. Buck, and his wife, Jennifer. The call was moderated, as were previous conversations, by Rachael Denhollander. During that call, Dr. Buck asked if SEBTS would be open to a third-party investigation and to waive any attorney/client privilege on the matters at hand. Dr. Akin whole-heartedly agreed to the plan, and so did the Bucks. The goal of the call was to specify the scope of the investigation and identify a firm to conduct the investigation. Discussions around the scope of the proposed investigation and the firm to conduct the investigation did not reach an agreed upon conclusion. Since initial allegations were raised, SEBTS has continued its investigation. It has searched electronic records (emails and cell phone records) and has had extensive conversations with those involved. Nothing was discovered to indicate that any staff at SEBTS were involved in the sharing of the essay or in any attempt to blackmail Dr. Buck.

RESPONSE: Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary never conducted what could be called a full, “careful investigation” into the source of the rough-draft leak. What’s more, Dr. Akin told Tom in a June 6 email that he planned to scuttle their mutually agreed-upon plans for an independent, third-party investigation into the leak before it even began.

Previously, Dr. Akin had made efforts to find out how the leak occurred and what role, if any, his employees may have played in that leak. At the Bucks’ request, Dr. Akin asked SEBTS provost Keith Whitfield on April 2 to contact Dr. Prior and find out the identity of the third party who contacted her to validate the contents of the rough draft. On April 6, Whitfield told Dr. Akin that he spoke with Dr. Prior, but said that she didn’t want to share the identity of the third party. Dr. Akin reported that on April 17 (Whitfield later clarified that the date actually was April 14), Whitfield called Dr. Akin and admitted that, in fact, he had been the third party. Whitfield, who admitted his nondisclosure of that fact was a “mistake,” acknowledged to Dr. Akin that he didn’t reveal the truth earlier because Dr. Akin had been sick with COVID-19, and he didn’t want to bother him with the information. Oddly, Dr. Akin never revealed in his April 19 letter to the FBC Lindale elders that Whitfield had deceived him. He did not admit this fact until he spoke to Tom directly on May 2. Why was that, when he had that information on April 14?

Dr. Akin and Dr. Prior also both appeared on a May 6 Zoom call with the Bucks and Ms. Denhollander. The parties, joined by others, met again on Zoom on May 11 without Dr. Prior. Dr. Akin revealed in a text to Tom that Dr. Prior would not participate because her husband would not allow her to attend.

Since neither the Zoom meetings, nor the SEBTS inquiries, revealed the identity of the original rough-draft leaker, all the parties agreed after the May 11 meeting to pursue an independent, third-party investigation to try to get to the bottom of the matter. However, the process of picking a firm to investigate slowed, and SEBTS officials began to insist on ground rules to which the Bucks hadn’t originally agreed.

Dr. Akin, for example, stated that he would only agree to hire an investigative firm that Ms. Denhollander recommended, such as Guidepost Solutions, even though the Bucks had suggested three other law firms as possibilities. Tom told Dr. Akin that while he was fine with Rachael’s input on the matter, her personal sign-off on the firm was not part of the parties’ original agreement. Tom also believed Rachael’s connections to Dr. Prior might cloud her perspective. Given the extended delay on launching the investigation, Tom asked Dr. Akin to select a firm by Wednesday, June 8. Dr. Akin emailed Tom back on June 6, indicating that he would not be able to meet that deadline, due to his hectic schedule. He also stated that he was going to contact his Board of Trustees and recommend cancelling the third-party independent investigation altogether because he said he knew what any investigation would show and, therefore, it would be a wasteful expenditure of God’s money.

The Bucks also have never believed, stated or even raised the possibility that it was anyone at SEBTS who attempted to blackmail them. The blackmail attempts came from other people in SBC circles, but those attempts never would have been possible were it not for the original leak of the rough draft. That is why it is the identity of the leaker that the Bucks seek.

2. We did confirm that Dr. Prior had in 2018 sent the article to one outlet for publication, with permission from the Bucks. We did not find any emails or evidence to suggest it had been sent to any other individual or entity since Dr. Prior’s employment began at SEBTS in July 2020. In addition, SEBTS received a signed and notarized affidavit from Todd Benkert saying that he has “no information that would implicate anyone from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary” as being a part of any effort to disparage or blackmail Dr. Buck.

