A sweeping lawsuit filed by a victim of alleged sexual abuse at the hands of her Baptist pastor father alleges a conspiracy among several Southern Baptist Convention entities and individuals to defame her and squelch her pleas for relief.
The suit, filed in Kentucky’s Franklin Circuit Court Aug. 16, is brought by Hannah Kate Williams, who has been an outspoken advocate for the SBC to address problems of sexual abuse in churches. Her work contributed to a decision by convention messengers in June to name a special task force to investigate the SBC Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse claims.
Williams alleges that 12 named defendants “have engaged in a defamatory conspiracy to marginalize and negate her advocacy in the perverted and un-Christian desperate hope that the denomination can skirt its own culpability in the damage inflicted” upon Williams by her father, James Ray Williams.
It further alleges that “since her advocacy began, the powers in the Southern Baptist denomination have intentionally and concertedly acted to silence her, lie about her, and deny her truth.”
Link to Russell Moore letters
Her claim is linked to letters from Russell Moore, former head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, that became public just before the SBC annual meeting in June and that document some SBC leaders attempting to discredit and silence claims of sexual abuse. Based on Moore’s documentation, the suit alleges, it is likely that Williams was one of those the SBC leaders were seeking to discredit or silence.
This also fits a pattern, she alleges, of other prominent leaders, including staff members at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and elected members of the SBC Executive Committee, engaging in a “conspiracy to silence her or frame her as a liar, charlatan or crazy person.”
The suit lists eight instances in which individuals named as defendants used social media to publicly discredit Williams, calling her a liar, not a godly person, a political operative, sick, evil and a fraud.
One of those so named is Georgia pastor Mike Stone, who narrowly failed in his bid to become president of the SBC this summer. He served as chairman of the SBC Executive Committee at the time the alleged mishandling of sexual abuse claims occurred. He and Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd were singled out in the Russell Moore correspondence for mishandling or attempting to squelch claims of sexual abuse in SBC churches.
The lawsuit names the SBC Executive Committee, Southern Seminary, Lifeway Christian Resources, Williams’ father, and eight other SBC figures, including Stone. It does not name Floyd. The other named defendants include a professor at Southern Seminary, five current or past members of the Executive Committee, and one former SBC officer.
Williams’ story of abuse
Williams has been telling the same story of her abusive childhood home for several years, and according to other press reports at least two of her four younger siblings now have leveled accusations of abuse at their parents. Williams, 26, is the eldest daughter of James and Regina Williams, who currently live in Frankfort, Ky.
The lawsuit asserts as a matter of fact that a domestic violence hearing was held in Fayette County, Ky., district court on Oct. 28, 2020, where James Williams “admitted the truth of all the conduct alleged herein.” BNG could not independently verify this claim, as the district court records are not available online.
The conduct Williams alleges against her father begins when she was around age 4 or 5, when she says her pastor father began “baptizing” her in the home bathtub as punishment for misbehavior. Then the week of her eighth birthday, she alleges, her father began sexually abusing her, beginning a pattern that she describes as “ongoing and regular.”
During this time, her father was both a student and an employee of Southern Seminary, where he was jointly employed by Lifeway to run the campus Baptist Bookstore.
According to the lawsuit, Williams first reported her abuse to a Southern Seminary employee in the summer of 2003. She and a brother were attending a “Kidsfit” physical education class at the seminary’s recreation center. The unnamed employee leading the class could not persuade Williams and her brother to participate in an aquatic activity in the center’s large swimming pool.
“When asked why, the plaintiff responded she did not want to get baptized,” the lawsuit explains. “The Kidsfit instructor asked what she meant, and plaintiff described what her father did to them as punishment involved a bathtub and was called baptism.” She also reported to the instructor that her father touched her inappropriately.
The suit contends that the child’s report to an adult of sexual abuse in her home did not prompt an investigation or any follow-up to her knowledge. Also during this time, her father as a seminary student, received several pastoral placements in Baptist churches facilitated by the seminary.
Seeking justice from seminary
Sixteen years later, in October 2019, Williams, then age 24, sought once again to obtain justice from Southern Seminary. She and one of her brothers met with seminary President Al Mohler and told him the story of their abuse. According to the lawsuit, their intent was to find some way to hold their father accountable for his wrongdoing and to protect younger siblings still living in the home.
Mohler, according to their account, said he would pray for the family and then had no further contact with them.
That same month, Mohler was using the platform of his “Daily Briefing” podcast to lament the threat of transgender children, claiming for example the story of a 7-year-old girl seeking to identify as a boy illustrates “our culture’s mass delusion.” He also warned of the necessity of two-parent families to raise children properly. A search of his near-daily words finds no mention of child abuse or clergy sexual abuse.
