They followed him up the stairs, and Saundra paused in the bedroom doorway. She locked eyes with another woman, also a pastor, who was reclining on a king-sized bed with only a sheet covering her nude body.
It wasn't a happy moment for Saundra, and she wanted to go home. But this was part of her marriage counseling, she thought, and she had to fulfill her husband's fantasies.
"Take off your clothes," said Williams. Saundra and her husband complied. As they got into bed and started having sex, Williams leaned over Rickey's naked backside.
"Get loose!" he coached Saundra. "You've gotta get into this. You've gotta make your husband happy!"
When they finished, Pastor Williams told Rickey he should "sample" the other female pastor. As he did, Saundra cringed. But then she told herself she was just being uptight, a square. Perhaps sensing Saundra's anguish, the other woman murmured, "You'll be okay. It will be okay."
Then Pastor Williams tried to couple with Saundra, but she pushed him away, thinking, "Not in front of my husband." Rickey didn't know that his wife and her pastor had been sleeping together for months on the pretense of trying to help Saundra learn how to heat up her marital sex life.
That night, Saundra and Rickey drove home in silence.
"I didn't wanna talk about it," Saundra says. "I felt like they were trying to make me into some kind of freak that I wasn't. Some kind of wild woman."
When Pastor Saundra McFadden's sexual harassment case against the African Methodist Episcopal church and Williams' boss went to court years later in November 1999, many members of her congregation were surprised by the scandal. During thirteen years of sexual harassment by two supervisory pastors, the respected preacher had managed to keep her congregations and even her family from finding out, though a few people knew that she needed a psychiatrist and the antidepressant Zoloft to cope with personal problems.
During the period that Williams and an AME presiding elder sought sex with Saundra McFadden-Weaver (she has divorced and remarried), she gave sermons so inspiring that the Reverend Emanuel Cleaver, former Kansas City mayor, called on her to cross denominational lines and preach at his church when he was out of town. She also ran two grassroots campaigns for city council. Both races were close. She surprised followers of city politics by out-polling councilman Troy Nash in the 1999 primary. As the top primary vote getters, the two met again in the general election. She spent less than half of what Nash did, and she lost by a margin of 14 percentage points.
Throughout the campaigns, no one had guessed that Saundra had a secret.
When Saundra McFadden met Pastor Ron Williams in 1984, just after her marriage, he led the congregation at a church she'd attended as a child -- Ward Chapel AME at 22nd and Prospect.
In braids and her best Sunday dress, she had sat in the balcony with the other children, eating candy during services. At Christmas and Easter, she would get up and recite Bible verses.
In a moderately religious family, Saundra was the only girl, and she had three brothers. They grew up in a rambling thirteen-room house where 71 Highway now cuts through eastern Kansas City. The home was always filled with jazz music and the rat-tat-tat of children tap-dancing.
Their mother was a hostess and bartender at Hillcrest Country Club, and their father ran a small business, McFadden General Home Repair. Saundra would stand at grocery stores and on the streets of Kansas City, passing out fliers and business cards for her dad. A shy, introverted girl, Saundra loved to dig and plant flowers in her mother's garden, and she dreamed of someday being a farmer. She played the flute in her older brother's jazz group, Lonnie and the Band.
"She could have been one heck of a jazz flutist," says Lonnie, now one-half of the popular McFadden Brothers jazz and tap-dancing duo, with his younger brother, Ronald.
But Saundra found a different calling: the pulpit.
As she approached her teenage years, Saundra started thinking more and more about God and the Bible. At Ward Chapel, she felt lost in a sea of adults, and she wanted to find a church where she'd feel at home.
Through their band, she and her brothers found a "church home." When Saundra was twelve, Lonnie and the Band stepped out of the basement for the first time, performing holiday shows at three churches. At Ward Chapel, the adults bickered after their show, and the children felt ignored. But at St. Mary's Grand Holy Tabernacle, a nondenominational church where Saundra's cousin pastored, they felt they belonged. As they blew on raggedy instruments they'd had since fourth grade, they all felt a "deep touch from the Lord," Saundra remembers.
After the show, the kids were giddy. They piled their instruments in the back of their old van, and Lonnie drove them through the frosty night to the McFadden home. That evening, they sat around the fireplace, drinking eggnog, talking about the energy they had felt. The McFadden kids started walking to St. Mary's every Sunday.
