Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]
May 31, 2022
By Mark Wingfield
A large-scale lawsuit against the Southern Baptist Convention alleging a coverup of sexual abuse has been refiled by a new set of attorneys for Hannah Kate Williams.
An earlier version of the same charges had been filed in a Kentucky circuit court Aug. 16, 2021, but some months later was withdrawn. The new suit was filed by two nationally known attorneys specializing in abuse who now represent Williams.
The new lawsuit has been largely overlooked in the national media — perhaps because it was announced just two days prior to publication of the SBC’s massive report on sexual abuse.
On Friday, May 20, attorneys Vanessa B. Cantley and Brian Kent announced that they now represent Williams, who has been an outspoken advocate for reform in the SBC. Due to a recent change in Kentucky law, cases of this nature must be filed under seal, so Baptist News Global has not been able to obtain the actual complaint.
However, according to Cantley and Kent, Williams contends she was the victim of repeated sexual abuse by her father, James Ray Williams. He is not the only defendant named in the suit, however. Williams — as with the earlier suit — also names Lifeway Christian Resources, the SBC, the SBC Executive Committee, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The earlier version of the lawsuit also named several individuals related to these Baptist entities, but the new suit does not appear to include any individuals other than James Ray Williams.
The new complaint alleges that James Ray Williams, while a student at Southern Seminary and while employed by Lifeway at the campus bookstore, “engaged in unlawful, harmful and offensive sexual conduct and physical abuse” with his daughter.
The suit alleges that Southern Seminary “negligently failed to act to protect Ms. Williams or other children in defendant’s care” even after learning of the abuse from another employee. By previous public accounts of Hannah Kate Williams’ story, she reported her father’s abuse to a seminary student employee who taught swim classes at the campus recreation center and yet no help ever came for her.
Southern Seminary President Al Mohler has apologized to Williams, has expressed sympathy for her case and has said he had no knowledge of the abuse until Williams herself told him about it 16 years later.
In explaining the scope of the charges, attorney Cantley said: “Defendant James Ray Williams had access to countless children in his multiple positions working for SBTS. 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 SBC officials “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,” according to Cantley.
Hannah Kate Williams alleges that her father began abusing her when she was 4 or 5 years old and would hold her under water in the bathtub to “baptize” her for her “sins.” The sexual abuse began when she was 8 years old, she said.
The SBC and its Executive Committee are named in the suit because Williams alleges denominational leaders “engaged in a concerted effort to undermine (her) credibility, malign her character, and threaten her through social media … and at several public church-sponsored events.”
That behavior is consistent with a pattern reported in the independent investigation of the Executive Committee conducted by Guidepost Solutions.
Williams contends the retribution against her was so severe that Lexington, Ky., police officers patrolled outside her 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,” she said.
The new attorneys representing Williams are highly experienced in similar cases. Kent is a founding partner of the Philadelphia firm Laffey, Bucci and Kent. He previously represented survivors of Jerry Sandusky’s abuse at Penn State. Cantley is a personal injury attorney with the Louisville firm Bahe Cook Cantley and Nefzger.
In a statement May 20, Kent said the attorneys would like to hear from any other alleged victims of abuse by James Ray Williams: “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. The church must be held accountable for its negligence and the harm it has caused Hannah Kate, and we believe, many others.”