These women say they were sexually abused by Southern Baptist leaders. Now they’re forcing a reckoning

Tens of thousands gathered in June at the Music City Center in Nashville for the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual conference. For the many women who have been speaking out about sexual assault within the nation’s largest evangelical denomination, the conference marked a long-awaited change of course: The Southern Baptist Convention nearly unanimously approved a third-party audit of sexual abuse allegations within its more than 47,000 churches. It also authorized an investigation into a suspected widespread coverup by the Executive Committee.

This week, Southern Baptist executives reaffirmed the probe into the church’s handling of sex abuse allegations, and a vote on whether it’ll waive attorney-client privilege for the purposes of the investigation is expected.

These developments come after a landmark investigation in 2019 by the Houston Chronicle revealed that more than 250 pastors and church leaders in the SBC had been charged with sex crimes in the past 20 years, affecting more than 700 victims. Overwhelmingly, the victims were children. Most of them were girls.

The persistence of sexual abuse among conservative evangelical denominations like the SBC is rooted both in theology and in culture, according to Diane Winston, a religion and media professor at the University of Southern California. Bound by the ideals of male headship and extreme sexual purity, she said, evangelical men in power are often held even less accountable than men in other institutions.

For years, Southern Baptist delegates resisted reform. They rejected proposals to track predators in SBC churches and to investigate survivors’ allegations. But the decision at its June conference was a marked change in course.

“All these survivors have been telling their stories for years now,” said Grant Gaines, a Southern Baptist pastor in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who raised the motion for the audit. “Now, let’s try to right those wrongs so we can move forward.”

Here are the stories of three women who allege that the Southern Baptist Convention failed to protect them from abuse. Two of them are sisters who both say their father, a Southern Baptist minister, abused them for years. Another woman says she was assaulted by her youth pastor more than two decades ago.

“People are terrified to come forward, they are terrified to feel the deep well of grief they are often hiding,” said Diane Langberg, a Christian trauma therapist who specializes in sexual abuse. “Who wants to sob? Nobody wants to sob. Who wants to face who that little girl or boy could have been if the abuse hadn’t happened?”

‘They literally want me dead’

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

In late June, in the dark, quiet hours between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., three police officers patrolled a parking lot in Lexington, Ky., for weeks, guarding Hannah-Kate Williams’s apartment.

Williams’s home near the University of Kentucky is in one of the safest neighborhoods in the city. But ever since she alleged that the Southern Baptist Convention covered up the story of her sexual abuse at the hands of her father, James Williams — particularly after she advocated on behalf of survivors at the SBC conference in June — she has feared for her life, she said.

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

Those comments came after Williams publicly alleged that her father, a Southern Baptist pastor who ministered at more than 20 churches throughout her childhood, repeatedly raped her, starting as far back as Williams can remember. In her teens, she said, she realized that he was also assaulting three of her younger siblings. In 2019, soon after Williams first came forward, all three of those siblings posted their own statements about the sexual abuse on social media, corroborating Williams’s story.

James Williams did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

For years, Hannah-Kate Williams said, she attempted to report the abuse to various SBC leaders and local church staff members. And on Aug. 16, she filed suit against various SBC entities and individuals, alleging that they mishandled her reports of her father’s abuse. Her attorney, Scott White, said he spent months interviewing SBC employees who had worked with her father; they confirmed Williams’s reports of neglect, but none said they knew about the sexual abuse.

Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the entities listed as a defendant in Williams’s suit, maintains that there has been no coverup of abuse reports in the seminary. (Williams’s father once worked at the school.) “I urge anyone with information regarding these claims to come forward and cooperate fully with authorities,” he said in a statement after Williams filed the lawsuit. Mohler said that Williams and one of her brothers reported the abuse to him directly in 2019 and that the seminary immediately ran an internal investigation. “Despite our efforts, we found no one who told us they had any knowledge of such abuse and neglect or who had taken any steps to conceal it,” Mohler said.

Williams has amassed a large social media following since going public with her abuse allegations in 2019, and she is now a leading voice among survivors pushing the SBC toward justice. She has also become a target of bullying and harassment.

After the SBC conference in Nashville, Williams took a “much needed” social media break after advocating online for days.

When she eventually checked her notifications, she found a deluge of messages, many of which were threats from pastors and church staff angry about her accusations, according to Williams.

“For three days, it was constant notifications to the point that I couldn’t look at the screen,” she said. “I just completely broke down reading what these people were saying about me.”

