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‘Preserve the Base’: Leaked Audio Shows SBC Leaders’ Reluctance to Deal with Sex Abuse

By Bob Smietana
The Rev. Russell Moore addresses the Caring Well conference in Dallas on Oct. 3, 2019. (Photo by Karen Race Photography, courtesy of ERLC)

Newly released audio clips from a Southern Baptist whistleblower appear to corroborate accusations Southern Baptist Convention leaders were reluctant to take action against churches accused of mishandling abuse.

The audio contains a recording of Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC’s Executive Committee, telling SBC leaders in an October 2019 meeting that he is concerned about preserving the base in the denomination — even if that leads to criticism from abuse survivors.

“As you think through strategy — and I am not concerned about anything survivors can say,” Floyd says in the recording, taken during a meeting to debrief the Caring Well Conference, held to address the handling of sexual abuse allegations within the SBC. “Okay. I am not worried about that. I’m thinking the base. I just want to preserve the base.”

The audio also contains a May 2019 recording of Georgia pastor Mike Stone, a leading candidate for SBC president, saying a working group deciding how to deal with churches accused of mishandling sexual abuse had been “bullied” and “thrown under the bus.”

“There’s this human factor, where good people are thrown under the bus, trying to do their best,” he said during an Atlanta meeting on sexual abuse. “And now we are asking the group to trust some of the ones who threw them under the bus.”

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The recordings and a “whistleblower report,” released by Texas pastor Phillip Bethancourt, reveal more details about the divides between SBC leaders over how to deal with sexual abuse in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. The report comes on the heels of two letters from former SBC ethicist Russell Moore, who resigned recently as president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, detailing his disagreements with Stone and other SBC leaders.

In his letter, Bethancourt said he made the recordings of meetings between Moore, Stone – who was then chair of the SBC’s Executive Committee — and Floyd in 2019. At the time, Bethancourt was on the staff of the ERLC.

Bethancourt said in his letter that he only shared clips and not the full audio of the two meetings because the names of abuse survivors are mentioned. He said he would release the full recording of the meetings if Southern Baptists set up a third-party investigation to look into the matter.

In the days following Moore’s leaked letters, a number of pastors have called for a third-party investigation into how the SBC leadership has responded to abuse allegations.

“Southern Baptists are at a crossroads as we head to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting in Nashville. I don’t know which direction Southern Baptists will choose,” Bethancourt wrote in his letter. “But I do believe these ancient words: the truth will set you free. The future of the SBC will only stand if it is built on a foundation of truth.”

Stone has denied Moore’s allegations that he tried to delay efforts to deal with abuse.  He did not immediately respond to the request for comment. 

In a statement to Religion News Service, Floyd said he called a confidential meeting of SBC leaders in May of 2019 to discuss how to respond to abuse in the denomination.

The meetings, Floyd said, “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.”

He called Bethancourt’s release of the audio recordings from the meetings an “attempt to mischaracterize them” as trying to avoid the reality of sex abuse.

Floyd also said Baptists want to care for abuse survivors but don’t agree on how to do that.

“However, the SBC is not divided on the priority of caring for abuse survivors and protecting the vulnerable in our churches,” he said.

Floyd apologized for any offense his remarks may cause. He also said the Executive Committee is responding to calls for an independent investigation into its handling of abuse allegations.

“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.”

The recordings also highlight a dispute over the “Caring Well Conference” run by the ERLC in October 2019, which dealt with abuse in the SBC. During that conference, attorney and abuse advocate Rachael Denhollander criticized SBC leaders and in particular the Executive Committee, of mistreating survivors of abuse.

In the recording of a meeting in October 2019, after the conference, Floyd talks about the pushback he received over the conference.

“How are we supposed to respond, in your minds, to people who say, why in the world would we have a conference and let people degrade the Southern Baptist Convention, attack its leadership, our churches — and all those things. How are we supposed to do that and say what they want to say and yet the whole entire sexual abuse study was funded by the Executive Committee.”

Moore defended his agency’s approach to the conference, saying the SBC was not part of a coverup of abuse. He also warned that had the ERLC limited what survivors at the conference could say, news of those limits would have ended up in national newspapers.

SBC Whistleblower Report

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.



