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Southern Baptist Church abuse survivor calls for accountability from leadership

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Southern Baptist Convention released the names of hundreds of people accused of sexual abuse. Hannah-Kate Williams is a survivor of abuse within the church order. She's been advocating for the release of the names to hold the SBC accountable for its complicity. And a warning - this topic may be triggering to some of our listeners. Hannah-Kate Williams joins me now. Welcome to the program.

HANNAH-KATE WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: You filed a defamation lawsuit in 2021 against the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and multiple others. Can you share a little bit about what led you to filing that lawsuit?

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. So at the time when I filed the lawsuit, it was just after the 2021 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, where I had brought a motion to the floor with some other survivors asking for a third-party investigation into abuse committed by and covered up by the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. As the weeks passed, we soon realized, my legal counsel and I, that I was being attacked by thousands of people online, pastors, leaders. My address was being posted. I had police outside of my door for three weeks because I was getting death threats. My name was being maligned, and my abuse was continuing to not be addressed. I had been told by various Southern Baptist leaders and attorneys at the time that I was beyond the statute of limitations to file a suit. However, last year, the law in the state of Kentucky, where much of the abuse happened, changed, and it gave me another year to file a complaint against the Southern Baptist Convention for a cover-up.

RASCOE: Well, what happened with that lawsuit?

WILLIAMS: So I voluntarily withdrew the previous lawsuit so that I could come back under the provisions of the new law and actually hold them accountable for the entirety of their crimes versus just the defamation of my character.

RASCOE: As one of the survivors, how do you feel this week now that the names of the abusers have been made public? Do you feel vindicated?

WILLIAMS: In a lot of ways, yes. There is a sense of relief and vindication. However, it's important to remember that the report was not a fully independent report. It may have been a third-party report, but it was still funded and directed by the Southern Baptist Convention. We even see that in the responses from the executive committee since the release of the report. They just gave us a 205-page list of abusers, but most of those have been redacted. So we can't even, as survivors, see who the Southern Baptist Convention has identified as abusive people over the last 20 years.

RASCOE: I mean, do you think that either your lawsuit against the SBC or, you know, this report will move the needle on holding the organization accountable for all of these allegations of abuse?

WILLIAMS: I believe that the report is a good window of opportunity for people to see the vast problem there is across the denomination. However, I think it's going to require legal action and civil action against the convention in order for us to make any progress.

RASCOE: Some people have said, you know, this is an apocalyptic report, that, you know, that it is - basically, it has to be some type of turning point. But do you think that is the case?

WILLIAMS: I do not think it's the turning point for the Southern Baptist Convention. And the reason why is because the majority of the individuals who are stating how grieved and shocked they are are the individuals who survivors have been crying out to for the last 20 years. The time to lament and grieve has long passed. Survivors grieved on our own, and now is the time to change things. And yet they're still just talking.

RASCOE: That's Hannah-Kate Williams, who has been advocating for the release of names to hold SBC accountable as a survivor of abuse within the church order. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

RASCOE: We reached out to SBC, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Lifeway, a Christian resources company, for comment. The SBC Executive Committee replied that they don't comment on pending litigation and that they have not yet been served with the newer lawsuit. The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary says he is aware of these serious allegations, and he committed to fully cooperate with authorities and has authorized, quote, "a full review of our policies and structures that will help us continue to improve." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.