Daughter of pastor sues Southern Baptist Convention, Louisville seminary after alleged abuse

Published: May. 20, 2022 at 10:52 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Hannah Kate Williams filed a lawsuit Friday, alleging the Southern Baptist Convention and its seminary failed to protect her and other children from the abuse of her father, who was also employed by the organization as a pastor.

“Imagine being told that the more the sexual abuse hurts, the more pleased God is,” Williams said. “And so it’s very extensive, torturous type of abuse that not only I but my siblings experienced as well.”

She said the physical abuse started when she was four, and the sexual abuse started when she was eight.

“My father, my abuser, would baptize me, and that baptism would also work as a type of waterboarding,” Williams said.

When she turned to church leaders for help, she said instead of stepping in, they praised her father’s behavior.

“To come out of the abuse and to expect freedom to look a certain way, to expect it to be joyous and to expect the church to embrace you for doing the right thing for telling the truth,” Williams said, “only to be harassed and to be threatened and to be told you are an enemy of God and you are destroying the domination that you’ve only ever known.”

Even though she is 27, a recent Kentucky law extends the statute of limitations for child abuse survivors. It also requires the actual complaint to be sealed, so WAVE News does not have access to the lawsuit.

Williams’ lawyer also filed to have it unsealed Friday.

That’s not the only way she is hoping for justice though.

A 300-page report from an independent investigation looking into 20 years of these types of complaints at the SBC is supposed to be released Sunday.

“There’s a legitimate fear... that they’ll come back with thoughts and prayers, but no action,” Williams said.

She said regardless of what’s in that report or what happens with this lawsuit, she still has her faith.

She left the church two years ago after finding a new community on Twitter.

“I have learned that the God that the Southern Baptist convention gave me for 24 years of my life, the God that they presented as abusive, as manipulative, as harsh, as condemning, that is not the God who loves me and fights for me,” Williams said.

WAVE reached out to the Southern Baptist Convention for comment. They told us they have not received the lawsuit and will respond when they do.

Here is the complete release from Williams’ lawyers describing the complaint.

“Today, attorney Vanessa B. Cantley of Bahe Cook Cantley & Nefzger and Brian Kent of Laffey, Bucci & Kent, LLP announce that they represent Hannah Kate Williams (“Plaintiff”) an alleged victim of James Ray Williams (“Defendant”). A lawsuit has been filed against Defendant, his former employer Lifeway Christian Resources of The Southern Baptist Convention (“Lifeway”), the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as its affiliated religious non-profit entities, Executive Committee of The Southern Baptist Convention, Inc. (EC) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Inc (SBTS). The Complaint alleges that Defendant, a former seminary student of SBTS in Louisville, Kentucky and employee of LifeWay, engaged in unlawful, harmful, and offensive sexual conduct and physical abuse with Ms. Williams who is Defendant’s daughter. The Complaint alleges that SBTS negligently failed to act to protect Ms. Williams or other children in Defendant’s care after SBTS learned of the abuse from an employee.

“Defendant James Ray Williams had access to countless children in his multiple positions working for SBTS,” said Cantley. “After all the harm he caused, the Defendants’ collective failure to act to protect Hannah Kate, her siblings, and other children is grossly negligent.” The Complaint further alleges that the church defendants engaged in a concerted effort to discredit, malign, and threaten Hannah Kate Williams as she attempted to seek redress for her abuse, causing her extreme emotional distress. The Complaint alleges years of sexual and physical abuse that started when Ms. Williams was just four or five years old, beginning with Defendant holding Ms. Williams underwater in the bathtub for extended periods of time to “baptize” Plaintiff for her “sins.” The Complaint alleges that Defendant used this form of physically and psychologically abusive “punishment” on some or all his other children. The Complaint further alleges that when Ms. Williams was eight years old, James Ray Williams began sexually abusing her. Ms. Williams reported the abuse to Defendant’s employer at an SBTS-run day camp; the report was spurred by Ms. Williams experiencing extreme fear of water while other children were playing in the camp pool. After Plaintiff’s report, based on information and belief, SBTS was notified of Defendant’s conduct toward her and took no action against Defendant, despite Defendant’s proximity to other children, including Ms. Williams’ much younger siblings. Ms. Williams made a second attempt to report Defendant’s conduct to an SBTS elder when she was 24. Thereafter, as alleged in the Complaint, SBTS took no corrective actions, or actions internally to investigate or report to law enforcement Plaintiff’s allegations of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse against Defendant.

As alleged in the Complaint, in response to Plaintiff’s first report, SBTS relocated Defendant to other SBTS facilities and parishes and allowed him to remain in SBTS’ employ in various jobs and locations. As Plaintiff grew older and attempted to seek redress for the years of abuse she suffered at the hands of the Defendant, the Complaint alleges that the Southern Baptist Convention and EC engaged in a concerted effort to undermine Plaintiff’s credibility, malign her character, and threaten her through social media (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter) and at several public church-sponsored events. As alleged in the Complaint, at one point The Southern Baptist Convention and its members’ harassment of Hannah Kate Williams was so extreme that Lexington, Kentucky police officers patrolled outside Plaintiff’s home.

“After knowing the full details of what happened to me, the church turned around and not only blamed the victim, but they actively encouraged animus toward me and weaponized the spread of lies and vitriol against me—to the point I needed police protection,” Ms. Williams said. “We encourage anyone who may have experienced inappropriate conduct or sexual abuse by Williams, or sexual abuse by any other employee of the Southern Baptist Convention to come forward,” said Kent. “The church must be held accountable for its negligence and the harm it has caused Hannah Kate, and we believe, many others.”

If anyone has information about James Ray Williams, or if they have been a victim of abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, they can call Bahe Cook Cantley & Nefzger at (502) 587-2002 or Laffey, Bucci & Kent’s law firm hotline at 855-382-3385.”

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