Alleging sex abuse failures, a survivor sues Southern Baptist Convention leaders

Since 2019, when Hannah-Kate Williams told her harrowing account of sexual abuse to a handful of Southern Baptist Convention officials at its 2019 annual conference, and followed up by posting her story on Twitter, she has been a key voice in pushing the faith group toward a long-awaited reckoning.

For two years, amid a growing chorus of voices accusing the nation’s largest Protestant denomination of mishandling abuse allegations, Williams has advocated for sexual abuse survivors on her social media platforms and at prominent SBC events.

Now, in her continuing bid to hold the denomination accountable, Williams is taking legal action.

“I’m hoping all abusers will be exposed and brought to justice so they can find redemption, that survivors can receive restitution, and the vulnerable can be protected,” Williams, 26, told Religion News Service.

On Monday (Aug. 16), Williams filed suit against a wide array of Southern Baptist institutions and leaders, including the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where her father, James Williams, once worked; Lifeway Christian Resources; the SBC Executive Committee; and committee members Mike Stone and Rod Martin.

The complaint, which also names her father as a defendant, alleges that church leaders failed to investigate Hannah-Kate’s reports, defamed her as a liar and “conspired to protect the Baptist denomination from a problem of sexual abuse of minors or other vulnerable populations.”

James Williams and her mother, Gina, did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.

Filed in Franklin County Circuit Court in Kentucky, the complaint also cites leaked letters written by Russell Moore, former head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religion Liberty Commission, including one to then-SBC President J.D. Greear, registering his disappointment in the church for silencing victims and covering up misconduct.

“Based upon the Moore-Greear correspondence, …” the complaint alleges, “there is a high likelihood that the reports made to the SBTS by Plaintiff were part of the discussions alluded to in the Moore-Greear correspondence, that there are other relevant documents and witnesses to the attempts by the corporate Defendants to cover up their ‘passing along’ of Williams to unwitting congregations, and the risk that the other children of the Williams’ family suffered similar abuse.”

Others, including Al Mohler, president of Southern seminary, appear in the complaint for failing to follow up on allegations of abuse, but are not named as defendants.

Leaked letters by Russell Moore, former head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religion Liberty Commission, pictured here at an annual meeting in Phoenix in 2017, show his disappointment in the church for silencing victims and covering up misconduct. (Photo by Associated Press/Ross D. Franklin)

RNS/GroundTruth confirmed Williams’ past employment with The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Requests for confirmation at the other institutions went unanswered. Mohler has said in a tweet that his seminary “is aware of this investigation of James R. Williams, a student some years ago.” It added, “We encourage everyone to cooperate fully in this investigation. This is important and if you know anything, you must come forward.”

Dan Carman, one of her lawyers, said the SBC needs to deal more openly with its own failings to handle abuse and to make amends for the harm done to survivors.

“The church needs to own it,” he said. “When you have the quantum and quality of claims that have been brought forth, it’s incumbent upon the church and associated institutions to handle this. They’ve got to open the book.”

The complaint alleges that Williams’s father sexually and physically abused her while a student at Southern seminary, where he managed a bookstore owned by Lifeway and worked in security for the seminary in the early 2000s.

According to the complaint, the alleged abuse started when Williams was four or five years old and continued until she left home at 16.

“A particularly despicable form given that Williams was studying to be a Christian pastor was that he would ’baptize’ the Plaintiff as a form of punishment. Williams would fill up the bathtub, place the Plaintiff on her back, and forcibly submerge her while telling her that her ‘sin’ meant she needed to be baptized again,” the complaint alleges.

Williams told RNS/GroundTruth she was 8 years old the first time she recalls reporting abuse, contacting Southern Baptist church staff where she was living in Kingston, Tennessee, and describing what she alleges her father had done to her.

“Is this normal?” Williams remembers asking various pastors and church leaders over the years in a series of Facebook messages and private conversations. “I felt like something was wrong but I literally had nothing to compare it to.”

In these conversations, Williams said she described how her father had repeatedly raped and physically abused her. Williams described how she dreaded going to sleep, terrified her father would crawl into bed with her.

Their general response? “‘I’m praying for you,’” she recalled. “They wanted nothing to do with this situation.”

Williams, the oldest of six siblings, said she first contacted SBC local pastors and national leaders after she realized her father was also assaulting three of her younger siblings. Her mother severely beat her and her siblings and also sexually abused her two younger brothers, according to public statements by the four oldest siblings (the two youngest siblings are still in her parents’ custody).

The elder four siblings have filed police reports against their parents in several jurisdictions, alleging sexual and physical abuse. But in December, a detective in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, declined to prosecute, citing “factual issues and inconsistencies” among the siblings’ stories, according to the report.

Reports in more than 10 other jurisdictions in Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee remain under investigation.

Another attorney working on the case, Scott White, told Religion News Service that they have conducted hours of interviews with church staff who worked with her father. Williams provided RNS/GroundTruth with Facebook messages from 2010-2012 in which she contacted pastors and other church staff, alleging her parents’ neglect.

