Days after Southern Baptist Convention leaders Mike Stone and Ronnie Floyd challenged claims by the former leader of the denomination’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore, that they mishandled a “crisis of sexual abuse” in the convention, a Texas pastor has come forward with evidence that he claims supports Moore’s claims.
Phillip Bethancourt, the lead pastor of Central Church in College Station, Texas, who at the time was an ERLC staffer, said he felt “compelled” to “become a Southern Baptist whistleblower” in a letter to Stone and Floyd published publicly on Thursday.
Floyd, who is president of the SBC's Executive Committee, said he did not “have the same recollection" of accounts presented by Moore of the SBC's mishandling of sexual abuse allegations lodged against SBC churches.
Stone, a former chairman of the Executive Committee who is now an SBC presidential nominee, was accused of trying to “delay the formation of a credentials committee to assess churches reported to be mishandling sexual abuse." But he dismissed the claims as “scandalous,” “unscriptural,” “ungodly” and “outrageous.” He also noted that he is a survivor of sexual abuse himself.
In his Thursday letter, however, Bethancourt suggested the SBC leaders were not being truthful.
“I am writing to you in regard to your public responses to the recently publicized letters from Russell Moore. Ronnie, you said you ‘do not have the same recollection’ of the events. Mike, your video called Moore’s claims ‘absolutely slanderous,’ ‘ungodly,’ and an ‘outrageous lie,’” the Texas pastor began. “I cannot remain quiet in light of your responses, so I am compelled to do something no one would want to do--become a Southern Baptist whistleblower.”
He continued: “Wouldn’t the best way to get to the truth be to hear the two of you in your own words? Your own words actually corroborate the claims in Russell Moore’s letters--the same claims you now suggest are false. I believe that when Southern Baptists hear you in your own words, they will be wise enough to recognize the truth.”
He shared three audio clips from the Nashville Caring Well Conference debrief meeting from October 8, 2019. At the conference, attorney and abuse advocate Rachael Denhollander was allowed to speak freely about sexual abuse in the denomination. In a conversation with Moore, she voiced strong words about how the SBC Executive Committee staff handled a sexual abuse survivor.
In the first clip shared by Bethancourt, Floyd appears to question why conference speakers weren't restricted on what they were allowed to say because it came off as an attack on SBC leadership.
“How are we supposed to respond, in your minds, to people who would say, ‘Why in the world, would we have a conference and let people degrade the Southern Baptist Convention, attack its leadership, our churches?' … How are we supposed to do that, and we let them say what they want to say?” Floyd asked while mentioning that the Executive Committee financially supported the SBC Sexual Abuse Advisory Group.
Moore noted that the speakers were not restricted because “we’re not in a criminal conspiracy to cover up what happened.”
“If we had [put parameters on what speakers could say], what you would end up with right now is three days of Washington Post stories and New York Times stories about the parameters that we put on people," Moore replied. "So that the charge would be only the people that were willing to come in and participate in the cover-up were allowed to be there."
In a second clip, Floyd asked how he should handle Executive Committee trustee complaints about how Denhollander “has come after them” in her Caring Well Conference interview.
Moore noted that the ERLC “didn’t script anybody” and added that the commission wanted to "hear from everybody's heart without a muzzle put on them." He suggested that the Executive Committee “not do stupid stuff again” when dealing with a survivor’s public disclosure of abuse.
In a third clip, Floyd also explained that his primary focus was not survivors of sexual abuse but to “preserve the base.”
Moore replied, "What I would say to you is that we don't have one base."
“Floyd had already stated that he is hearing threats that some churches may stop their Cooperative Program giving because of the Caring Well Conference," Bethancourt wrote in the letter. "So, it certainly seemed to us in the room that what it meant to ‘preserve the base’ was to protect the money."
Bethancourt also shared audio clips from a May 2019 meeting in Atlanta on sexual abuse that included Stone and Floyd, in which he claims that "their resistance to the immediate formation of a standing credentials committee became a primary point of disagreement." The credentials committee was to assess churches reported to be mishandling sexual abuse allegations.
"Stone’s own words corroborate Russell Moore’s recounting of our contentious discussion on this subject," Bethancourt wrote.