For a few weeks, Saundra sat quietly in the corner pew, behind a large pillar, afraid to go forward when the pastor invited converts to the altar. Her knees knocked and she felt queasy. One morning, she finally got up the nerve to join the church. A few months later, in the spring, she was assigned to give a two-minute inspirational speech during a service led by the church's youngsters.
That evening, Saundra got up in the pulpit and preached for a full hour. Her voice rose and fell, rich and mighty, then soft and gentle. She quoted Scripture. She preached, she shouted, she spoke the word of God.
After she finished, the congregation sat, staring and utterly silent. Moments passed, until finally the pastor spoke incredulously: "Church is out. You already been preached to."
The next morning at breakfast, the family couldn't stop talking about what had come over Saundra. Her parents had not witnessed the sermon, but her brothers told them every detail.
"Do you think God's trying to tell you something, Saundra? Because we do," her mother said. That was when her brothers stopped looking at her as the pesky little sister and started looking up to her.
Saundra's parents enrolled her in the School of Christianity at St. Mary's Grand Holy Tabernacle, where she was the youngest pupil. Her father would help her with theology and metaphysics studies after she finished her regular homework. He sent off for correspondence courses from Oral Roberts and Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham, and father and daughter would sit in the living room, studying and practicing.
By the time she was sixteen, Saundra was ordained at St. Mary's and received a minister's license.
"Any boy that took me to homecoming took a minister to homecoming. Any boy that took me to prom took a minister to prom," she says. That meant she didn't mess around in the back seats of cars or do the things other teenage girls were doing.
"All those boys with all their tricks, they never even got to first base with Saundra," her brother Ronald says. "She was too busy chasin' after God."
After Saundra finished high school, she went off to study agriculture at Lincoln University in Jefferson City. Students who knew her from Kansas City circulated a petition to allow her to evangelize in the campus chapel. She would get up at dawn every morning to deliver fifteen-minute inspirations on campus radio. She spent her spare time visiting the sick in hospitals or the elderly in nursing homes, and she once organized a trip for a prison choir from the state penitentiary to St. Mary's Tabernacle in Kansas City.
Her slogan was "Saundra McFadden, the preacher, the teacher, the mind reacher." She used to say that all the time, her brother Lonnie remembers.
Those who heard her preach felt she had a gift for it. She wasn't like preachers who would write sermons and practice them in front of a mirror. She never needed notes. The sermons just came pouring out.
After college, Saundra moved back to Kansas City and met Rickey Winfield through friends who sang in a choir with him. The two got to know each other over a few years and, when Saundra was 24, they married.
That year, Saundra began to feel that God was telling her to go back to the AME denomination. It is the largest historically black Methodist denomination in the United States, with more than 2.5 million members. It split from the United Methodists in 1816 because of conflicts over the treatment of African-Americans.
Pastor Ron Williams visited Saundra and sat in her living room, explaining to her and Rickey the process of ordination in the AME church. The first step was to surrender any other church's ministerial credentials and start anew. She would study under Pastor Williams' supervision at Ward Chapel, and he would recommend to the church that they ordain her when he felt she was ready. Williams, a young man just a few years older than Saundra, had a sturdy look about him and a soft, lilting voice. His commitment to the ministry seemed steadfast. Saundra put her trust in him and gave up her credentials from St. Mary's.
Saundra soon had a baby boy, Rickey Jr. Working hard, holding down a job as a Pizza Hut manager and pursuing her AME ordination, Saundra became depressed. She had always wanted to be a pastor, a wife and a mother. But she doubted her husband's fidelity, and he acknowledges to the Pitch that he had extramarital affairs. He told her it was her fault. She was inexperienced, and he said she was too uptight in bed.
When there was trouble in life, Saundra had always gone to her pastor. So she told Pastor Williams of the marital tensions. She asked him to refer her to a marriage counselor. He said he had a degree in pastoral counseling, and he offered to meet with her and Rickey.
They met at Williams' parsonage. The couple sat on a couch and Williams sat on a chair, and they talked about the sexual problems in the marriage. During the third or fourth session, which took place without Rickey, Williams turned to Saundra and told her he had diagnosed her problem.
"You," he told her, gazing at her intently, "you have an unhealthy sexual attitude."
When two people enter into holy matrimony, Pastor Williams told her, they should try their hardest to be open and to fulfill each other's sexual fantasies. You need to make your husband happy so he'll stay at home, he told her. Since this was her pastor talking, Saundra listened. Maybe he's right, she thought. As she was driving home, she looked at herself in the rearview mirror, studying her soft, smooth face and cheerful brown eyes. I can fix this, she remembers thinking.
