Hannah-Kate Williams sues Southern Baptist Convention, claiming defamation, failure to investigate sex abuse

In June, a Kentucky woman asked the Southern Baptist Convention to investigate sexual abuse by ministers within the denomination.  

Now, Hannah-Kate Williams is suing the powerful evangelical religious organization, and its key leaders, alleging church leaders failed to adequately investigate Williams’ own reports in 2019, defamed her as a liar and “conspired to protect the Baptist denomination from a problem of sexual abuse of minors or other vulnerable populations.” 

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 16 in the Franklin County, Kentucky Circuit Court, names her father, James Williams, and multiple Southern Baptist leaders and institutions. Those defendants include The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Lifeway Christian Resources, the SBC Executive Committee, and committee members Mike Stone and Rod Martin. 

The complaint alleges SBC leaders tried to discredit Hannah-Kate Williams’ alleged abuse and called her a “liar.” The complaint cites social media posts from members of the SBC executive committee and other SBC leaders where they allegedly called her a “liar,” “fraud” and accused her of making up the allegations. 

The Southern Baptist Convention is the organizing body for more than 47,000 churches across the U.S. They count their denominational membership at 14 million Southern Baptist adherents, according to data from LifeWay Christian Resources. 

The lawsuit alleges James Williams abused his daughter in the early 2000s while he was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a manager at a bookstore owned by LifeWay. According to the complaint, the alleged abuse started when Hannah-Kate Williams was 4 or 5 years old and continued until she first left home at 16. 

Reckon was unable to verify James Williams’ current employment status. Efforts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.  

In the filing, Williams said she was raped by her father, a former Southern Baptist minister, then endured a forced abortion which she says a deacon at her church helped perform.  

The complaint also describes religious-themed physical abuse, where James Williams would “baptize” Hannah-Kate Williams as a punishment for her sins.  

“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. 

Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, issued a statement about the filing. In the statement, Mohler said the seminary held an internal investigation into Williams’ alleged abuse in 2019 and found no one who said they had any knowledge of or took steps to conceal such abuse.  

“We committed to Hannah Kate in 2019 that Southern Seminary would take all actions that were within our power to take at that time and would cooperate fully with any investigation of these charges,” Mohler said in the statement. “That commitment continues to the present.” 

Williams came forward about the abuse she says she and her siblings suffered at the hands of her parents in 2019. She claimed church leaders around her did not act when she reported her abuse.

“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, told Religion News Service.  

In June,  the Southern Baptist Convention met in Nashville, where the convention made headlines when protestors demanded the leadership address pastoral sexual abuse convictions and allegations of cover ups of the behavior.  At the conference, the SBC proposed and passed a motion to create a task force to oversee a third-party review of past and future sexual abuse claims.  

This task force will handle investigations into claims of sexual abuse, mishandling of abuse, mistreatment of victims, patterns of intimidation of victims or advocates and any resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives.  

As of Wednesday, no other actions have been filed in the lawsuit.  

The Reckon Report.
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