EDITOR’S NOTE — A few hours after the following story was posted this morning (June 10), new information was released via audio clips from Phillip Bethancourt, who in 2019 was executive vice president of the Ethics & Religious Commission. Bethancourt, in what he describes as a whistleblower account, released via Twitter audio files of conversations between Ronnie Floyd, Mike Stone, Russell Moore and Bethancourt on two separate occasions. You will find those files and Bethancourt’s statements at this link. Bethancourt currently serves as senior pastor of Central Church in College Station, Texas. On June 10, Floyd issued a response, which you will find here. You can also read more here. TAB Media is following this story and will provide updates as they are available.
Members of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee are beginning to speak out about the latest allegations leveled at the group by Russell Moore. Speaking as individuals serving on the EC, the comments are being shared publicly through social media, press releases and media interviews.
Moore, who recently stepped down as head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has accused EC leaders of mishandling claims of sexual abuse.
While current EC chairman Rolland Slade has indicated plans to call for an independent investigation and said he supports an anticipated similar motion coming from two Southern Baptist pastors during the June 15–16 SBC annual meeting, previous EC leaders have taken issue with the claims.
Mark Ballard, 2019 chair of what was known then as the EC bylaws workgroup, said Moore’s claims of “backroom attempts to stop forward momentum” in rooting out sex abuse in SBC churches are “false” and without basis. The EC committee structure has since been reworked and items related to bylaws fall to the committee on convention missions and ministry.
In a June 9 press release sent to TAB Media, Ballard, who assumed the lead position for the bylaws workgroup in March 2019 following former chairman Ken Alford’s resignation, said he talked with all members of the 2019 bylaws workgroup before responding.
‘Confident’ in actions
“Each member is confident that they faithfully fulfilled their responsibilities in accordance with the constitutional authority granted to the workgroup,” Ballard wrote. “We want to be absolutely clear. At no time did the workgroup or any member of the workgroup seek to cover up any form of sexual abuse. Every action taken by the workgroup enjoyed unanimous agreement by all members present and voting. At no point did the workgroup receive pressure to cover up sexual abuse from any individual or group. Furthermore, if we had received such pressure, we would have confronted the situation with an unwavering resolve.
“Every member of the workgroup did his or her best to carry out our responsibilities with love, prayer, tears and truth. We accomplished our work with the tools and information provided to the workgroup. We did not ‘clear’ or ‘exonerate’ any church. Our Baptist polity, nor our governing documents, grant the workgroup or any other body, the authority to condemn or clear a church.”
But Moore disagrees.
In a letter to ERLC trustees on Feb. 24, 2020, he wrote: “This Executive Committee, through their bylaws workgroup, ‘exonerated’ churches, in a spur-of-the-moment meeting, from serious charges of sexual abuse cover-up. One of those churches actively had on staff at the time a sex offender.”
Moore also accused Georgia Baptist pastor Mike Stone, a former EC chairman and current nominee for SBC president, of trying to “delay the formation of a credentials committee to assess churches reported to be mishandling sexual abuse.”
Stone, who has shared his own experience as a childhood sexual abuse survivor publicly, called Moore’s accusations “mischaracterizations” and denounced Moore’s letter in a press release issued June 2.
However, EC member and Texas pastor Jared Wellman is in favor of an outside investigation, telling Religion News Service he is worried the proposal will be for an internal task force instead.
‘Time for outside investigation’
“I think it is time for an outside investigation,” he said. “I think messengers from SBC churches deserve that — to help regain trust back in our Executive Committee.”
RNS also reported how Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and abuse advocate who has advised SBC leaders in the past, said an independent investigation fits with Southern Baptist theology. Southern Baptists value truth and believe in repenting if they have done something wrong, she said, also noting that if nothing was done wrong, then the investigation will prove it.
“No one should have any fear of an investigation,” she said. “No one should fear the truth being brought into the light.”
Denhollander served on an advisory task force set up by SBC President J.D. Greear to help Southern Baptists work through reports of sexual abuse revealed in a major investigation by the Houston Chronicle in 2019.
Greear called out 10 of the SBC churches included in the Houston Chronicle report during his Feb. 18, 2019, report to the EC and noted these churches should be asked to assure the convention they are working to correct their policies and procedures relative to sexual abuse.
He also pulled from his 2018 sexual abuse advisory study to present a series of proposals to the EC members, including a call to amend SBC governing documents to include blatant mishandling of abuse as grounds for disfellowshipping a church.
“We must take bold and decisive steps to send an unequivocal message: Churches that have a wanton disregard for sexual abuse and for caring for the survivors are not in good fellowship with this convention,” Greear told the EC members.
The bylaws workgroup released a report Feb. 23 addressing their assessments of the 10 churches Greear named. Three were deemed to need further investigation.
“We understand it is difficult, if not impossible, to issue a report on sexual abuse that will be met with satisfaction by everyone,” said Alford, chairman of the workgroup at the time. “That is the reality of addressing an issue which has brought such pain, tragedy and hurt. But we remain committed to act on behalf of all individuals and churches who have been impacted by the horrific sin of sexual abuse.”
Two of three churches needing further attention, Bolivar Baptist in Sanger, Texas, and Cathedral of Faith, Houston, later left the SBC. The third church, Sovereign Grace Church, Louisville, Kentucky, continues to be in cooperation with the SBC, having contributed $1,200 directly to the Executive Committee for the support of SBC causes, according to an EC spokesperson.
Alford resigned from the EC a week after the Feb. 23 report, citing criticism by some that the workgroup’s report amounted to a “whitewash” and a “rush to judgment.”
In his resignation letter, Alford clarified: “The bylaws workgroup actually conducted no investigation, because we were not authorized to do so, and we did not ‘clear’ any churches, because that determination was not a part of our responsibility. We simply sought to ascertain if the information that President Greear had shared with us was sufficient to warrant further inquiry” concerning any church.
Several other instances of sexual abuse came to light in the days before the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting in Birmingham.
At the SBC annual meeting in June 2019, messengers adopted an amendment to the SBC Constitution stating churches are not “in friendly cooperation with the Convention” if they “have evidenced indifference in addressing sexual abuse.”
“Indifference,” according to the amendment, “can be evidenced by, among other things, (a) employing a convicted sex offender, (b) allowing a convicted sex offender to work as a volunteer in contact with minors, (c) continuing to employ a person who unlawfully concealed from law enforcement information regarding the sexual abuse of any person by an employee or volunteer of the church, or (d) willfully disregarding compliance with mandatory child abuse reporting laws.”
Messengers to the 2019 annual meeting also overwhelmingly approved repurposing the Credentials Committee, charging it with determining whether churches are in friendly cooperation with the SBC according to their approach to concerns about sexual abuse, racism or homosexuality.
2021 Annual Meeting
Before the amendments can become official, they need two-thirds approval at the 2021 annual meeting because the SBC constitution requires amendments receive two-thirds approval at two consecutive meetings. The 2020 annual meeting was canceled due to meeting and travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of June 9, more than 16,000 messengers have pre-registered to attend next week’s SBC Annual meeting in Nashville, and several other hot topics are part of the draw as well. TAB Media will have a summary sheet available soon with each of the topics listed along with bullet points to help understand each one. (Religion News Service, Baptist Press and Baptist News Global contributed)
EDITOR’S NOTE — Click here to find resources to help your church care for the abused and take steps to prevent abuse from happening. This story was updated on June 11 to confirm the cooperating status of Sovereign Grace Church, Louisville.