After a recent night when Williams was kept awake by continual slams on her apartment’s front door, she called the police, who patrolled outside for three weeks, the Lexington Police Department confirmed.

Fear of harassment and bullying, like the kind Williams describes, can play a major role in keeping survivors silent: More than two-thirds of sexual assault cases go unreported, and survivors often cite fear of retaliation, according to statistics analyzed by RAINN, an anti-sexual-violence organization.

Williams now grapples with her sense of identity, she said. She feels she’s become a sort of political pawn that the media and theologians use to make a point. Amid the harassment, without her faith and without much family — her relationship with her adult siblings became strained throughout the trauma, she said — she wants to know who she is besides an advocate for other survivors.

In recent months, she’s found one such identity at the University of Kentucky, where she just completed her first year on a dual political science and law track. She wants to become a lawyer, to “give a voice to the voiceless, like I once was,” she said. All her life, her father discouraged her from pursuing school, Williams said. Now, she’s finding academic success.

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

‘The rot runs deep’

Jules Woodson, a flight attendant, was enjoying a rare overnight layover with a leisurely morning coffee and the paper in November 2017.

But when she saw the front page of the newspaper, she began to shake with anger: Former “Today” show anchor Matt Lauer had been fired from NBC after being accused of sexual misconduct.

“I was overwhelmingly furious and vindicated at the same time,” Woodson recalled. “I was like: ‘Oh my gosh, yes, he should be fired. He shouldn’t be allowed to resign, like my abuser did.’”

Soon after that moment — and nearly 20 years after her own assault — she publicly shared on a blog for survivors of clergy abuse that her youth pastor at the Southern Baptist church she attended throughout her childhood assaulted her when she was 17. Shortly after that post, Andy Savage, Woodson’s youth pastor, admitted to having a “sexual incident with a female high school senior in the church” and later resigned from his job as a teaching pastor at High Point Church, an evangelical megachurch with two campuses in Tennessee. (Savage did not respond to requests for comment.)

Woodson grew up in an evangelical Christian household in The Woodlands, Tex., a small, wealthy city near Houston. She and her family went to church weekly at Woodlands Parkway Baptist. Her mother taught at a private Christian elementary academy, and Woodson and her sister studied almost daily in her church’s youth program, Woodson said.

Savage offered to drive her home one night after a youth group gathering and asked her for sex acts, Woodson said. She felt pressured — he was an authority figure and her ordained minister — and did what he asked, performing oral sex, she said.

Woodson reported the assault to her church leaders the next day, expecting them to fire Savage and perhaps offer her counseling.

Instead, she said, “they blamed me, calling it a mutual sin. Andy got to go on the next day — business as usual. It completely destroyed my life.”

Larry Cotton, the pastor to whom Woodson reported the abuse when it occurred, also resigned, from Austin Stone Community Church, after she went public.

“I now understand that I did not do enough to serve Jules and help her feel protected and cared for,” Cotton wrote in a letter to church members in 2018. “I understand that I failed to report the sexual abuse — I wish I had reported to the proper authorities.” (Cotton did not respond to requests for comment.)

After the assault, Woodson’s life quickly began to buckle, she said. Unable to endure the sense of betrayal she felt, she stopped going to church. She became ostracized from her family, she said, and couldn’t focus on her studies at Texas Christian University after being hospitalized for major depression and anxiety, dropping out of school before graduating.

“When abuse happens in the church, it’s spiritual abuse,” she said. “It’s your whole faith, your embodiment, everything that you are is affected.”

Although Savage resigned from High Point Church shortly after Woodson publicly shared her story, he has since opened his own church, Grace Valley Church, in Memphis.

“As a college student on staff at a church in Texas more than 20 years ago, I regretfully had a sexual incident with a female high school senior in the church,” Savage had said to his congregation at High Point in 2018. He received a standing ovation from the audience for the public apology.

More than two decades after her assault, Woodson believes that the SBC’s culture of coverups and protection for powerful men has not changed.

“The rot runs deep. People don’t even know who’s friends with who, who’s covered for who,” Woodson said. “The way the church responds now is constantly retraumatizing, and really no different than the way it did 20 years ago.”

The energy around the #MeToo movement uncorked Woodson’s rage, and she has since joined a growing number of SBC abuse survivors advocating for transparency and justice. Woodson, a single mother of three who now lives in Colorado Springs, is one of just a few SBC survivors whose abusers have publicly admitted to the allegations.