“They called me crazy, said I have a mental illness, that I’m a sinner and the enemy of the church for saying such things,” Williams said.

Hannah-Kate Williams first publicly shared her story of abuse in a 2019 Twitter post. In June 2021, Williams increased her abuse advocacy ahead of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual conference in Nashville and helped organize a joint statement with other survivors. (Photo by Silas Walker)

Williams is among hundreds of people who have said they were sexually abused by pastors and other leaders associated with SBC churches.

A landmark 2019 investigation by the Houston Chronicle found about 380 SBC church leaders and volunteers over a 20-year period who were involved in allegations of sexual misconduct — a figure that “includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned” — leaving behind more than 700 victims, nearly all children.

The report also brought to light decades of public warnings from survivors and advocates that had gone largely ignored.

For a decade before the Houston Chronicle report, Wade Burleson, a prominent Oklahoma pastor, had been urging SBC leadership to establish a database of known abusers so member churches could perform background checks before hiring ministers and staff. His resolutions were twice voted down at annual meetings.

After the Chronicle report appeared, the SBC began to do more to address the problem. Russell Moore, who at the time was president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, held a conference on sexual abuse, inviting prominent victim advocates. At the 2019 annual meeting, in Birmingham, Alabama, the denomination voted to allow its credentials committee to “disfellowship” churches that hired known sex offenders.

In June of this year, Hannah-Kate Williams came to the SBC annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee, with eight other women who had alleged sexual abuse and assault at the hands of Southern Baptist pastors or staff to advocate on behalf of sexual assault survivors. They drafted a statement calling on SBC leaders to investigate years of misconduct.

Near dawn on the second day of the meeting, Williams placed a copy of the statement on each one of the hall’s nearly 17,000 chairs. Hours later, she stood beside Grant Gaines, a pastor in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, as he proposed a motion calling for a formal audit of sexual abuse allegations that had gone uninvestigated in the SBC’s more than 47,000 churches.

The next day, as Williams stood outside the meeting hall handing copies of the statement to passing delegates, Mike Stone, a candidate for president of the convention, confronted her.

“He said I’m causing more harm to the SBC than good, and I’m not doing right by survivors,” Williams said. “So many people in the SBC fall blindly on good faith in their leaders.”

Stone promptly released a statement, denying being “unkind” to Williams in this interaction, but their conversation had already become the talk of the convention.

And her advocacy proved successful: The “messengers” to the meeting nearly unanimously approved the third-party audit and authorized an investigation into the Executive Committee’s alleged mishandling of the issue over the past two decades.

“That was the first time I’ve been in a room with SBC folks where I felt like the majority of the room was on the side of goodness, on the side of justice,” Williams said. “For the first time maybe ever, I have hope for this convention.”

While her outspokenness emboldened others to share their abuse stories and seek justice — and played a major role in decisions made at the June annual conference — it also left her vulnerable to harassment and bullying that only exploded after the meeting.

“There are pastors commenting online saying that I’m lying and that I deserve the death penalty,” Williams said. “They literally want me dead.”

After driving home to Lexington after the SBC annual meeting, Williams stayed off social media for a few days. When she eventually checked her accounts, she said, she found thousands of notifications. Many were expressions of solidarity from other sex abuse victims and advocates.

But more, she said, were fierce threats. After a long, exhausting week, the harassment drove her into a “mental collapse,” Williams said. “I just completely broke down reading what these people were saying about me.”

Hannah-Kate Williams, left, poses for a portrait with her sister, Maddie Rose Douglas (previously Rachel Williams), on the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington, Kentucky, June 26, 2021. (Photo by Silas Walker)

On June 19, after her appearance at the annual meeting, James Kip Farrar, a pastor at Aletheia Baptist Church in Indianapolis who ministered alongside Williams’ father, released a 15-minute video on Facebook denying Williams’ allegation that he covered up her father’s abuse.

“Hannah-Kate is a liar,” Farrar said in the video. “She is lying to you. Why? I do not know.”

Another video, by popular Reformed Baptist theologian A.D. Robles, followed on YouTube days later, analyzing Williams’ claims. He said that, according to “God’s law,” the church “mustn’t entertain an accusation against an elder unless there are two or three firsthand witnesses.” He goes on to say sex abuse should be a death penalty offense, according to the law of God, but if a false witness were to rise up, the person should receive the same punishment.

“What kind of man thinks: ‘I need to go online and talk about how a rape victim needs to be murdered’?” Williams said about Robles’ video.

Farrar and Robles did not respond to repeated requests for comment from RNS/GroundTruth.

The harassment weighs heavily on Williams, who suffers violent flashbacks that haunt her at night and frequent panic attacks.

But the bullying also poses physical danger: Late one recent night, Williams was kept awake by continual slams on her apartment’s front door. Fearing for her life amid the barrage of online bullying, she called the police for protection. Three officers patrolled outside her home between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. each night for weeks, the Lexington Police Department confirmed.