"This is gonna be okay, Saundra," she remembers saying into the mirror.
It seemed believable to Saundra that she was the one with the problem. She had been a virgin when she married, and she never had much of a sex drive -- or at least not as much as her husband thought she should have. Maybe her focus on God had led her to neglect the sexual side of herself, she thought.
After that, the counseling sessions weren't about talking. Williams changed from marriage counselor to a sexual coach and cheerleader rolled into one, almost overnight. He would get Saundra alone and lecture her on sex, on pleasing a man.
"You can't be a minister in the bed," she remembers him telling her one day. "You gotta be a bitch in the bed."
And Williams wanted to show her how. He told her she had to have sex with him so he could teach her how to please Rickey. At first, he talked a lot about her husband. "You belong to Rickey," he would say, as he caressed her coffee-with-cream skin. "This is Rickey's pretty body." After a few months, he nicknamed her "The Baby" and told her he was in love with her. "The Baby's got two husbands," he would say.
Eventually, Williams invited Saundra and Rickey to his parsonage for an instructional orgy, at which Rickey, by his own admission to the Pitch, had sex with a female pastor.
In Saundra's marriage, stress was mounting. Rickey had been laid off from AT&T, so he had more free time for recreation while Saundra struggled to preach and support the family on her hourly Pizza Hut wages.
The marriage was in trouble. And Pastor Williams had just the thing to fix it: nude photography. One afternoon at the parsonage, he had Saundra and her husband take off their clothes. He got out a camera and peered at them through the lens. He coaxed them into various sexual poses. Snap. Snap. Snap. The flash lit the room.
Rickey took the photos home and locked them in a heavy file cabinet. Months later, Saundra pried open the cabinet with a crowbar and burned the pictures. She wanted to make sure she didn't end up like the other unwitting AME women who were featured in Williams' gallery. Pastor Williams had showed Saundra hundreds of pictures; some he had taken himself, and others came from swap sessions with other ministers who had their own collections.
Williams had sexual contact with numerous women from his church, according to his deposition in Saundra's sexual harassment lawsuit. One was a crack addict whom he ostensibly was counseling toward rehabilitation. As she recovered, he began visiting the apartment where she lived with her boyfriend. One day, he visited when he knew she'd be alone. She was wearing a red denim dress that buttoned up the front and, as they talked, he reached over and tried to undo a button.
When he began calling the woman and telling her that he wanted to have a sexual relationship with her, she and her boyfriend (now husband) taped the calls. They thought that Williams needed professional help -- just as they had. One night Williams called her from Omaha, Nebraska, and said, "I'm here soakin' in the bath. I wish you were in the tub with me." And, he said, "I want to lick your pussy." Offended, she kept him on the phone as the recorder ran. He told her about several women in the church he had "fucked." He told her they would come into his office and take their clothes off for him. Some women he had "screwed" wanted a romantic relationship and got angry when he dumped them. "I'm gonna have to do some damage control," he told her. Then he confessed, "I'm a sexaholic."
They took the tape to an AME official. When the congregation heard rumors of what the woman had done, some criticized her for coming forward, and several people left the church because of the incident. She spoke to the Pitch on the condition that her name not be disclosed.
"When you're trying to get off drugs and you're trying to change your lifestyle, Jesus Christ, you certainly don't need a pastor comin' after you the same way those guys on the streets come after you!" she says. "Normally at the beginning [of rehabilitation], that's when you're at your worst point. We were totally dependent on the church for assistance. He attempted to take total advantage of me. It was a shattering and shocking experience."
Ron Williams continued his affair with Saundra by threatening her career -- he had the power to keep her from becoming ordained -- and by keeping Saundra fearful that others would discover the affair. Finally, Saundra worked up the courage to tell her husband. He reacted calmly -- he had told her she should take a lover. But shortly before their son turned three, Rickey left home. Devastated, Saundra decided she wouldn't let Williams coerce her into sex anymore, even though she feared that any revelation of the affair might jeopardize her custody of Rickey Jr. She was sick of Williams' using his power over her career to keep the affair going, after she had tried several times to end it. In 1987, she decided to go to his boss, the presiding elder Prince Albert Williams, who is not related to Pastor Ron Williams. She was ashamed, but she felt she had to tell the presiding elder everything.