In response to the new lawsuit, Mohler issued a 660-word statement confirming that he met with Williams and her brother as the suit claims.
“Immediately upon learning of this matter, Southern Seminary reported this to the Louisville Metro Police Department, the Sex Crimes Unit, and the Crimes Against Children Unit,” he wrote. “These are serious allegations, and I was saddened by the story that Hannah Kate and Micah told me and the pain that they obviously had endured. … I still take seriously these allegations and hope that the authorities will conduct a full investigation.”
Despite Williams’ claim that neither she nor her brother heard anything more from Mohler after their meeting, Mohler said that after the meeting, “we worked to identify individuals within Southern Seminary with whom we could talk who had known about this abuse and neglect, which had reportedly taken place more than a decade earlier. 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. Hannah Kate indicated she had told a student at Southern at the time, but that student was deceased, and we could not find anyone to corroborate this.”
The seminary still intends to “cooperate fully with any investigation of these charges,” he said while adding: “I urge anyone with information regarding these claims to come forward and cooperate fully with authorities.”
“I urge anyone with information regarding these claims to come forward and cooperate fully with authorities.”
Mohler also revealed in the statement that the seminary has contracted with Guidepost Solutions “to conduct a full review of Southern’s policies and procedures … to ensure that they serve to protect everyone in the Southern and Boyce College community and provide an avenue for the prompt and confidential reporting of any issues of abuse.”
Guidepost Solutions is the same firm that Ronnie Floyd and the SBC Executive Committee hired — just days before the SBC annual meeting — to investigate themselves and report findings back to themselves, in what was perceived to be a preemptory strike against convention messengers launching their own investigation of the Executive Committee. Messengers overruled that diversion, however, and empowered the SBC president, Ed Litton of Alabama, to name a special task force to handle the investigation of Floyd, Stone and the Executive Committee and report back to the convention, not to the Executive Committee.
Williams’ claims against the Executive Committee and Lifeway
Citing Russell Moore’s leaked letters, among other sources, Williams asserts she has “joined with many women and some men who have been victims of such abuse in Baptist churches and institutions by clergy and other employees and agents of the denomination.” She claims the SBC through its Executive Committee, Lifeway and Southern Seminary “have ignored this reality and chosen to minimize or ignore it.”
The result, the suit charges, is that clergy such as her father have been “passed along” from church to church with no denominational intervention — even when convention officials knew there were credible accusations made.
The suit seeks damages for defamation and civil conspiracy from the plaintiffs.
“The Executive Committee will review the pleading and will respond appropriately in court, not in the media.”
For its part, the Executive Committee issued a two-sentence response: “The Executive Committee is aware of the filing, and it takes allegations of any form of abuse seriously. The Executive Committee will review the pleading and will respond appropriately in court, not in the media.”
Lifeway is a named defendant because of Williams’ father’s employment at the campus bookstore, which was outsourced to Lifeway. A spokesperson for Lifeway did not respond to BNG’s request for comment.
Parallels to Southwestern Seminary lawsuit
Williams’ charges against Southern Seminary are similar in some ways to another lawsuit that has been pending against Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and its former president, Paige Patterson, since 2019. That suit currently is working its way through federal district court in Texas, where last week both the seminary and Patterson filed motions asking for summary judgments to dismiss most or all the charges against them. The judge has not yet ruled on those requests.
This case, brought by an anonymous woman identified only as Jane Roe, involves allegations of a female student at Southwestern being stalked, raped and repeatedly abused by a male student who also was a seminary employee with access to her campus living space. The suit contends that the seminary and Patterson are liable for not protecting her, although she did not report the abusive behavior to seminary officials until several months after it allegedly happened.
Patterson’s mishandling of this case — he reportedly told other seminary officials he needed to “break her down” to silence her — led to Patterson’s dismissal by seminary trustees in 2018. Patterson previously had been accused of mishandling sexual abuse claims at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, where he previously served as president.
At one point, a trial date had been indicated for September of this year, but the court’s docket does not currently indicate when the jury trial might begin.
SBC task force
Williams’ lawsuit against the Executive Committee and others comes at a precipitous time, due the recent formation of the SBC’s special task force investigating allegations of mishandled sexual abuse claims.
That task force has just begun its work, led by two men, and with only two of the seven members being women. Bruce Frank, lead pastor of Biltmore Baptist Church of Arden, N.C., serves as chairman, and Marshall Blalock, pastor of First Baptist Church of Charleston, S.C., serves as vice chairman.
On Aug. 6, the task force issued a public call for proposals from firms interested in conducting the review, apparently indicating that the task force is not committed to Guidepost Solutions, the firm previously hired by the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee has paused its original contract with Guideposts while awaiting further information from the task force, a spokesman said.