Southern Baptist leader resigns amid rifts over sex abuse

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FILE – In this June 16, 2021, file photo, people attend the morning session of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn. A top Southern Baptist Convention administrator is resigning after weeks of internal division over how best to handle an investigation into the denomination’s response to sexual abuse reports. Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the SBC’s Executive Committee, announced his departure Thursday, Oct. 14, in a statement. He said he will leave the post at the end of the month. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A top Southern Baptist Convention administrator is resigning amid internal rifts over how to handle an investigation into the SBC’s response to sexual abuse, a decision that underscores the broader ongoing turmoil in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the SBC’s Executive Committee, announced his departure Thursday in a statement critical of recent decisions related to the third-party review that is getting underway. An investigative firm is looking into allegations the Executive Committee mishandled abuse reports and mistreated survivors.

“Due to my personal integrity and the leadership responsibility entrusted to me, I will not and cannot any longer fulfill the duties placed upon me as the leader of the executive, fiscal, and fiduciary entity of the SBC,” said Floyd, who is leaving at the end of the month.

Members of the divided Executive Committee voted Oct. 5 to waive attorney-client privilege, agreeing to turn over legally protected records to investigators. The vote was the result of multiple meetings and mounting pressure from across the convention in favor of the waiver.

Proponents of the waiver of attorney-client privilege said it was a key demand of the thousands of Southern Baptist delegates who set the third-party review into motion. Opponents said it was financially risky and could jeopardize insurance policies.

Floyd’s statement said the Executive Committee was committed to the review, but it could have been done “without creating these potential risks relating to the Convention’s liability.”

Floyd, a longtime Arkansas pastor who became the Executive Committee president in 2019, is not the only recent departure. Several members of the Executive Committee have resigned their posts, and the committee’s longtime law firm cut ties with the body, citing the decision to waive privilege.

This is the latest tension point in the convention’s ongoing reckoning with a sex abuse scandal that was thrust into the spotlight by a 2019 Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News report that documented hundreds of cases of abuse in Southern Baptist churches, including several in which alleged perpetrators remained in ministry.

“The last several weeks have been trying and difficult for our convention,” said SBC President Ed Litton in a statement. “While I was grateful for the outcome of last week’s Executive Committee meeting, I regret that Dr. Floyd and other trustees feel that this has placed them in a position where they can no longer continue to serve in their current capacities.”

The response to sex abuse is one of several issues causing controversy in the conservative evangelical denomination, which has experienced years of declining membership in addition to some high-profile departures. Tensions have flared in recent years over critical race theory, women’s leadership roles in the church and partisan politics.

“What we’re seeing in the Southern Baptist Convention is both a reflection and a magnification of the tumult in the culture,” said Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist and executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center.

“The SBC is perpetually at war with itself for as long as I’ve known it,” Stetzer said. In June, Litton was elected the new SBC president in a narrow vote, temporarily tamping down an effort to push the convention even further to the right but embittering critics who remain hostile to him.

Stetzer thinks the SBC needs to fix its problems and then focus on the evangelical mission that unites the convention.

“The SBC is at a key fork in the road and who the SBC will be is really going to be decided in the next few months and years,” said Stetzer.

The Executive Committee has become a lightning rod for controversy as its members wrestled with how to handle the investigation. The third-party review is being funded by the Executive Committee, conducted by Guidepost Solutions and overseen by a new Southern Baptist sexual abuse task force.

The Executive Committee’s reputation has suffered because of this ordeal, said Adam Greenway, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He was among the wave of Southern Baptists calling on the committee to move the third-party review forward without further delay.

The committee “should function like the sound technician in your church, which means you should never hear about it or talk about it if it’s doing its job well,” Greenway said.

The committee acts on behalf of the SBC when it is not holding its two-day national meeting. Greenway said it is not meant to be the face or the voice of the decentralized denomination and its leadership should see its role as supporting and facilitating the work of the convention and its more than 40,000 churches.

Executive Committee member Dean Inserra, a Florida pastor who supported waiving attorney-client privilege, said he wishes Floyd had carried out the assignment given by the delegates.

“It’s just really been honestly sad just to see the state of affairs,” said Inserra, a new committee member. “The good news is I think culture change is in play and is coming. So I actually truly am optimistic.”

The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas, an SBC megachurch, expressed hope that the turmoil would not harm the the individual churches that give the denomination its strength. Yet he expressed concern.

The departure of Floyd and other Executive Committee members “does not portend well for the denomination’s future,” Jeffress said via email. “As Jesus said, `A house divided against itself cannot stand.’”

Christa Brown, a church sexual abuse survivor and a longtime critic of the SBC’s sexual abuse response, said Floyd’s resignation is worth celebrating, but the work of pushing for institutional reforms continues.

“A systemic cure for this institution’s ails will be painful, and it will mean sacrifice,” Brown said. “But if the SBC winds up needing to sell nearly all its assets for the sake of providing reparations and restitution to those it has so grievously harmed, then this would be for the good.”

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Associated Press reporters Peter Smith and David Crary contributed to this report.

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