RESPONSE: Dr. Prior has confirmed, and the Bucks have acknowledged, that she sent a copy of Jennifer’s rough draft to Christianity Today editor Andrea Palpant Dilley. However, in a statement included in Dr. Akin’s April 19 letter to the FBC Lindale elders, Dr. Prior states, without equivocation, “I shared the essay with prospective publications.” In the May 6 Zoom call, she stated that she only sent the draft to one person: Ms. Palpant Dilley. But when pressed on the Zoom call about the disparity between those two claims, Dr. Prior stated that she doesn’t remember sending the draft to anyone besides Ms. Palpant Dilley, and that she doesn’t know for sure if she sent the draft to any other publications. When Dr. Akin more specifically asked her whether or not she sent the rough draft to anyone within the last year, she said, “Not that I recall.”

Furthermore, the Bucks never gave Dr. Prior permission to send anyone an unedited version of the rough draft. Until Dr. Prior released their original email exchanges to Jennifer, Jennifer did not recall that she had given Dr. Prior permission to forward the rough draft to any publications. That misunderstanding later was cleared up, but Tom had conveyed in writing to Dr. Prior back in 2018 that any rough draft she sent to a publication first had to be edited. Even with that directive, Dr. Prior forwarded the unedited rough draft to Ms. Palpant Dilley.

SEBTS states that it hasn’t uncovered any emails or evidence to suggest that Dr. Prior sent the rough draft to anyone since July 2020, but that date is irrelevant. Dr. Prior stated on the Zoom call that even she has heard that the rough draft has been circulating “for years,” so the leaker had to have released the draft prior to July 2020. Also, SBC Voices’ Todd Benkert’s affidavit claim that says he has no information implicating any SEBTS employee “as being a part of any effort to disparage or blackmail Dr. Buck” is irrelevant, due to the fact that the Bucks have never accused any person at SEBTS of trying to “disparage or blackmail” them. SEBTS also has not released any affidavit from Dr. Prior.

There are several additional, previously undisclosed, reasons why a thorough, independent investigation of the Buck scandal must take place.

  • Ms. Palpant Dilley stated in a June 6 email to Jennifer that she never sent the rough draft to anyone after receiving it from Dr. Prior. In response to Jennifer’s queries, Ms. Palpant Dilley confirmed that she never shared or sent the rough draft to anyone inside or outside of Christianity Today. She also confirmed that no one contacted her between March 26 and April 11 to verify or authenticate the rough draft. If true, this means that Ms. Palpant Dilley can be ruled out as the leaker. The only person remaining who possessed the rough draft with Jennifer’s permission is the person who admittedly furnished it to Christianity Today: Dr. Prior.
  • In addition, Baptist News Global writer David Bumgardner — who wrote a much-maligned April 11 article about the Bucks, in which he alluded to the rough draft — recently revealed to Tom the name of an SEBTS graduate whom he claims not only has a copy of the rough draft, but also served as one of his major sources on the controversial story.
  • On the Zoom calls, the testimonies of provost Whitfield and Dr. Prior regarding the Buck scandal also conflicted in several areas. For example, when asked in the May 6 Zoom call why she didn’t contact Jennifer to inform her that someone was seeking to publish her rough draft, Dr. Prior said that it was because she was scared of Tom and considered him a “bully.” But in the May 11 Zoom call, Whitfield said Dr. Prior gave a different reason to him, saying she stated that she was under no obligation to contact Jennifer about the leaked rough draft.

3. On June 8, 2022, SEBTS was informed that an anonymous couple had reached out to Rachael Denhollander to take responsibility for the attempted use of the Buck’s article draft as retaliation for Pastor Buck’s raising concerns related to an individual at Willy Rice’s church. This couple provided corroborating information to validate that they were the original actors and that they acted alone. They affirmed that the individual they contacted at Southeastern, Keith Whitfield, informed them that Dr. Prior would not corroborate the article, and that they both urged them not to publish it. Further, the couple confirmed that no one else was aware of or assisted them in these efforts. They have expressed deep grief at the harm they have caused. Based on this information and the efforts that SEBTS has undergone in reviewing and attempting to retrieve any helpful information related to this matter, we believe it is no longer necessary to participate in an independent inquiry.

RESPONSE: Tom and Jennifer have read the “anonymous couple’s” email, as have I. First of all, it simply beggars belief that Dr. Akin is now coupling his insufficient investigatory efforts with the unsubstantiated claims of an unidentified person — sent via an anonymous email address, through a contact page on Ms. Denhollander’s website — to justify cancelling an independent investigation into this scandal. The sender’s identity is a mystery, and none of the claims in the email can possibly be substantiated or corroborated to validate anything. Instead of an “anonymous couple’s” unverified claims serving as grounds for cancelling an independent inquiry, they should instead serve as further rationale for proceeding with it.

