NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)—Following the release Thursday, June 10, of audio clips from two 2019 meetings among Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders regarding how to address sexual abuse in the convention, SBC Executive Committee President and CEO Ronnie Floyd has joined Executive Committee (EC) Chairman Rolland Slade in calling for an independent, third-party review.
The move came amid growing controversy after the publication of two letters from former Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) President Russell Moore. In the second letter, which was dated May 31 and addressed to SBC President J.D. Greear, Moore directly and indirectly accused various Southern Baptist leaders of “stonewall(ing)” calls to address sexual abuse in the SBC.
Slade told Religion News Service on Wednesday, June 9, he would call for an independent investigation at the EC’s scheduled meeting Monday, June 14, in Nashville, saying: “It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.”
In a statement released Thursday after the audio clips had been posted online, Floyd said the EC staff leadership had been working since last weekend toward “securing a highly credible outside firm with the intent of conducting an independent third-party review of the accusations recently levied at the SBC Executive Committee.”
The meetings were recorded and released by Phillip Bethancourt, a Texas pastor who was at the time the ERLC’s executive vice president. In his statement, Floyd described the meetings as “leaders engaging in a scriptural process of coming together with others who have differing opinions on complicated issues and … discussing those differences honestly with a goal of how to best move forward.”
He also apologized “for any offense that may have resulted from my remarks,” but said Bethancourt’s release of the audio recordings was “an attempt to mischaracterize” the meetings “as an effort to avoid addressing the reality of sex abuse.”
The call for an independent review came just days before Southern Baptists gather for the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting, which is set for next week, June 15-16, in Nashville. With more than 16,000 preregistered messengers, it is expected to be the largest in 25 years.
In the May 31 letter to Greear, Moore recounted meetings in May 2019 and October 2019 in which he described opposition to efforts to address sexual abuse in the SBC.
He described as “tense” a May 2019 meeting in Atlanta that included Greear (who is also pastor of Durham, N.C., The Summit); Todd Unzicker, Greear’s chief of staff; Floyd; Bethancourt; and then-SBC Executive Committee Chairman Mike Stone. Moore, who was not present, charged that Stone wanted to “delay the formation” of the Credentials Committee, which would be tasked with addressing charges of sexual abuse.
Stone is among four candidates for SBC president at the 2021 Annual Meeting. In a video posted Saturday, June 5, to the YouTube account of his church, Blackshear, Ga., Emmanuel, Stone called Moore’s allegations “ungodly” and “absolutely slanderous.”
Moore also wrote of a meeting with Floyd in October 2019, following the ERLC’s 2019 Caring Well Conference. In an on-stage discussion with Moore at the conference, lawyer and abuse survivor advocate Rachael Denhollander charged Baptist Press, the convention’s news service operated by the SBC Executive Committee, with mishandling a story related to sexual abuse.
Moore wrote that in the meeting after the conference, Floyd told him “he was experiencing backlash from his chairman (Stone) and others over what we had allowed to happen,” and that they “were especially upset” because the Executive Committee had contributed $250,000 to the ERLC’s efforts to address sexual abuse.
In a statement Saturday, June 5, Floyd said he did “not have the same recollection of occurrences as stated.” He added: “I do take seriously allegations in this letter which may raise concern for Southern Baptists.”
On Thursday, Bethancourt, who is now the pastor of College Station, Texas, Central, posted an email addressed to Floyd and Stone online, with links to the audio clips.
Bethancourt took issue with Floyd’s and Stone’s statements, and said he was “compelled to do something no one would want to do—become a Southern Baptist whistleblower,” and that their “own words actually corroborate the claims in Russell Moore’s letters.” He attached several audio clips of both 2019 meetings, saying he had recorded them legally under the laws of both states to “ensure both the accuracy of notes and the clarity of follow-up actions.”
In audio purportedly from the May 2019 meeting, Stone said the Executive Committee’s bylaws workgroup was no longer working to create a credentials committee.
“There’s a human factor where good people were thrown under the bus, trying to do their best,” Stone said in the recording. “And now we’re asking the group to trust some of the ones that they feel threw them under the bus.”
Stone also took issue with Bethancourt’s assertion that if the Executive Committee did not act to form a credentials committee, he would bring a motion to the floor of the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting.
“That’s just an unseemly approach to trying to work together,” Stone said, adding that members of the bylaws workgroup “feel like they’ve been bullied.”
In the October 2019 meeting with Floyd after the ERLC’s Caring Well Conference, Floyd asked what he should tell Executive Committee members about Denhollander’s comments. Moore told him the ERLC “wanted to hear from everybody’s heart, without a muzzle put on them.”
Floyd also said he wanted “to preserve the base” of the SBC. When Moore said the SBC had “several bases,” Floyd agreed, saying: “The old SBC does not exist.”
Calls for an independent investigation began after the publication of Moore’s second letter. Two pastors, Ronnie Parrott of Huntersville, N.C., Christ Community, and Grant Gaines of Murfreesboro, Tenn., Belle Aire, announced Saturday, June 5, they were preparing a motion to make at the Annual Meeting to call for the newly elected SBC president to appoint a task force for the purpose of hiring “a third party to investigate the allegations made against the [E]xecutive [C]ommittee of the SBC” in Moore’s letters.