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Newly leaked letter details allegations that Southern Baptist leaders mishandled sex abuse claims

The headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

New allegations about the mishandling of sex abuse claims at the highest levels of the Southern Baptist Convention were made public in a recent letter between two high-profile leaders that was obtained Friday by The Washington Post.

While such allegations have been made by several women in the past, the letter includes new details from internal conversations, alleging that some institutional leaders bullied a sexual abuse victim, who was called a “whore,” and described in detail how many leaders resisted sexual abuse reforms.

Later this month, more than 14,000 Southern Baptists are expected to meet in Nashville for the convention’s annual meeting, which is intended to inspire unity among Baptists. But the June 15-16 meeting will take place in the midst of intense debates over issues such as sex abuse, racism and the role of women, as well as significant Southern Baptist support for former president Donald Trump, topics that have caused fissures in recent years and caused many high-profile departures from the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

In a dramatic turn of events this week, two letters written by Russell Moore, who recently left his position as head of the SBC’s policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, have been made public. The new allegations are contained in a May 31 letter Moore sent to the current president of the SBC, J.D. Greear, that appeared on Friday on the site the Baptist Blogger, which has published other internal documents and recordings from Southern Baptist leaders in the past.

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“You and I both heard, in closed door meetings, sexual abuse survivors spoken of in terms of ‘Potiphar’s wife’ and other spurious biblical analogies,” Moore wrote to Greear. “The conversations in these closed door meetings were far worse than anything Southern Baptists knew — or the outside world could report.”

In the ancient biblical story, Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph and falsely accuses him of having assaulted her.

On his last day as a Southern Baptist professional, Moore, who has served as one of the highest-profile leaders in the convention, decided to reveal specific names of key individual leaders involved in what he described as intimidation tactics.

Moore’s letter took direct aim at several members of the SBC’s Executive Committee, the group based in Nashville that runs the business of the convention and handles its finances. He described the “spiritual and psychological abuse of sexual abuse survivors by the Executive Committee itself,” as well as “a pattern of attempted intimidation of those who speak on such matters.”

Moore and Greear did not respond to requests for comment on the letter.

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Three employees who work in SBC institutions, who said they needed to remain anonymous to keep their current jobs, corroborated several of the factual details of the letter. Details in the letter were also confirmed by a former employee, an abuse survivor and a prominent abuse advocate.

Moore drew national attention in 2016 when he openly criticized Trump and his evangelical supporters, and Trump responded on Twitter that Moore was “a nasty guy with no heart!”

Moore describes enormous rifts behind the scenes over the issue of how to handle sex abuse within SBC institutions. He wrote in his letter that during the last few years, he tried to smile and pretend everything was all right through his experiences.

“What [people involved] want is for us to remain silent and to live in psychological terror, to protect them by covering up what they do in darkness, while asking our constituencies to come in and to stay in the SBC,” Moore wrote.

In the letter, he refers to a “disastrous move” by some leaders to “exonerate” churches with credible allegations of negligence and mistreatment of sexual abuse survivors. “You and I were critical of such moves, believing that they jeopardized not only the gospel witness of the SBC, but also the lives of vulnerable children and others in Southern Baptist churches.”

Moore also spoke of a sexual abuse survivor whose words, he alleges, were altered by the Executive Committee staff to make it seem as though her abuse was a consensual affair. The Washington Post generally does not name victims of sexual assault without their consent, but the woman, Jennifer Lyell, a former vice president at the SBC’s Lifeway Christian Resources and once the highest-paid female executive at the SBC, said in a text message that she agreed to be identified.

Instead of reporting that she had been abused, Baptist Press, which is overseen by the Executive Committee, reported in March 2019 that Lyell had admitted being involved in a “morally inappropriate relationship” with her former professor.

Lyell, who says she has lost her job, her reputation and her health, confirmed Moore’s account of “bullying and intimidation” by the Executive Committee.

In his letter, Moore wrote that he heard someone refer to Lyell as a “whore” in a corridor at the SBC. The Executive Committee paid her a financial settlement but refused to apologize, he said.

A spokesman for the Executive Committee did not return requests for comment.

Moore’s account of Lyell’s experience was confirmed by Rachael Denhollander, a former USA gymnast who outed team doctor Larry Nassar’s serial sexual assault and has since been a prominent advocate for church abuse survivors and has helped bring attention to Lyell’s case.

“It shows the level of corruption and vile behavior that comes from the leaders in the SBC, the ones who really have the power,” said Denhollander, whose husband is a PhD student at the flagship SBC seminary Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

On Friday evening, The Post reached out to the individuals named in the letter, most of whom declined to comment or did not respond by Saturday late morning. Rolland Slade, chairman of the Executive Committee, wrote in a text message his support for Moore.

“I feel for Dr. Moore and his family. No one should have had to endure what he has gone through over his tenure,” Slade wrote in a text message. “I personally [will] miss his prophetic voice that often caused me to search beyond the surface on questions related to ethics and ministry in my circles or spheres of influence.”

Earlier this week, a 2020 letter by Moore first published by Religion News Service detailed Moore’s descriptions of racism within the convention and intimidating behavior among members of the Executive Committee. He described threats he says he has received from white nationalists and white supremacists.

Though he was a vocal opponent of Trump before his election, he was largely quiet during the Trump administration, and several of his experiences in the SBC during that period became public through his letters this week. The timing of the release of those letters appears to have been strategic, several Southern Baptist observers suggested, because it could influence people’s perceptions ahead of the upcoming meeting.

Moore also described a former president of the Executive Committee who was “covering up his own use of pastoral authority to sexually sin” while that SBC leader was investigating Moore. The current president of the Executive Committee is Ronnie Floyd, who was previously president of the entire convention.

Floyd, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment, was on Trump’s evangelical advisory board during the 2016 election.

In his letter, Moore calls Trump spiritual adviser Paula White, who led that advisory group, “a heretic and a huckster not representative of evangelical Christianity.”

In a text message, White noted how Moore’s comment is similar to one he made in 2016, connected to his long-standing Trump criticisms. “So I don’t believe this is about theology, this is just about politics,” she wrote. “He is a powerful man who has repeatedly criticized me publicly without once reaching out to me privately. But, like all Americans who still enjoy religious liberties, he is certainly entitled to his views.”

Moore said he had planned to raise the question of an independent third-party investigation of the issue of abuse within the SBC ranks at the upcoming meeting.

“It exposes what we’ve known for a long time,” said Megan Lively, who previously shared her story of how she was raped at a Southern Baptist seminary. “He’s bringing the truth to light.”

In 2019, the Houston Chronicle published a series on abuse within SBC churches, which has raised the question of how leaders could prevent abuse in the future.

Some survivors asked whether the denomination could put together some kind of registry of sex abuse offenders so churches could consult a list before hiring a pastor who has been credibly accused of abuse, though such suggestions have been shot down. The SBC prides itself on maintaining the autonomy of individual churches while it pools its money to support missionaries, seminaries and the like.

The last annual meeting of the convention, held in 2019, put the spotlight on sex abuse, and survivors like Mary DeMuth were put onstage. In a blog post this week, however, DeMuth wrote that she has felt used, “like I was part of a reactionary PR machine responding to the very real trauma of sexual abuse and cover up in our midst.”

The SBC has 14 million members. The upcoming meeting is expected to help shape the future direction of the convention; members will vote on various issues and choose its next president.

This story has been updated to include a reaction from Paula White.

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