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The SBC and the Struggle to Address Sexual Abuse

The Southern Baptist Convention is embroiled in a controversy over how national leaders have handled cases of sexual abuse reports in the denomination’s schools and churches. This issue, which some have been seeking to address for more than a decade, was highlighted after the resignation of Dr. Russell Moore as the President of the Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Moore had been under fire from some within the grassroots of the SBC for his open criticism of Donald Trump in 2016, as well as his efforts at racial reconciliation and caring for immigrants.

In a leaked email to a group of ERLC trustees from early 2020, Moore thanked them for standing with him after the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee formed a task force to investigate whether statements by the ERLC were affecting giving to the Cooperative Program, the SBC’s primary method for funding its missions and institutions. Moore knew that many would believe the reason for this investigation was his criticism of President Trump.

However, Moore said, “the presenting issue here is that, first and foremost, of sexual abuse.” Listing addressing racial reconciliation alongside his work on getting justice for the sexually abused, Moore explained that he has “been attacked with the most vicious guerilla tactics on such matters and have been told to be quiet about this by others.”

One issue that seemed to ruffle the feathers of some on the SBC Executive Committee was an event that the ERLC hosted called “Caring Well,” which focused on sexual abuse in the church. At the event. Moore moderated a conversation with Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast and attorney whose testimony was key in the investigation of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. In the interview, Denhollander, who has devoted her adult life to advocating for victims of sexual abuse, criticized the SBC Executive Committee for handling the case of a Baptist employee who was abused at one of the Convention’s Seminaries.

Denhollander referenced the case of Jennifer Lyell. (I would not ordinarily name a victim of abuse in this column, but Lyell chose to come forward about her abuse, and Denhollander used her name in a public venue to discuss what happened to her.)

In 2018, Lyell came forward to tell of the abuse she suffered as a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at the hands of a professor, Dr. David Sills. She spoke with Baptist Press, which is an arm of the SBC Executive Committee. After she had seen the article they wrote about her ordeal, Denhollander said BP changed the language so that it sounded like what Lyell was involved in was a consensual affair instead of abuse. She said that Lyell was cast aside as an adulteress rather than being cared for as a victim of abuse. Denhollander specifically mentioned that members of the Executive Committee were involved in Lyell’s mistreatment.

In a leaked letter to outgoing SBC President J.D. Greear, Moore described the atmosphere of intimidation that existed around the issue of sexual abuse. He referenced Greear’s attempts to have churches named in a Houston Chronicle article by Rob Downen investigated so they might be disfellowshipped from the SBC or to not allow their messengers to be seated at the Annual Meeting. He said a “work group” of the Executive Committee quickly “exonerated” the churches involved even though there were “credible allegations of negligence and mistreatment of sexual abuse survivors.” Moore also referenced a tense meeting between himself, Greear, Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd, then-Executive Committee Chairman Mike Stone, and Phillip Bethancourt, who was an ERLC employee at the time. He said that Stone, who is a candidate for SBC President at next week’s Annual Meeting, sought to delay forming a committee to investigate the churches even though he had quickly moved to assemble an investigation of the ERLC. In a video statement over the weekend, Stone disputed Moore’s charges, and Ronnie Floyd issued a statement through Baptist Press saying that he did not “have the same recollection of these occurrences as stated.”

With many accusing Moore of making up statements in his letter to Greear, Philip Bethancourt, who is now a pastor in College Station, Texas, released five audio clips from the meeting in Atlanta with Stone and Floyd as well as a meeting Floyd had with Moore to “debrief” after the Caring Well conference. In one clip, Floyd complained that Denhollander “came after” the Executive Committee, and in another clip, he said that he is “not worried” about what survivors might have to say because his main concern is to “preserve the base.” Bethancourt said that he and others in the room took the statement to mean “protect the money.” In a clip from the meeting in Atlanta, Stone portrays the and members of a Bylaws Workgroup as victims who feel like they have “been bullied.”

All of this comes as the Southern Baptist Convention prepares to meet for its first Annual Meeting in two years. Ronnie Parrott, the pastor of Christ Community Church in Huntersville, N.C., announced that he will bring a motion at the meeting which would begin the process of hiring an outside firm to investigate the allegations of the Executive Committee’s “mishandling sexual abuse cases, mistreatment of sexual abuse victims, a pattern of intimidation, and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives.” The motion, which Parrott co-authored with Tennessee pastor Grant Gaines, must receive a second from the floor. Then the SBC’s Committee on Order of Business would decide whether or not to bring the motion to the floor for discussion at this year’s meeting.

This year’s Annual Meeting will be a watershed moment for the SBC. Messengers will choose a new SBC President and will have the opportunity to decide whether the Convention will address the concerns of sexual abuse survivors.

If the SBC chooses the hard route of investigating the mishandling of abuse cases and the ease with which sexually abusive clergy can move from one church to another, the next few years will be filled with embarrassing revelations and difficult decisions. However, choosing this path will go a long way towards caring for the vulnerable who have suffered at the hands of abusers and will protect churches from future abuse. It will also help the SBC recover its public witness, which has suffered as the mishandling of abuse has come to light.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Photo courtesy: Southern Baptist Convention Facebook

Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.”