In a video statement released April 1, Southern Baptist Convention presidential candidate Willy Rice acknowledged that a deacon has been removed from service in his church because the man “committed a sexual sin that could also be described as abusive” some years in the past.
Rice noted that the offense “did not involve criminal charges” and that the deacon “has never been identified by law as a sexual offender.” However, Rice emphasized that it was a “terrible sin” that “devastated peoples’ lives.”
Rice serves as pastor of Calvary Church, Clearwater, Fla. He indicated that church leadership made the decision after a pastor from another state contacted the church — although the abuse case was known to Rice and other church leaders and had not been hidden.
The deacon in question is reportedly a former high school language arts teacher and assistant football coach in Tampa Bay who admitted to an inappropriate sexual relationship with an 18-year-old girl who was a student at the school where he taught in 2005.
When the Tampa Bay Times asked the assistant’s head coach why the man came forward and admitted to the inappropriate relationship, the head coach responded that the man was a “deeply religious guy,” with “a lot weighing on his conscience.”
In Rice’s version of the story, the deacon later experienced “a genuine conversion to Christ” that was followed by baptism as a “true follower of Jesus.” The man in question has not been involved in any other known incidents of inappropriate behavior and has been an exemplary layperson in the church, Rice added.
According to Rice’s statement, the church ordained the man as a deacon but did not allow him to serve with children or students. In his service to the church, Rice maintained that the deacon demonstrated “the genuine fruits of a repentant life.”
However, upon review, allowing the man to serve the church as a deacon is “inconsistent with our desire to stand against all forms of sexual abuse,” Rice said. He explained that the church has “learned a great deal about what should be categorized as abusive behavior” and apologized for not recognizing this sooner.
He explained that the church has “learned a great deal about what should be categorized as abusive behavior” and apologized for not recognizing this sooner.
Rice concluded his video statement by emphasizing that the church agrees “with the resolution passed by the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention at its annual meeting that dealt with sexual abuse.” The resolution reads, in part, that “any person who has committed sexual abuse is permanently disqualified from holding the office of pastor and that we recommend all affiliated churches apply this standard to all positions of church leadership.”
Christa Brown, a prominent survivor, advocate, retired appellate attorney and whistleblower, minced no words in a statement to BNG. She said she found Rice’s statement “depressing to listen to.”
“Look at what it took here for this deacon to finally be removed from leadership: the church pastor running for SBC president, a phone call from another pastor in another state, and the realization that the news would likely become public in the near future,” Brown said.
“If it takes that much for an SBC church to confront a problem like this with one of their deacon-leaders, then that’s a reflection of how bad the problem is in the SBC.”
Brown said she found it “disturbing” that the man was ordained to the diaconate even after the church was made aware of his misconduct. “It shouldn’t take a pastor running for SBC president in order for an SBC church to come clean with what it knows about one of its own deacons.”
These new developments come mere weeks before the scheduled public release of findings in the independent investigation of the SBC Executive Committee’s alleged mishandling of sexual abuse cases. That investigation is being conducted by Guidepost Solutions.
Social media response to Rice’s announcement was mixed, with some Southern Baptists thanking him and the church for being transparent and others saying the fact that the church ordained a man known to have been sexually abusive — whether repentant or not — should disqualify Rice from SBC leadership, particularly at this sensitive time.