Savage’s voluntary resignation, though, hardly equates to any kind of justice in Woodson’s eyes.

“What he did, it changed me,” she said. “It changed me. Even if I was honest, it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter in the church.”

‘I want to feel free from having to look over my shoulder’

Maddie Rose Douglas poses on the University of Kentucky’s campus in June 2020. (Photo by Silas Walker)

Maddie Rose Douglas was having a panic attack in the passenger’s seat. Her boyfriend took his eyes off the road to comfort her and ran a red light.

A speeding car crossing the intersection in Georgetown, Ky., plowed into the driver’s side. Her boyfriend’s Honda Civic flipped three times.

Douglas, then 20, remembers only the sound of an emergency medical technician sawing through metal to pull her from the wreckage before all went black.

With several broken bones, a severe concussion and three brain hemorrhages, Douglas remained in the hospital, barely conscious, for weeks. This is when she began to talk in her sleep.

“Dad, get off of me. I want you to stop,” the family friends she was living with at the time heard her say.

According to Jeff and Kelly Douglas, the family friends, she also apparently requested that her biological parents, James and Gina Williams, not be allowed alone with her in her hospital room. When she regained full consciousness three weeks later, the family friends, who are now her adopted parents, encouraged her to tell them her story.

“It was like a river pouring out of me,” Maddie Rose Douglas said. “Once I accidentally started talking about it, I couldn’t stop.”

Until the car crash, she said, Douglas hadn’t spoken a word about the sexual abuse she says she endured throughout her childhood at the hands of her father. Starting when she was around 12, she says, he raped her almost weekly, along with her older sister, Hannah-Kate Williams. He physically beat her and her siblings, too, Douglas says.

As kids, Williams said, she tried to protect Douglas, saying she is the older sister and felt it was her duty. But since they have both left the house and started their own lives, their relationship has been strained. “We see each other intermittently,” Williams said. “We sort of — all of the siblings really — trigger each other. It will take time, I hope.”

These days, Douglas said, she and her sister largely avoid talking about the abuse. And as she experiences frequent flashbacks and doesn’t want to trigger Williams, she said she often avoids contact. “I think our histories are things we try to hide from each other to protect each other,” she said.

For more than a decade of near-constant physical and sexual abuse, Douglas remained silent out of fear, she said: fear that her father would find out and punish her, fear of no one believing her, fear that the church would blame her for being a temptress and, most of all, fear of being separated from her younger sisters, who are now 13 and 10.

“Anytime I threatened to tell, he said he’d kick me out and cut off all ties to my siblings,” she said. “I needed to stay in the abuse to protect them.”

Although she endures lasting physical and mental ailments from her car accident, in some ways, she views it as a miracle. It is what got her to break her silence, she said.

Soon after the crash, and a few months after Williams went public, Douglas posted her story on Twitter and filed police reports about the abuse in several jurisdictions. The allegations against her parents remain under investigation.

Douglas said she fears retaliation from her father and the church, particularly in light of the bullying Williams now faces, but continues to post about the abuse on her social media channels. She seeks safety for her younger sisters, who are still in her parents’ custody, she said. Neither she nor Williams are able to contact them at home, they said.

Last year, the Douglases, who had been at the hospital after the accident, offered to officially adopt her. She then legally changed her name from Rachel Williams, marking a pivotal moment in her path of healing, she said.

“I didn’t want my father to own me anymore,” she said. “It’s symbolic, but it really means so much to me.”

Douglas is recovering from the compounded physical and mental effects of the car accident. Through intensive trauma therapy, she is coming to terms with her past, she said. A year ago, she struggled with daily flashbacks of the alleged abuse. Now, she said, they happen only a few times a month.

She is also in school, earning a degree in investigative journalism at the University of Arizona’s online program. She wants to learn how to hold institutions accountable.

Douglas is still deeply religious and attends Millville Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky., with her new family. She said the church supports her in her darkest moments.

“They rally around me and remind me of God’s love for me,” she said. “I wouldn’t be alive today without those people.”

The last Douglas heard, her biological father still lives in Frankfort, the same city as Douglas and her adopted family. Every Sunday in church, she prays that justice will be served.

“I want to feel free from having to look over my shoulder, every time I walk down the street, every time I cross an intersection,” Douglas said. “I’m afraid he’s just going to show up.”

Megan Botel is a Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow at The GroundTruth Project.

A version of this story appeared on THE LILY on September 21, 2021