Secret tapes show dispute between Southern Baptists over sexual abuse

NASHVILLE, Tennessee. – The publication of leaked letters and secret recordings within the Southern Baptist Convention intensified on Thursday as critics sought to show senior leaders were slow to tackle sexual abuse in the country’s largest Protestant denomination and s ‘worried more about his reputation and donations than the victims.

A former executive with the denomination’s ethics agency released audio clips he covertly recorded at internal meetings to bolster claims that SBC executive committee leaders were seeking to slow or block policies responding to abuses by ministers and other church leaders, and seeking a more robust response.

Committee members defended their actions, saying the records reflect the normal compromise of trying to develop the best policies.

The timing comes less than a week before the SBC’s annual meeting, which is expected to attract its largest turnout in more than 25 years, amid tensions over abuse, race and other issues and growing calls for an investigation independent on the response of the executive committee.

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Phillip Bethancourt, a pastor from Texas and former executive vice-chairman of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Freedom commission, posted the audio online in an open letter to Ronnie Floyd, chairman of the executive committee, and Mike Stone , then president of the committee and now candidate for the presidency of the congress.

“Southern Baptists deserve to hear you in your own words,” Bethancourt wrote.

A series of clips are from a meeting following a Caring Well conference on sexual abuse sponsored in 2019 by the Ethics Commission.

In the recording, Floyd questions Russell Moore – who was chairman of the commission until his resignation last month – about one of the speakers, Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and leading advocate for other abuse survivors.

Denhollander had publicly criticized the executive committee for handling an abuse case. The faith-based news agency, overseen by the Executive Committee, had reported on the case in a way that involved the consent of the victim, who was then publicly defamed on social media. The agency then apologized.

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Floyd asks Moore on the recording, “What should I say … to the executive committee when Rachael sues them?”

Moore responds, “We haven’t written to anyone based on what they can say” and says the best answer is “don’t do stupid things again”.

In another recording, Floyd tells Moore that he “wanted to preserve the base,” which Bethancourt interprets as prioritizing maintaining church funding.

Bethancourt also released audio from a previous meeting showing its resistance to the proposed establishment of an accreditation committee to investigate the churches’ handling of cases of abuse.

In a statement Thursday, Floyd said he put his staff to work immediately after that meeting to lay the groundwork for the credentials committee before it was approved by the entire convention.

“The convention was – and still is – divided over methods of responding to sexual abuse,” he said. “However, the SBC is not divided on the priority of caring for survivors of abuse and protecting vulnerable people in our churches.”

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He said his questions about the Caring Well conference were aimed at eliciting answers he could provide to churches. “However, I apologize for any offense that may have resulted from my comments,” he said.

Jennifer Lyell, whose case was cited in Denhollander’s criticisms of the executive committee, took issue with Floyd’s characterization, tweeting that he “was not a poor middleman” trying to get answers to other people’s questions but rather “one of them” within the executive committee.

“They weren’t attacked,” Lyell said. “They were exposed.”

Stone told The Associated Press that as a survivor of sexual abuse himself, it is “scandalous” to say that he would block efforts to respond to such misconduct.

He said his debates with Moore were over and he “felt we didn’t have enough time to properly organize this credentials committee” in 2019.

Stone added that the SBC cannot dictate policies to its autonomous churches like a hierarchical denomination can, and said a “power” approach could cause churches to leave the convention without improving child safety. He said he preferred to equip and train churches to respond to abuse.

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The release of the tapes follows a string of leaks that have fueled debate in recent weeks among Southern Baptists, including lengthy letters Moore wrote in 2020 and last month to fellow denominations.

In them, he said he received “undiluted rage” from the leaders of the Executive Committee as they debated how to respond to the abuses, which Moore called a “crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention” .

A 2019 investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News found that about 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers faced allegations of sexual misconduct, involving several hundred victims. These and subsequent reports have noted cases of offenders returning to the ministry and even victims being blamed.

These revelations galvanized efforts to do more. At its 2019 annual meeting, the SBC said congregations could be kicked out for mismanaging abuse cases and created the Credentials Committee to review those cases.

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Floyd said the executive committee is now in discussions with a “highly credible outside company” to investigate its handling of the controversy.

But two Southern Baptist pastors are preparing a competing proposal for next week’s annual meeting that the next SBC president would create a task force to choose the investigator.

Denhollander said the new public recordings corroborate her own experiences defending victims of abuse within the SBC, and that she has offered to help on several occasions, but her offers were rejected.

“I hope that over the past two weeks the Southern Baptist messengers (voting representatives) have started asking some very important questions,” she said. … because they had done it in the past.

Denhollander said there will be two resolutions on abuse at the next meeting and that they are carefully worded to reflect Southern Baptist theology and politics. And she took issue with Stone’s claim that the structure of the SBC makes it difficult to take some action against sexual abuse.

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“It’s actually very easy to do in a way that is legally sound and respects the autonomy of Southern Baptists,” Denhollander said.

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Smith reported from Pittsburgh

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The Associated Press religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.


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