Though the church had no sexual-harassment policy at the time, Saundra thought she could resolve the problem by working through the denominational chain of command. Pastors with problems may seek help from the AME's middle managers -- presiding elders who oversee districts comprising multiple churches. (In the church hierarchy, over the elders are bishops, who answer to a body known as the General Conference, which presides over the AME church.)
"The presiding elder is supposed to be like your father in God; he's everybody's dad. So I told him everything in grave detail," Saundra says. "I figured, 'Okay, I'm gonna belly up one good time and get on with my life.'"
A few days later, the presiding elder called Saundra at home and told her that even though she still had not been ordained as an AME minister, he was removing her from Ron Williams' supervision and was sending her to pastor a tiny church of six elderly members, a few hours away in Marshall, Missouri. She was happy to go.
But soon trouble started again. This time, it came from the presiding elder, who was then in his sixties. When Prince Albert Williams would come every couple of months to visit the church in Marshall, he would corner Saundra in the tiny church office as she was preparing to preach. One day, he pushed her up against the desk, stuck his slimy tongue in her ear and kissed her. His breath reeked of liquor.
"I don't know how it's gonna get out, unless I tell it," he leered, making an obvious reference to the lurid sexual details she had shared.
She took that as a threat that she'd better comply with his demands or he would ruin her ministerial career. Sometimes he'd publicly repeat that sentence as he was introducing her to speak at events. The congregation would think he was referring to the word of God, but Saundra knew better. When she heard that phrase, it was a trigger. She would shake, get clammy and not hear another word he said until applause signaled it was time for her to speak.
It sickened her, but she sometimes let him paw and kiss her. She let him fondle and grope her or just do "whatever nasty he could get done" with the congregation filing in to hear her preach and sitting on pews just a few feet outside the thin office door. If she yelled at him or put up a struggle, the congregation might hear the altercation, and she didn't want the humiliating conflict to become public.
When Prince Albert Williams would come to the church to make his quarterly review and collect his salary, Saundra tried to avoid going into the office, where ministers usually pray and put on robes before a service. She would arrive late to meetings and do anything she could to avoid him.
During the three years Saundra was in Marshall, the congregation grew to ninety members, and Prince Albert Williams appointed her to pastor the Mariah Walker AME Church in Kansas City. The church had no regular pastor, so Prince Albert Williams had been preaching there. Membership had dwindled to 23 people, and the church was dirty and in debt and had a pitiful choir of only four members. It needed a charismatic pastor who could grow the congregation and get the church in shape.
By 1993, the denomination's upper leadership had noticed Saundra and made her an ordained AME minister -- but only after other AME ministers groused because an unordained pastor had received a coveted metropolitan church post. The bishop in charge of the district -- Prince Albert Williams' boss -- examined and ordained Saundra himself.
Some members of the Mariah Walker congregation soon became dissatisfied with goings-on at the church. Yolanda Perry, who as church trustee dealt with bills, resented paying the church's share of Williams' salary and handing over special offerings when he complained about financial troubles, all while the church couldn't even scrape together money to fix the leaky roof and faulty electrical wiring. She didn't like Prince Albert Williams and remembers that he came off as being arrogant. "Every time he came around, we'd have to give him a little love -- you know, give him some money!" she says.
Perry always noticed that Prince Albert Williams would disappear into Saundra's office, and Perry wondered what was going on in there. It just didn't seem right. After the two came out, Saundra's demeanor was different.
"She's always been a very friendly person and just smiles, smiles all the time," Perry says. "But every time [Prince Albert Williams] would be present ... she was just strictly business, very serious."
During the early '90s, Prince Albert Williams, who was approaching seventy years of age and had had several heart surgeries, stepped up his sexual demands on Saundra, telling her she should repay him for the backlash he endured from other ministers for promoting her to Mariah Walker.
"You owe me! I bear the marks on my body for it," he would huff in a cloud of bourbon breath, leaning heavily on the cane he always used to get around.
One day, when Prince Albert Williams found Saundra alone in the church, he unzipped his pants and chased her around the church with his limp penis hanging out. "Squeeze my dick!" he panted. Another time, Prince Albert Williams told Saundra to visit him at his house. He needed to meet with her. When she got there, he ordered her to perform sexual acts on him.
"Kiss my dick. Talk fuck to me," he demanded. Once, she complied, grabbing his penis and rubbing it for a few minutes.