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11 Responses

  1. Collateral damage is perfectly fine as long as the institutional church survives. I mean, that’s what Jesus said, right?

    1. For those that have continued to believe for years the FUNDAMENTALIST were so more Godly than “liberals” how much more evidence do you need? I also imagine what has come out so far is just the tip of the iceberg. This is not true.

  2. Are who are the members of this “base” they are so interested in preserving? Old white men like themselves, clinging to power? Why does this sound more like the language of a political party than of the church of Jesus Christ?

    The only “base” any true church has is those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. And those true believers WANT the grievous sin of sexual abuse to be stopped, brought into the light, addressed with repentance, and cast out of the church.

    Those who don’t want this? They may well be serving another master.

  3. I am glad that people are finally speaking truth to power. I hope that the good people in leadership will be courageous enough to speak out and that those in the pews will believe them. Change must come, the reputation of the SBC is already terrible. I left 12 years ago because of the racism, misogyny, and abuse, plus the bowing down to political figures, but I would love to see the church of my childhood return to what it once was before the moral majority took them down this terrible road.

  4. I’d love to hear what Ronnie Floyd thought was a “biblical process” of handling abuse allegations.

    As far as I can tell, God’s process for handling these things is that “whatever is done in secret will be shouted from the rooftops”. Sooner rather than later, in this case.

    It never ends, men and their precious “institutions.” If the Temple itself was destroyed as a sign of judgement, what do people think is so sacred about the SBC ?

  5. The whole SBC needs to be burnt to the ground. The R’as al Ghul treatment that was proposed for Gotham:

    “Gotham’s time has come. Like Constantinople or Rome before it the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die. This is the most important function of the League of Shadows. It is one we’ve performed for centuries. Gotham… must be destroyed.”

    It is so corrupt, so beyond repair, the ONLY solution is to completely raze the institution.

  6. This is Christian “leadership” at it’s pathetic worst. SBC seems to say, ‘how much less could we care?’. Nothing but Big-Eva and it’s good ol’ boys circling their wagons! Russell Moore was/is about the only one with an ounce of integrity to speak to these matters.

  7. The problem is that while the SBC claims to be dealing with the problem of sexual abuse, in reality they’re doing exactly the same lip service we see the Catholic Church providing. “Oh it’s a real shame that some of our members have been raped or otherwise abused by clergy, our thoughts and prayers go out to them, Jesus will take care of the problem.”

  8. No mention of law enforcement in the article? Sexual assault is criminal behavior, and contacting local police is one aspect of submitting to governing authorities as the Bible commands.

  9. I’m not Southern Baptist, and I disagree with many things they teach. A third party investigation is probably in order.

    However, I am concerned that a private meeting to debrief testimony was taped and released in juicy clips. Leaders need to have the ability to discuss things freely and privately, and even stupidly the facts at hand. Every de-briefing and brainstorming session is marked by dumb and sometime funny misspoken remarks. It’s part of the process. If you surreptitiously taped the conversations of a jury deliberation and leaked them in juicy tidbits, no jury decision would ever stand. What matters in these things is the final decision and outcome. No one can deliberate under a critical, gossip-hungry outside microscope.

    Like it or not every organization uses terms like base, optics, PR, market, and constituents, etc. when discussing organizational relations and the media. Every Christian college and Church that gets a marketing report reads such language all the time. There isn’t anything nefarious in this. Every denomination has a base, a constituency, a demographic, i.e. a group of identifiable people they appeal to, and to say so is not uncaring or sinful. To be concerned about the continued support of those who’ve committed themselves to your organization is perfectly understandable.

    Southern Baptists really believe in the independence of the local congregation to conduct its business. Theologically, organizationally, and legally, the SBC Convention is limited in the actions it can take. There is no one Bishop over the state or region who can mandate some action, fire clergy, or demand this or that from on high. In the main, this is a strength of Baptists. They have strong volunteerism, commitment, and local loyalty. Members have a big say at the local church level. But sometimes it is a disadvantage. Needed correction and change can move more slowly, but that’s exactly why Baptists organized this way. And remember the highly hierarchical, centralized Catholic Church thoroughly protected the reputation of the organization at the cost of suffering abuse victims for many decades around the world. So, maybe de-centralized Baptists and a little slower movement is not a bad thing here.

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