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Email sheds new light on Texas House candidate Jared Woodfill’s role in Southern Baptist leader’s sex abuse scandal

Woodfill has been endorsed by Attorney General Ken Paxton despite his connection to Paul Pressler, a prominent religious figure accused of rape.

Attorney and former Harris County Republican Party Chair Jared Woodfill holds a press conference in Houston to discuss his election fraud claims and answer questions about the arrest of an ex-cop who he hired to investigate the claims, on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Steve Gonzales/The Houston Chronicle

By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune,

In 2017, a Houston college student wrote to the family of Paul Pressler, warning them that the former Texas judge and Southern Baptist leader was a pedophile.

“There is a serious issue at hand,” he wrote in an email, adding that Pressler had recently touched him and bragged about being naked with young boys. “I do not think Paul should be around small children or have male assistance of any kind.”

Then, the young man said he was resigning as Pressler’s personal aide, and asked that Pressler’s former law partner, Jared Woodfill, stop paying him to work out of Pressler’s Houston mansion.

“My conscience dictates that I step away,” he wrote. “Please take me off the payroll. If I am to continue receiving paychecks from Woodfill in the continuing weeks, I will have them sent back.”

The email was filed late last year in Harris County district court as part of a lawsuit that accused Woodfill and others of concealing decades of alleged rape by Pressler. It sheds new light on the role that Woodfill, a prominent anti-LGBTQ+ activist who is running in the Texas House with the backing of Attorney General Ken Paxton, played in providing Pressler with access to potential victims.

In March, The Texas Tribune reported that Woodfill had recently testified under oath that he was made aware of child sexual abuse claims against Pressler in 2004, when the two of them were law partners. Despite that, Woodfill continued to lean on the political connections of Pressler — who did almost no work for their firm but was compensated via a string of young, male personal assistants who worked out of his home. Three have accused Pressler of sexual assault or misconduct.

The newly-unearthed email shows that Woodfill continued to furnish Pressler with young aides until at least 2017 — 13 years after he was first warned that Pressler was a sexual predator, and less than a year after he was made aware of new sexual misconduct allegations.

Woodfill has denied any wrongdoing, and said in a text message this week that he had not read the aide’s letter, and does not know him or another man who said in 2004 that Pressler forcibly undressed and groped him. Pressler, 93, has not been criminally charged.

Woodfill is challenging conservative Houston Rep. Lacey Hull in the Republican primary with endorsements from Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and Paxton.

During Paxton’s impeachment last year, Woodfill co-led a group that raised funds for his defense and frequently defended the embattled attorney general’s Christian values. Paxton, who was acquitted by the Senate, has since returned the favor: In a December radio ad for Woodfill, Paxton attacked Hull — who was ranked as one of the state’s most conservative lawmakers last year – as a “Republican in name only” over her vote to impeach him. “True conservatives need to take control of the House,” Paxton said. “Jared Woodfill can lead the way.

Hull did not respond to a request for comment. Paxton and Miller also did not respond to questions about Woodfill’s relationship to Pressler.

If he wins his House race, Woodfill has said he will run for House Speaker against Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, who Woodfill has accused of working with Democrats to suppress conservative voices and attack Paxton.

Pressler, 93, is one of the most influential evangelical figures of the last half-century for his key role in the Southern Baptist Convention’s “conservative resurgence,” during which he helped push the nation’s second-largest faith group to adopt literal interpretations of the Bible, align more closely with the Republican Party, ban women from preaching and strongly condemn homosexuality. Before that, Pressler represented Houston in the Texas House and served for 14 years as an Appeals Court judge, and his endorsement has for years been sought by evangelical political candidates, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Pressler’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Tip of the iceberg’

A copy of the aide’s email was filed in Harris County district court last year as part of a massive lawsuit in which a former member of Pressler’s church youth group, Duane Rollins, accused Pressler of decades of rape beginning when Rollins was 14. Rollins also alleged that other defendants — including Woodfill, the Southern Baptist Convention and Pressler’s longtime church, First Baptist Church of Houston — of enabling or concealing Pressler’s behavior.