Her anger and disgust simmered. One day in 1993, when Prince Albert Williams found Saundra alone in church and growled, "You owe me," she exploded. "I don't owe you a thing!" she shouted, her voice reverberating through the church. "From now on, you're gonna keep your little mouth shut. I don't care what you tell anybody; I'm just not gonna live like this anymore! I'm tired; I'm sick and tired of it. Either I'm out of here or you're gonna leave me alone!"
After that, Prince Albert Williams abruptly stopped grabbing her and demanding sexual favors. But he began threatening her career. "I'm gonna get rid of her," he bragged to other AME ministers. For the next three years, at each annual conference where church leadership would meet, he recommended she be removed from the church. But Bishop Vinton Anderson reappointed her to Mariah Walker each time, apparently remaining unaware of the harassment she faced from Prince Albert Williams. Saundra shied away from involving yet another male church leader in her problems.
In 1995, with Bishop Anderson's permission, Saundra decided to run for city council, challenging incumbent Ronald Finley for a third district at-large seat. Then 35, Saundra ran an energetic campaign with an all-volunteer staff that included members of her congregation at Mariah Walker. They raised barely $2,000 but covered a lot of territory, knocking on hundreds of doors in the district. On election day, Saundra lost by a narrow margin.
Some members of the congregation and family members worried that maybe Saundra was overexerting herself with work, church and a political campaign. Saundra had drifted apart a bit from her brother Lonnie, but when he did see her he was struck by the change in her demeanor and attitude. Once bubbly, she seemed despondent, and she was gaining weight. Sometimes when he saw her, her speech was slurred by antiseizure medication. Although tests found no epilepsy, she periodically suffered stress-related seizures. Lonnie worried a little but figured Saundra would pray and get through whatever was happening to her.
On a chilly Sunday afternoon in 1996, Saundra and some other ministers attended a service at the Allen Chapel AME church in Kansas City. Saundra was standing in the lobby afterward, talking to the Reverend Steven Cousins and a presiding elder, William Bartalette Finney, when Prince Albert Williams came over to them.
"What a pretty red suit," he sneered. Then he grabbed her breast.
Furious and shaking, Saundra raised her fist to punch him. But Allen Chapel's pastor grabbed her and pulled her back, shouting, "Sis! Sis!"
"I can't take anymore." Saundra spat the words.
"Hey, sis, calm down. Let's just go over to Winstead's and talk," Cousins said. (Other pastors learned of the incident from Finney, Saundra says, but he denied any recollection of it when her lawyer deposed him. The Pitch could not reach him or Cousins for comment.)
According to Saundra's later testimony in court, the three drove to the restaurant, leaving Prince Albert Williams in the lobby. They ate hamburgers and drank malts while the two men tried to calm Saundra. She asked Finney whether he could take over as her supervisor, and he said they would have to talk to the new bishop who had just replaced Anderson as Prince Albert Williams' boss. They talked about Prince Albert Williams' behavior.
"You've got to rise above his level," she remembers one of them telling her, over the clatter of plates and clinking forks of the dinner crowd.
A few weeks later, Saundra went to Bishop Vernon Byrd. He had taken over supervision of the district months before but had just opened his office in Kansas City a few days earlier. Saundra told him everything, gave him a formal written complaint and asked to be moved from under Prince Albert Williams' supervision. The bishop looked at her intently.
"I know you ain't lyin'" she remembers him saying. "See that girl out there in the hallway? That's my secretary. We've only been here two days, and already P. Albert's been over here tryin' to hit on her."
But he wasn't going to fire Prince Albert Williams. And he wasn't going to move Saundra to a different district.
"Daughter, I can't move your church," she remembers him saying. "I can't move you from under his supervision. But I'm going to pray for you. I want you to continue your outreach ministry. I want you to run for office again, and I'm gonna pray that you win. I want you to go back to that church and do the best that you can. Give me a chance to correct these problems."
Disappointed, she left his office. She didn't know what else she could do.
Meanwhile, rumors were circulating around the church about the breast-grabbing incident and Prince Albert Williams' fondness for alcohol. A small group of people who had been attending Mariah Walker and who had formed an outreach ministry to help the poor under Saundra's direction decided they wanted to form their own church. They started meeting at the E.R. Morris Funeral Home, persuading Saundra to preach there while they searched for a pastor. They even offered her the pastorship, but according to minutes from one of their meetings, she refused, saying, "I am a pastor at Mariah Walker AME Church."
