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 a sexual abuse crackdown.
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 last week, two letters written by Russell Moore, who recently left his position as head of the convention'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 convention, J.D. Greear, that appeared Friday on the website the Baptist Blogger, which has published other internal documents and recordings from Southern Baptist leaders in the past.
"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 convention'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.
Three employees who work in convention institutions, who said they needed to remain anonymous in order to keep their jobs, corroborated several of the factual details of the letter. Details 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 convention institutions. He wrote in his letter that in the past few years he tried to smile and pretend everything was all right.
However, "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 [Southern Baptist Convention]," 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: Jennifer Lyell, a former vice president at the convention's Lifeway Christian Resources and once the highest-paid female executive, 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 has lost her job, her reputation and 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 convention. 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.
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 last week, however, DeMuth wrote that she has felt used, "like I was part of a reactionary PR [public relations] machine responding to the very real trauma of sexual abuse and cover up in our midst."
The Southern Baptist Convention has 14 million members. The upcoming meeting is expected to help shape the direction of the convention; members will vote on various issues and choose their next president.