Fear of harassment, bullying and retaliation plays a major role in keeping victims silent: More than two-thirds of sexual assault cases go unreported, with the majority of victims citing fear of retaliation, according to statistics analyzed by RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization. Of those reported, less than 1% of sexual abuse cases lead to prison time for the perpetrator.

Experts like Rachael Denhollander and Diane Langberg say conservative evangelical denominations like the SBC foster a culture that protects perpetrators and attacks victims.

“When something is raised, it is not believed because they think: ‘Our church is blessed by God, and our leader is blessed by God. If we look into it, we’re going to destroy God,’” said Langberg, a Christian psychologist who specializes in sexual abuse trauma.

During Williams’ childhood, James Williams ministered in more than 20 cities throughout Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee, pushed from church to church for bad behavior, according to White, who said he corroborated employment with many of the institutions where James Williams allegedly worked.

Williams lived with her parents on and off until she was 24. She said she left many times — sometimes by her own choice or sometimes, she said, forced by her parents after they found out she had been talking. Her parents would cut off her communication from her siblings, she said, which is ultimately why she would return.

“My siblings were all I had through this living hell,” she said. “I would do anything to stay with them, even if it meant continuing dealing with my parents.”

In 2019, she left for the final time. Soon after, her sister, Maddie Rose Douglas, now 23, left too. Her two brothers, Micah and Joshua Williams, who have both alleged physical and sexual abuse by their parents, are now married and out of the house.

Their two youngest siblings, ages 13 and 10, are still in their parents’ custody. In 2019, Child Protective Services in Frankfort, Kentucky, conducted an assessment after receiving a complaint from a neighbor about potential physical and sexual abuse. CPS did not find any preliminary substantiated risk and declined to open an investigation, though the social worker reported she had “concerns of possible physical and sexual abuse,” according to the report, which Williams provided to RNS/GroundTruth.

“They are both still in the house with my parents,” Douglas told RNS/GroundTruth. “They aren’t safe there. It breaks my heart.”

An image of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn. on June 21, 2021 (Photo by Associated Press/Mark Humphrey)

White said he is “cautiously optimistic” they will win the civil case and he speculated that such an outcome would lead to the parents’ losing custody of the two youngest siblings. But, he said, “in situations where we have powerful people protected through a conspiracy of silence — particularly among an evangelical wing at the church that has good reason to hide such information — it is a very difficult argument.”

White emphasized that no matter what happens in court after the suit’s filing, “the mere courageous act of bringing up the case” moves the needle forward for all victims.

“Her truth is out there. Her response, her demand for justice, is remarkable to me,” he said. “She just refuses to be squashed like a bug. And that’s what people like the SBC, like the seminary, like her father are doing. They essentially want to try to squash her like a bug.”

Others within the Southern Baptist Convention are also pressing the SBC to take more action to prevent abuse and to care for survivors.

Gaines, the pastor who raised the motion at the conference calling for a more thorough audit, said that although the issue has been on his radar since the 2019 investigation, it wasn’t until Moore’s leaked letter surfaced that he realized the gravity of it.

“All these survivors have been telling their stories for years now. The letter just confirmed that,” Gaines said. “Now, let’s try to right those wrongs so we can move forward. We are not going to move forward if it means leaving survivors behind.”

In light of the investigation, Rolland Slade, an El Cajon, California, pastor and vice president of the SBC’s Executive Committee, invited abuse victims to message him and his wife, who is also a sexual abuse victim at the hands of church leaders. They cried together as they read the hundreds of messages that poured in, he said.

Slade recently urged pastors on Twitter to stop harassing Williams and other survivors of sexual abuse.

Williams credits Gaines, Slade and other pastors defending sexual abuse survivors for getting the motion for the third-party audit passed.
“They said: ‘I want to be your voice, you’ve been silenced for too long,’” Williams said. “They stood up against all of these men who acted like it was in our heads. We’ve been waiting for men of God to do this.”

Even amid all of the bullying, Williams’ outspokenness on social media has also created a network of support, which has saved her life, she said.

“Before she started sharing online, I was just one of a few people who knew her story and were in her support system. I was just trying to help her stay alive,” said Williams’ friend and podcast host, Nick Laparra, who accompanied Williams, Douglas and Micah Williams to file police reports against their parents in Frankfort in 2019.

Abuse advocate Hannah-Kate Williams poses in Lexington, Kentucky, June 26, 2021. (Photo by Silas Walker)

Laparra recalled “countless” instances over the course of that year when he either physically or verbally stopped Williams from taking her own life. He spent hours almost every day on the phone with her for nearly nine months, he said.

“A year ago, she was hardly able to talk about this. This is a whole new Hannah,” Laparra said. “I’m just praying and hoping for her sake that the right people get prosecuted.”

This recent taste of justice offers Williams some comfort — and she is heartened to know her advocacy could spare others from abuse — but, she says, the damage has already been done.

“Every day is a battle of telling myself, I deserve to be alive,” she said. “That I deserve to have the things I need.”

A version of this story appeared on Religion News Service on AUGUST 17, 2021