She became more rooted in the AME denomination. Her sermons played on the radio, and she billed herself as the "Community Shepherd." As Christmas 1996 approached, Saundra and her son, who was ten at the time, decided to make a special sacrifice. The Mariah Walker Church wanted to buy a used van, and the family decided to contribute $500. Finances were tight already because Saundra had a rule that she would not take her pay as pastor until all of the church's bills were paid, so it meant they might have to skimp on Christmas presents that year. But Rickey Jr. didn't mind.
On December 10, Saundra's phone rang. It was Prince Albert Williams.
"I'm puttin' you out of the church," he announced.
"Putting me out of the church? Into what?" Saundra asked, thinking she was being transferred to another church.
"Out of the AME church, period." he said. "As far as I'm concerned, you put yourself out. You started another church."
Saundra hung up the phone and called Bishop Byrd. He confirmed that she was being kicked out of the AME church. Confused, she hung up. Then she called him back. "What did I do?" she asked.
"P. Albert says you started another church," he told her. She had to be out of the church and turn in her keys by that Saturday.
That night, she sat on the edge of her bed, crying. She felt her connection with God had been severed.
"The whole bottom fell out of my life that night," she remembers. "I was just empty. I sat there thinking, 'I must've done something really bad.'" She wondered why it was so much worse to preach at a fledging non-AME church than it was to sexually harass an AME minister.
Saundra's cupboards were empty, and she hadn't been paid in three weeks. There was no money for groceries or for Christmas presents. There wouldn't be a tree. She called Bishop Byrd again, crying, and he wired her $500 to buy food.
In the following weeks, she had to explain to her son what had happened to her job and their church. On the night he had planned to go Christmas caroling with the youth group, he sat by the window with his coat on for an hour. She told him the church van wasn't coming, but he did not believe her. After that, Rickey Jr. was furious at Prince Albert Williams.
"I thought he was a friend of our family, but I guess not," says Rickey Jr., now fifteen. "That made me pretty upset. I saw how it hurt my mom."
Saundra soon accepted the offer to pastor the church formed by the members who had split off from Mariah Walker, and they named the church Community Fellowship Church of Jesus Christ. The small nondenominational church at 39th and Cleaver II Boulevard would not offer her anything comparable to the financial security she had at the AME church. But at least she could continue pastoring.
The stress of losing her church, hearing that people were speculating about why she had been dismissed and the secrets about the sexual harassment she had gone through were wearing on her. To help her get past it, in 1997 she started speaking to women's ministerial groups about her harassment, hoping to help other women who had been abused.
After one such talk, a woman who also was a minister approached her. The woman, the Reverend Brenda Smith, told her that twenty years earlier, when she was a young Sunday school teacher, Prince Albert Williams had grabbed her breast in the lobby of Allen Chapel -- the same church where he had grabbed Saundra's breast in 1996. Smith, too, had raised a fist in defense, but unlike Saundra, she had punched Williams.
Smith had been a member of the church from the time she was eight years old but was so traumatized by the assault that she stopped going to church for a while. After Smith began ministering and tried to get ordained in the AME church, she heard rumors that Prince Albert Williams was trying to block her ordination. She believed it was because, after all those years, he was angry that she had hit him.
"I didn't understand why, why me, what had I done wrong, wondering why when I went to a safe place it wasn't safe there either," she later testified. A sexual assault by a minister, she said, "takes all of [a woman's] value away."
Saundra's meeting with Smith con vinced her that if she did not come forward with her story, Prince Albert Williams and other men in the AME church would just continue to assault women. She thought about suing and consulted a lawyer as gossip about Prince Albert Williams' grabbing of her breast circulated among AME pastors and churchgoers and even reached then-mayor Emanuel Cleaver, who later gave a deposition on Saundra's behalf.
Although he pastors in the completely separate United Methodist denomination, Cleaver called several AME ministers to see whether the gossip was true. Every pastor confirmed that the incident had happened. He said in his deposition that he felt that when an act of harassment happened on "holy ground," that made it "even more abominable."
Cleaver called Bishop Byrd to see whether he knew about the harassment. He found that the bishop "was not in the dark" about the incident.
"He said that he was aware of what was going on, that he had made some changes already and that he too wanted to keep this from becoming an ugly discussion piece, not only in Kansas City but around the country," Cleaver said in his deposition.
In an attempt to resolve the matter quietly, the mayor invited Prince Albert Williams, Bishop Byrd and Saundra McFadden-Weaver to his office on the 29th floor of City Hall. He wanted to keep the sordid details from becoming the talk of the city. He later said in a deposition that he felt the African-American community would be harmed by publicity about the harassment. Cleaver remembered Saundra as being very distressed at the meeting.
