Southern Baptist Convention leaders mishandled a “crisis of sexual abuse” in the denomination through methods such as intimidating whistleblowers into silence and exonerating churches with credible allegations of negligence of sexual abuse victims, according to Russell Moore, the former leader of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
In a May 31 letter to outgoing SBC President J.D. Greear, which comes in the wake of an earlier letter in which he exposed what he called “gutter level” racism in the denomination, Moore refers “specially to the crisis of sexual abuse as it relates to the SBC Executive Committee.”
“You know well the obstacles that both you and I faced from figures within the Executive Committee in merely raising questions about sexual abuse, questions compellingly raised by the Houston Chronicle, among others. You and I both, in seeking to address this issue—with the full authorization both in terms of entity ministry assignment and direct vote by the messengers to the SBC annual meeting—faced one stonewall after another by leaders within the SBC Executive Committee,” Moore wrote to Greear.
“Simply speaking to the press or, in your case, reading off the names of churches already identified in the Houston Chronicle reporting by Rob Downen—not in your case as indictment, but merely as warranting an examination—resulted in backroom and hallway threats of retribution and intimidation. These included possible attempts to ‘censure’ you to investigations and defunding, and all the rest,” he said.
“You and I both heard, in closed door meetings, sexual abuse survivors spoken of in terms of ‘Potiphar’s wife’ and other spurious biblical analogies. The conversations in these closed door meetings were far worse than anything Southern Baptists knew—or the outside world could report. And, as you know, this comes on the heels of a track-record of the Executive Committee staff and others referring to victims as ‘crazy’ and, at least in one case, as worse than the sexual predators themselves,” Moore added.
In 2019, the Houston Chronicle published a three-part series in which the publication found more than 700 victims of alleged sexual abuse by 380 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers since 1998. Some 220 were convicted and 100 remain in prison.
Many of the victims, who were children when the abuse occurred, accused other Southern Baptist leaders, including past presidents, of concealing their ordeal. Some of those who were accused of sexual abuse also reportedly left their congregations and were able to find jobs in other Southern Baptist churches.
Greear would go on to propose and implement a range of reforms to help make churches safer, but Moore alleged that SBC Executive Committee leaders were not happy about some of the measures taken.
“Behind all of this was the undiluted rage that you and I faced from Executive Committee officers—including the then-chairman. This included but was hardly limited to the tense meeting that you, Todd Unzicker, and Phillip Bethancourt from my team had with Mike Stone and Ronnie Floyd in Atlanta in May of 2019. There Stone vigorously insisted on delaying the formation of a credentials committee to assess churches reported to be mishandling sexual abuse,” Moore wrote.
“Phillip concluded by telling Stone that the question would not be whether or not Southern Baptists would be presented with a motion in Birmingham for a credentials committee, that we would see to it that such was done regardless. The only question was whether Southern Baptists would see Executive Committee opposition to it,” he wrote.
Reacting to the letter in a statement Saturday, Floyd, president of the SBC's Executive Committee, said while he takes the allegations seriously, he did not recall some of the events as stated by Moore.
“I have received a copy of the letter from former ERLC president Russell Moore to our current SBC president J.D. Greear. Some of the matters referenced occurred prior to my coming here in this role. For those matters of which I was present, I do not have the same recollection of these occurrences as stated,” he said.
“I do take seriously allegations in this letter which may raise concern for Southern Baptists. I have been very committed to always operate with the highest integrity and skillful hands. I am right now considering ways in which we can develop the best path forward for the sake of Southern Baptists and our God-called commitment to our unified Great Commission vision,” he added.
The 2021 SBC Annual Meeting, set to take place June 15-16 in Nashville, Tennessee, is expected to draw a historic crowd this year as it addresses a range of disagreements on critical race theory, sexual abuse and gender issues.