4. During one of the video calls, SEBTS representatives did take the opportunity to apologize to the Bucks for not letting them know when an anonymous text message was received attempting to verify the authenticity of Jennifer Buck’s original essay. Dr. Whitfield also apologized for not disclosing earlier that he was the individual who was asked to verify the draft article with Dr. Prior. This has been reiterated by Dr. Akin via email and phone conversations, and SEBTS offers that apology publicly. While this part of the series of events could have been handled better, SEBTS believes and supports Drs. Prior and Whitfield based on their testimony, evidence obtained and searched for, and outside corroborating information noted above that neither were involved in the effort to disparage or blackmail Dr. Buck. While some may still have “but what about” questions, we believe the investigation and new evidence is sufficient to bring this matter to a close regarding SEBTS’ involvement. Any remaining questions should be directed to those directly involved. Our ultimate concern has been to honor the Lord Jesus by honoring the truth. We have tried our best to do this.

RESPONSE: Why was provost Whitfield allowed to deceive Dr. Akin for multiple days over his role as the “third party” and get away with it, simply because he eventually admitted it and apologized? And if by “new evidence” Dr. Akin means new anonymous claims from unidentified people and an affidavit from SBC Voices’ Todd Benkert, who admitted lying to Tom in an April Twitter post, then it is hard to conclude there ever was any serious intent on the part of SEBTS to conduct a full investigation at all. In addition, how did Dr. Akin have time to put out this long statement on June 8, when he said his earlier-cited busy schedule would preclude him from having time to choose a law firm by June 8?

5. We are disturbed and grieved that the political environment within the Southern Baptist Convention has taken the direction it has in recent years, and that it would lead to an action like this where individuals would seek to disparage and blackmail Dr. Buck. We are especially disheartened by the hurt that this has brought to Jennifer Buck through this entire ordeal. We pray that the couple and the Bucks would be able to come together and seek forgiveness and reconciliation so that closure can be achieved in this matter, especially for the Bucks.

RESPONSE: Given the aforementioned actions of Dr. Akin, it is difficult to conclude that he or anyone at SEBTS is genuinely “grieved” or “disheartened” about the Bucks’ situation at all. Caring well about abuse survivors in a Christian context means doing whatever it takes to come alongside them and, as the SATF earlier stated, give them the love and protection that they deserve and that God demands. Also, exactly how are the Bucks supposed to reconcile with “the couple,” much less take any of their claims seriously, when no one even knows who they are? The allegedly repentant “couple” never even contacted the Bucks to apologize directly to them. And how repentant can they possibly be when they won’t face the consequences of what they did by openly revealing their identities and facing the people they claim to have harmed so much?

6. To all Southern Baptists, King Jesus has called us to a higher standard that is worthy of the calling he has placed on our lives. We pray that all of us might rise above our petty arguments, sniping at one another, fighting over words, misrepresenting one another, hurting one another, and all other actions that dishonor our Savior. Let us all strive to live under and by God’s inspired, inerrant, infallible, and sufficient Word, so that we might shine forth the Gospel to a lost and dying world.

RESPONSE: Dr. Akin is correct that Jesus Christ has called Southern Baptists — and all Christians — to a higher standard, especially the Southern Baptist leaders who have mistreated, maligned and even tried to blackmail the Bucks. But how insulting to dismiss this serious situation as merely a matter of “petty arguments, sniping at one another, fighting over words,” etc. Such talk minimizes the great harm that Southern Baptist leaders, including those at SEBTS, have done to two abuse survivors who merely wanted to testify to the transforming power of the gospel in their marriage and instead found themselves betrayed, blackmailed and stonewalled for the sake of convention politics. Writing out a list of impressive adjectives to describe the Bible’s authority and writing glowing phrases about evangelism in no way exonerates Dr. Akin or his Board of Trustees from their Christian responsibility to follow through on their pledge to seek a truly independent investigation that will be conducted ethically and without bias in favor of either SEBTS or the Bucks. In his communications with the Bucks, Dr. Akin repeatedly has stated that he just wants the evidence to go where it leads, and whoever is responsible for the leak should be exposed and face the necessary consequences. Where is that conviction now?

If internal investigations and anonymous admissions are insufficient to take seriously the mishandling of abuse and mistreatment of survivors in other Southern Baptist entities, and even churches, then why do Dr. Akin and his trustees believe their self-exonerating response is sufficient?

If the SBC wants to show that it truly cares for all abuse survivors, and not just a select few, a motion seeking an independent, third-party investigation of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary regarding this issue is required at next week’s Annual Meeting.