Cleaver wanted to "squash [the matter], try to get it settled and move on," he said in his deposition. Bishop Byrd had his own ideas on how to do that. He refused Saundra's demands for a public apology and censure for the men who had harassed her. Instead he whipped out his checkbook.
"Let's settle this right here," he said, offering her $20,000 to shut up and go away.
That's an insult, Saundra told him.
After that meeting, Saundra visited her attorney, Michael Fletcher, of the downtown firm Sanders, Simpson, Fletcher and Smith. Because Saundra had wanted only an apology when she first talked to Fletcher, he hadn't even drawn up a contract for her. This time, they decided to sue. After hearing more details, Fletcher remembers thinking, "I don't think $20,000 is the number."
When the case went to court, in November 1999, Saundra gave compelling testimony, breaking down in tears once as Fletcher questioned her on the details of the harassment.
Jury foreman Tom DeNegre says the jury found Saundra believable and was shocked by her testimony.
"It's amazing to me that this can go on and these guys -- anybody -- can get away with it. Especially in the ministry!" DeNegre says. The testimony persuaded him that sexual misconduct was "rampant" within the local AME church. (In fact, many denominations face sex scandals from time to time).
What really made an impression on the jury was the failure of most of the church's main witnesses to show up. Pastor Ron Williams was the only AME witness to testify in court; the jury saw videotaped depositions of Prince Albert Williams, Bishop Byrd and other AME witnesses. That made jurors feel that the church just didn't take the lawsuit seriously, DeNegre says.
DeNegre says the AME witnesses seemed "arrogant" in their videotaped depositions, and Fletcher says they would have been even worse in person.
"These people were so bad, we were drooling for them to show up," Fletcher says. "P. Albert Williams was an old, decrepit, creepy guy who if he would've shown up, the verdict would have been even higher. He was lecherous. He was the embodiment of what you'd think a creepy, perverted, sick man would be. He gave me the creeps. Bishop Byrd was the embodiment of an upper-upper-middle-class African-American minister who's detached from the world. They were horrible, horrible witnesses. I wanted them to come."
On video, many of the AME witnesses were belligerent, interrupting the attorneys and complaining bitterly about the inconvenience the case had caused them. "I just know I'm tired of getting all these papers," Prince Albert Williams barked, in reference to documents related to the lawsuit.
Prince Albert Williams said he could not recall whether he had grabbed Saundra's breast in church. He denied demanding sexual favors from Saundra and accused the Reverend Brenda Smith of lying about his grabbing her breast. He said he had never had an extramarital affair ("Hard to keep up with one"). Prince Albert Williams admitted that he wrote a letter to Bishop Byrd, agreeing to readmit Saundra to the AME church only if she dropped all sexual harassment charges against him.
Bishop Byrd, in his deposition, admitted that there was "no investigation" of Saundra's sexual harassment claims and that he took no action when his secretary complained that Prince Albert Williams had made inappropriate comments to her. He admitted that the AME church had no sexual harassment policy until 1996.
When asked what option a woman had if she were being sexually harassed, he said she should "examine herself."
"What should she examine herself for?" Fletcher asked.
"For whatever reason she wants to examine herself.... [She should ask] herself, 'How did I get in this position?'" Byrd replied.
If the church had never taken punitive actions against anyone for alleged sexual harassment, Fletcher asked, how would people know those activities were wrong?
"That's on them," Bishop Byrd replied.
Before settling the case against him, Ron Williams admitted to watching Saundra and her husband have sex once while his lover -- another female pastor -- looked on. But he denied that it was part of a counseling exercise and that any partner swapping occurred. In an interview with the Pitch, he refused to discuss the orgy or the other acts of harassment that began Saundra's long battle with the church.
"This has blown up into an ugly situation, and it really wasn't all of that," Williams said by telephone from Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his third wife (the only one he hasn't cheated on, he says) and pastors an AME church. "It was not that big a deal. I didn't force her into anything. I didn't coerce her.... People do these things."
Although Pastor Ron Williams contends that his relationship with Saundra was "just like any relationship between a man and a woman," he settled out of court for what Saundra calls "an amicable amount." The terms of the settlement prevent her from disclosing the dollar amount.