Bethancourt’s revelations come as a growing chorus of SBC messengers call for an independent investigation of how the denomination’s leaders have dealt with what Moore called a “crisis of sexual abuse” in the denomination via two leaked letters.
Moore alleged leaders mishandled the crisis through methods such as intimidating whistleblowers into silence and exonerating churches with credible allegations of negligence of sexual abuse victims.
In a statement Thursday, Floyd said he called the May 2019 meeting in Atlanta to discuss how to handle charges of sex abuse in the denomination. He said the discussion was confidential and argued that Bethancourt's release of the audio from the meeting was an “attempt to mischaracterize them as an effort to avoid addressing the realities of sex abuse."
"The fact of the matter is that immediately following the meeting and even before leaving the airport, I instructed our staff and legal team to begin the creation of an SBC Credentials Committee," Floyd explained. "That work continued throughout the weekend, and by early the next week, the framework for what we now know as the Credentials Committee was born."
"Any suggestion that the purpose of the meeting was to oppose efforts to address sex abuse is not credible when given the full context of the meeting and our immediate action to create the Credentials Committee."
Floyd said the discussions from the meeting "reflect leaders engaging in a scriptural process of coming together with others who have differing opinions on complicated issues and of discussing those differences honestly with a goal of how to best move forward.”
Floyd added that following the October Caring Well Conference, he requested a meeting with Moore and Bethancourt to "better understand how to respond to churches that had questions coming out of the conference."
"That was the extent of the conversation," he stated. "However, I apologize for any offense that may have resulted from my remarks."
The executive committee president further added that since last weekend, "the Executive Committee staff leadership has been in the process of talking with and potentially 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."
Stone has denied allegations that he tried to delay the formation of the committee investigating how the SBC handled claims of sex abuse against churches. Last Saturday, he released a video stating that Moore's second leaked letter lacked credibility.
"If you take his letter at face value, then [Moore] has known about cover-up, intimidation, bullying, stonewalling, barriers, pressure, all of these sorts of things against victims of sex abuse," Stone said. "He has known about lies and back-room deals and corruption. He has known about it, not for days or weeks, or literally months. He has known about it, supposedly for years while he has not breathed a word. Russell hasn't stood behind these accusations. He doesn't even have the professional decency to issue this as a press release through credible news sources."
Stone added that his "very first act as chairman" of the SBC executive committee in the summer of 2018 was to "put together a motion to accept a request from the ERLC that we give them what ultimately was $250,000." He said he requested permission to do that because of his personal story, "not known to anybody else in the world at the time except me and the man who abused me."
"I wanted the privilege of initiating this action on the part of the executive committee. ... After that was unanimously passed by the subcommittee and I knew that it was going to be approved by the full plenary body, I left that committee room to a nearby bathroom where I vomited, not because I am weak or I was upset, but just the emotion — decades of emotion — came bubbling forth as I was so grateful to be a part of addressing this horrific and heinous injustice committed against the most vulnerable members of our Southern Baptist churches," he said.
"To think that somebody with that passion and that personal past is later going to get together in a back room with the subcommittee and conspire to cover up for pedophiles and the molestations they commit against our most vulnerable children, it's outlandish."
Ronnie Parrott of Christ Community Church in Huntersville, North Carolina, and Grant Gaines, pastor of Belle Aire Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, are two of the most prominent SBC voices calling for an independent investigation.
“In light of the recent allegations made against the executive committee by Russell Moore, former president of the ERLC, in letters dated February 24, 2020 and May 31, 2021 … we move that the messengers ask the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention to appoint a task force to hire a third party to investigate the allegations made against the executive committee of the SBC in said letters, including but not limited to allegations of mishandling sexual abuse cases, mistreatment of sexual abuse victims, a pattern of intimidation, and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives,” the pastors wrote in a statement Saturday.
“We further move that the task force report back to this convention at our next annual meeting with the findings of the investigation as well as suggestions for actions to be taken by our convention.”
The 2021 SBC Annual Meeting, set to take place June 15-16 in Nashville, Tennessee, is expected to draw a historic crowd. The convention is expected to address a range of disagreements on critical race theory, sexual abuse and gender issues.