The lawsuit was settled late last year under confidential terms, and following six years of court fights that prompted six other men to come forward with allegations of sexual assault or misconduct by Pressler. The lawsuit was also the impetus for a major newspaper investigation into sexual abuse in the SBC.

The aide’s 2017 email was filed in court records not long before the case was scheduled to go to trial. In it, the aide — who was attending Houston Baptist University at the time — detailed a pattern of predatory behavior before imploring Pressler’s daughters and wife to cut off his access to young men.

“For as long as I can tell, Paul has fostered inappropriately close relationships to the young men who work for him,” wrote the aide, who the Tribune is not naming. “I have both heard stories of and personally witnessed Paul getting young men who work for him to give him full-body massages, with all present parties in the nude. Especially recently, a young man’s willingness to perform this act seems to be the main reason he hires them.”

The aide then detailed two recent incidents that he said were “just the tip of the iceberg.” Days before he sent the email, the aide wrote, Pressler had bragged about being in a hot tub naked with three boys under the age of 10 and their father.

“After bragging about this hot tub experience, Paul told me ‘you seriously need to get over your phobia of taking off your clothes with me,’ “ the aide wrote. “Paul then went on to say that ‘if the young boys were okay with getting naked in the hot tub with me then so you [sic] should be ok with it also.’ “

The day before the aide penned the letter, he said he was repeatedly caressed by Pressler, who told him that “I really need this.” At the time, they were on their way to pick up a 20-year-old man who was nearly homeless and had called Pressler for help, the aide wrote.

The three of them then went to dinner, where Pressler offered the young man $100 for a massage before suggesting they both do so naked, the aide wrote. Presser also repeatedly kissed the young man, the aide wrote.

They then went back to Pressler’s home, and Pressler took the young man into a locked room. When they emerged, Pressler allegedly told the young man that “next time I’ll massage you when you massage me.” The aide then warned that Pressler was a racist, sexual predator who should only be allowed an older, Black assistant who he’d be less likely to abuse.

“He talks way more about nudity, the male body, being naked in spas in Europe, being naked in general than God, or his Baptist background,” the aide wrote.

A pattern

The aide’s allegations are strikingly similar to allegations made by at least six other men, who say that Pressler used naked hot-tubbing or massage sessions to molest them or try to solicit them for sex. The alleged incidents span more than 40 years, beginning in 1978 when court records show that Pressler was removed as the leader of a church youth group after allegedly molesting a college student in a sauna.

In 2004, another young man said that he had been forcibly undressed and groped by Pressler. The allegations were detailed as part of a physical assault lawsuit that Rollins filed against Pressler that year. Woodfill represented Pressler in the lawsuit, which was settled for $450,000; he testified last year that, during mediation for the suit, he was told by Rollins’ attorney that Pressler sexually abused Rollns as a child.

Despite that, Woodfill did not cut ties with Pressler, who did almost no work for the firm but had valuable political connections.

“He may have gone to one hearing in his entire time with us, two at the most. Really, it was his name,” Woodfill testified last year as part of the Rollins lawsuit.“So he didn’t get a salary. He didn’t get a draw. He didn’t get a bonus. We paid for someone to come and assist him. That’s how he got compensated.”

Around 2015, Pressler allegedly solicited a Houston Baptist University student for sex, an incident that prompted the student to stop pursuing a career in ministry and attempt suicide, he wrote in a sworn affidavit.

In 2016, Woodfill was again alerted about sexual misconduct allegations — this time by a 25-year-old attorney at Woodfill’s firm, who said Pressler had told him lewd stories about being naked with men before inviting him to go naked hot-tubbing. The young lawyer detailed the incident in an email to Woodfill, court records show, and said that he had talked to a longtime employee of Woodfill’s firm who made it clear that Pressler’s behavior was common knowledge.

The attorney resigned in May 2017, accusing Woodfill of failing to keep his former law partner away from young men at the firm.

Three months later, the aide announced his own resignation.

Pressler, he wrote, “must be stopped.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/23/jared-woodfill-paul-pressler-southern-baptist-state-legislature/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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