The AME church and Prince Albert Williams took their chances in court. A jury of twelve unanimously ordered the AME's governing body to pay Saundra $5 million in punitive damages (the trial court later reduced that to $4 million) and $25,000 in actual damages. They ordered Prince Albert Williams to pay her $1 million in punitive damages and $15,000 in actual damages. In March 2001, an appeals court overturned the $4 million award, saying that Saundra's attorneys had failed to prove "intentional failure to supervise clergy" on the part of the church. Fletcher has filed a motion for rehearing by the Missouri Supreme Court.
Prince Albert Williams was transferred to Kansas and received a cut in salary, and Bishop Byrd retired to Arizona.
After the verdict became public news, Saundra began receiving death threats, hang-up phone calls and middle-of-the-night visitors who would ask for money, thinking she had $6 million stashed away somewhere. (Saundra has not yet received any money from Prince Albert Williams or the AME church.) So she and her son packed up and moved to a small apartment in a complex near the airport.
Talking about her case helps her to deal with her past, Saundra says.
At an annual church conference before the case went to court, she went to the meeting hall's parking lot and put copies of her case, with her photo and a warning, on all the cars. "Remember me?" it said under her photo. "If this could happen to me, it could happen to you."
She holds women's groups and tries to use biblical stories of women who came through adversity to help women who are being abused by their husbands or who have been raped or assaulted.
"I'm gonna write a book. I've had 60 Minutes contact me. I've had Oprah contact me. I'll be a face that will be on television without a mask on and without my voice altered. It has been a very empowering experience for a lot of women who have heard the story," she says.
Saundra also plans another run for city council, for the third district seat held by Mary Williams-Neal. This race should be easier because it is not at-large, so there will be less ground to cover in a door-to-door campaign, Saundra says.
Whether she wins or loses, Saundra will stay on as pastor at the Community Fellowship Church of Jesus Christ, stamping it with her personal touch. (The church's logo features a globe in a hand with a long red thumbnail, which represents the "feminine character in God.")
Some members of her congregation say that Saundra's down-to-earth style of preaching is what has grown the church from ninety members to more than 400 in just four years.
One recent Sunday, Saundra made a last-minute switch on the topic of her sermon and decided to preach about Moses' life, and how God set it up so that Moses could be raised by his natural mother but be the adopted child of the pharaoh's family at the same time. As Saundra read the verses from Exodus, the congregation sat quietly in the pews.
Then, for forty minutes, she brought the story to life, inventing a dialogue that might have occurred between Moses' sister, a slave girl who placed him in the reeds so he could be found and have a better life, and the pharaoh's daughter, who found the baby.
In red lipstick and red robes, Saundra stood in the pulpit, shouting and waving her arms. Her voice thundered and the congregation laughed as she joked about the modern amenities people buy when they're expecting a baby ("Pampers! A bassinet!") and speculated that Moses wouldn't "have to wear shoes from Payless," being raised as the child of a king.
Then her voice grew gentle and soft as she talked about the sacrifices Moses' mother made to ensure his freedom, and how it was all part of God's plan. One woman in a gray sleeveless dress sniffed and wiped a tear off her cheek, and another woman shouted, "Praise God!"
The congregation sat at rapt attention.
During prayers and blessings, a woman in a lemon-yellow sweater dress jumped up and began to dance, her arms swaying like branches, her eyes half closed. Another woman in a flowered dress, sitting in a pew, convulsed and shouted, "Thank you, God!" and her companions fanned her with Bibles and church bulletins.
Saundra stood at the front of the church then, receiving the sick and blessing them with holy water.
"We know that you're able to do anything," she prayed. "We know that you're able to mend the broken, fill the empty, feed the hungry. Lord, we know that you're able to bring those that are lost back!"
She blessed a dignified-looking man in a gray suit, and he turned to walk away, leaning on his cane and crying.
"Lord, we trust in you; we know you have never failed us. Touch us as we cry out inside!" Her voice reached a crescendo.
She seems to be a different person a week later, as she sits in her apartment on a Friday evening, reliving the details of her years in the AME church. Shadows cover her face, and she looks down, anxiously rubbing the palms of her hands on her thighs.
After a minute, she speaks in a barely audible voice, searching for the blessing in the church's acts against her.
"I feel the abuse and things in the church led me down a darkened path that could have left me one of the most immoral individuals on earth and that could have embodied anything. But thanks be to God, the Lord didn't see fit for things to be that way. So being able to meet people even if they are in what we call 'sin' and not judge them, I think, is a gift that God has given me while sustaining me through all this."