A former executive of the denomination’s ethics agency posted audio clips he clandestinely recorded in internal meetings to bolster claims that leaders of the SBC’s Executive Committee sought to slow or block policies responding to abuse by ministers and other church leaders, and that they tried to intimidate those seeking a more robust response.
Releases of leaked letters and secret recordings from within the Southern Baptist Convention intensified Thursday as critics sought to show top leaders were slow to address sexual abuse in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and worried more about its reputation and donations than about victims.
The committee members defended their actions, saying the recordings reflect the normal give-and-take of trying to develop the best policies.
The timing comes less than a week before the SBC’s annual meeting, which is expected to draw its highest attendance in more than 25 years, amid tensions over abuse, race and other issues and growing calls for an independent investigation of the Executive Committee’s response.
Phillip Bethancourt, a Texas pastor and former executive vice president of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, posted the audio online in an open letter to Ronnie Floyd, president of the Executive Committee, and Mike Stone, then-chairman of the committee and now a candidate for convention president.
“Southern Baptists deserve to hear you in your own words,” Bethancourt wrote.
One set of clips came 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 president of the commission until his resignation last month — about one of the speakers, Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and prominent advocate for fellow abuse survivors.
Denhollander had publicly criticized the Executive Committee for its handling of an abuse case. The denominational news agency, overseen by the Executive Committee, had reported on the case in a way that implied consent by the victim, who was then publicly vilified in social media. The agency later apologized. Floyd asks Moore in the recording: “What do I say … to the Executive Committee when Rachael’s come after them?”
Moore replies, “We didn’t script anybody in terms of what they could say,” and says the best response is to “not do stupid stuff again.” In another recording, Floyd tells Moore he “wanted to preserve the base,” which Bethancourt interprets as putting a priority on maintaining funding from churches.
Bethancourt also released audio from an earlier meeting showing resistance to the proposed creation of a credentials committee to investigate churches’ handling of abuse cases. In a statement Thursday, Floyd said he put his staff to work immediately after that meeting in laying the groundwork for the credentials committee before its approval by the full convention.
“The convention was — and still is — divided over methods of response to sexual abuse,” he said. “However, the SBC is not divided on the priority of caring for abuse survivors and protecting the vulnerable in our churches.” He said his questioning about the Caring Well conference was to get answers he could provide to churches. “However, I apologize for any offense that may have resulted from my remarks,” he said.
Jennifer Lyell, whose case was cited in Denhollander’s criticism of the Executive Committee, disputed Floyd’s characterization, tweeting that he “was not a poor middleman” trying to get answers to others’ questions but rather “one of THEM” on the Executive Committee. “They weren’t attacked,” Lyell said. “They were exposed.”
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