Calling himself a “Southern Baptist whistleblower,” a Texas Baptist pastor on June 10 accused Southern Baptist Convention leaders Ronnie Floyd and Mike Stone of lying about their previous closed-door comments regarding sexual abuse concerns in the denomination.
Phillip Bethancourt, pastor of Central Church in College Station, Texas, released a public letter — linked with audio clips — that he says refutes claims by Floyd, president of the SBC Executive Committee, and Stone, a Georgia pastor who is running for SBC president and previously chaired the SBC Executive Committee.
Bethancourt previously served seven years on staff of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, where he worked with the agency’s head, Russell Moore. Moore resigned that post at the end of May after coming under continuous attack from Stone and other conservative pastors within the SBC.
Over the past two weeks, two letters written by Moore have surfaced, documenting his extreme concern about the campaign against him, which he portrays as led by Stone and caused by resistance to the ERLC’s work to address charges of sexual abuse in the SBC. Moore’s letters also document racist comments made by other SBC leaders.
Both Stone and Floyd disputed the content of Moore’s letters, with Stone saying Moore’s assertions were “absolutely slanderous,” “ungodly” and an “outrageous lie.” Floyd said he did not have the “same recollection” of events as Moore.
In his June 10 letter to Floyd and Stone, Bethancourt says he “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.”
Then he links to several audio recordings that appear to portray Stone and Floyd saying some of the things Moore accused them of saying, although supporters of Stone and Floyd quickly took to Twitter to say they saw no corroboration in the recordings.
“Your own words actually corroborate the claims in Russell Moore’s letters — the same claims you now suggest are false,” Bethancourt wrote to them. “I believe that when Southern Baptists hear you in your own words, they will be wise enough to recognize the truth.”
The audio clips are reported to be from two meetings Moore mentions — one an Oct. 8, 2019, debriefing in Nashville after the ERLC’s Caring Well Conference and one a May 9, 2019, meeting in Atlanta in advance of the 2019 SBC annual meeting.
The Caring Well Conference was the ERLC’s attempt to address the crisis of sexual abuse charges within the SBC that had been exposed through a series of articles in the Houston Chronicle. According to Moore, he and the ERLC were chastised by Stone and other SBC Executive Committee leaders for allowing comments critical of the SBC to be aired during the conference. Of particular concern were comments by Rachel Denhollander about a woman who then was an employee of Lifeway Christian Resources and had reported being sexually abused by a seminary professor. Denhollander said the SBC Executive Committee had mishandled the serious accusations and had instead turned the victim into a villain.
Bethancourt released an audio clip of a debriefing meeting with Moore where Floyd questions why Caring Well Conference speakers weren’t restricted in what they could say. Moore responds that the ERLC didn’t restrict speakers because “we are not in a criminal conspiracy to cover up what happened.”
In a second audio clip from the same debriefing, Floyd cites concerns by Executive Committee trustees about Denhollander in particular and wants to know how he should respond to criticism from his own board members. Moore suggests that the Executive Committee should “not do stupid stuff again.”
In a third audio clip, Floyd says he’s not worried about what abuse survivors might say but is instead concerned to “preserve the base.” Moore responds by saying that striving only to talk about how great the SBC is will “destroy the denomination’s credibility.”
The second set of audio recordings appears to be from an Atlanta meeting where Stone and Floyd and others were finalizing plans for the SBC annual meeting that would happen one month later. A key issue was the formation of a standing Credentials Committee with the power to remove churches that harbored sexual abusers.
In one of his leaked letters, Moore accused Stone of trying to “delay the formation of a credentials committee to assess churches reported to be mishandling sexual abuse.” He also said he had been in meetings with SBC leaders where abuse survivors were referred to as “crazy” or compared to “Potiphar’s wife.”
In one audio clip, Stone says the Executive Committee’s Bylaws Workgroup had abandoned pursuit of a standing Credentials Committee and perceived themselves as victims of unjust criticism. He cites concerns about “a human factor where good people were thrown under the bus, trying to do their best, and now we’re asking the group to trust some of the ones that they feel threw them under the bus.”
In a second audio clip from that meeting, Stone complains that the creation of a standing Credentials Committee had been pushed on him and other Executive Committee leaders against their will and says they have been “bullied.” He calls such action “unseemly.”
By his own account, Bethancourt says Stone wanted a one-year delay in forming a standing Credentials Committee. “Seeing no other pathway ahead at that point, I noted in the meeting that, if the Executive Committee wouldn’t bring a proposal, I would personally bring a motion from the floor of the convention to pursue a standing Credentials Committee,” Bethancourt wrote.
Anticipating that some might question his own actions in recording these conversations, Bethancourt explains in his letter that the audio “was lawfully captured by me in the one-party consent states of Tennessee and Georgia” and was “appropriately captured in a manner consistent with the practice of the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group during major meetings and strategy sessions.”
He did not anticipate ever needing to release the audio, he said, but now feels compelled for the cause of truth.
“When a credible third-party investigation is launched, I would be willing to cooperate to provide the full audio along with other relevant information,” he wrote, referencing an anticipated motion at the annual meeting next week to investigate the Executive Committee.
As of Thursday evening, June 10, neither the Executive Committee nor Baptist Press had publicly acknowledged the day’s bombshell news. However, Floyd gave an interview to Religion News Service in which he called release of the audio recordings an “attempt to mischaracterize them” as trying to avoid the reality of sex abuse.
Southern Baptists want to care for abuse survivors but don’t agree on how to do that, Floyd told RNS. “However, the SBC is not divided on the priority of caring for abuse survivors and protecting the vulnerable in our churches.”
He also indicated to RNS that the leadership of the Executive Committee already is discussing its own plan to hire an outside investigator to review the actions of the Executive Committee. Two SBC pastors have indicated they intend to make a motion at next week’s annual meeting asking whoever is elected president of the convention to appoint a task force to hire a third-party investigator.
Floyd’s comment to RNS raises the possibility that he and the Executive Committee might attempt to manage the selection of an outside investigator, which would be a different approach than the motion to be made.
“Regardless of how some are attempting to characterize past action and future intent,” he said, “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.”
This story was updated at 7:20 p.m. Central time June 10 to include a response from Ronnie Floyd.