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Broken crosses: Two local religious leaders who broke my heart

The reverend asked us to call him Bryan, but some people called him “Rev.”

He was a regular visiting minister at my lay led Unitarian Universalist church. Wildly popular, burly Santa-type, warm and calming. When Bryan spoke, I made a point of getting my lazy-butt to church.  

Clergy always made me a little uncomfortable. Not from religious guilt or any bad experience. I just wasn’t around religious leaders enough chit chatting at our church’s Wednesday dinners to see ministers as regular types. Growing up I went to a Methodist church with my mother, but only sporadically.

In my early thirties, I re-started in the Methodist church, but when even the coolest laid-back pastor said hello I got nervous. Godly rock stars, I guess. My anxiety around the cloth wasn’t because I was God-fearing. If anything I was God questioning. I just wasn’t sure how to act.  Bryan made it easy.

Thankfully he was our scheduled speaker the day after the Pulse Massacre 25 minutes from my house. He led us through our stages of pain. Enraged, shattered and speechless, spiritually bleeding from the shock and sorrow.

His messages were always easy to carry into your day. The sort of pastor who uses straight language without cryptic Biblical jargon.

And so his style resonated with our mutt UU congregation of believers and non-believers, the reformed and practicing Christians, Jews, Catholics, humanists, agnostics and atheists. He mentioned Jesus here and there as a symbol of how to do the right thing under the hardest circumstances. It didn’t matter if we thought Christ was the Son of God, a hippie or fairytale.   

Bryan spoke the greatest hits across all religions: love, kindness, humility, compassion and forgiveness. And he was a walk-the-walk advocate for civil and women’s rights.  It was his dedication to reproductive choice and gender equality that impressed me the most. An unabashed feminist who railed against patriarchy.

I trusted him as a female-ally because he was well-known for fighting for women’s rights. He once told our congregation, “How arrogant would I be to think I know what’s best for a woman who finds herself pregnant?” He took hard stands, but gently. He was witty, humble and much better at doing grace than me. Exactly what I want in my spiritual leader. Better, but admittedly fallible.

When I heard in October 2019 that Bryan was charged with having sex with a minor over 100 times between 2005 and 2010 (starting when she was 14, grooming her when she was 13) I almost threw up. His victim was a long-time member of the church where he served as senior minister.

If you live long enough you know that plenty of good people do bad things. And that sexual abuse in all places of power is sickeningly common. But people like Bryan, a religious leader outspoken about gender equality, they don’t sexually abuse.

For weeks I woke up in the middle of the night hoping it wasn’t true. My heart was broken. I felt betrayed, angry and bitter.

Bryan was a local celebrity known for his commitment to interfaith discussion, a topic that always appeals to me. He co-hosted the popular NPR show, “The Three Wise Guys” (A minister, rabbi and imam), bantering theology (with reverence) across the Christian perspective on issues. After his arrest the show shut down. It stuns me that people still write “Happy birthday Bryan, we miss you,” on his Facebook page. Even after what he did. 

Sadly the Reverend killed himself ten days after he was released on bail. Before he had to face numerous felony charges. Investigators recorded a long conversation between he and his accuser (now an adult) where Bryan admitted that she had been a victim and that he was a predator “in the eyes of the law.” He admitted to having a sexual relationship with her for years when she was under 18.

“[T]here was never anything salacious or bad about it and you were always too damn mature for your own good and I have always loved you,” Fulwider told his accuser in the call, according to police. “It wasn’t like I was off hunting people. It was a connection.” ~ The Orlando Sentinel

Orlando Sentinel

I was heartbroken for his family, and relieved that someone I cared for, someone who regularly talked to God, no longer had to battle his demons. But I also wanted to scream in his face, “Listen you predatory scumbag, you did this to yourself!”

I’d like to say time softened my anger, but it only dulled the edges. I don’t forgive as fast as Jesus. Sometimes, although rare, I never do. On purpose. It keeps evil and good simple.

Bryan’s sons said they “witnessed his pattern of disrespecting women and know he was not the person he presented publicly.”

Some of my church friends who knew him better than I, or who are probably just more forgiving, haven’t erased all the good Bryan did.

Still, it’s one thing to cheat on your spouse, evade taxes or embezzle church funds. It’s another to commit statutory rape with a 14-year-old girl in your congregation.

A couple years ago another one of my favorite speakers was arrested. A priest charged with sexually abusing a boy. That’s all I know because I can’t find anything about his arrest record. I only know from friends at church that he’s serving time.

This priest whenever he saw me (or anyone), beamed a magnificent smile, like he was genuinely excited to see me. Then he’d give me a hug. Usually this sort of gushing friendliness from someone I don’t know well creeps me out. But my priest-friend radiated genuine love and benign affection. He made you feel special. So my trust radar, like with Bryan, beeped strong. That’s pretty Christ-like. I was drawn in.

His voice was deliciously melodic when he recited poetry and sang verses of his favorite black spirituals. He was brilliant about breaking down theology into modern practical terms. He was also mesmerizing and charismatic, commanding but not at all intimidating.

A few years ago he helped a few of us at church during a breakout session for an eight-week white privilege class. Somehow he moved us past being mildly self-righteous white liberals (who mean well), into activists who needed to keep our back-patting wokeness in check.      

Years ago he begged his Diocese to let a few local impoverished non-Catholic kids reap the educational benefits of attending a Catholic school. He knew God wouldn’t care about rigid enrollment rules, only that he could help a handful of kids get a better shot in life.   

Maybe someday I can forgive my priest friend. But not Bryan.

My priest friend as far as I know (or tell myself), “only” molested one boy. Bryan groomed and sexually molested one girl over a 100 times.

Evil amounts to numerical calculations against all the good someone has done. There’s a net total we learn to live with. But once we see evil in someone we trust, it’s hard to see anything else.  

For me, despite what we’re promised, forgiveness isn’t always a salve for the sufferer (“forgiveness is for YOU, not for them”).   Not forgiving can heal too. People think I’m nuts on this. Not forgiving goes against all the best Jesus lessons. It holds on to emotional sludge and makes you literally sick.

I’m not saying we stew in destructive rage. What I mean is, choosing not to forgive someone for heinous acts puts evil and good right where they belong, in separate corners, judged as they should be judged. There’s relief in that sort of clarity.  “I don’t forgive you,” doesn’t have to make you stuck in pain and bitter. It means you gently accept that some things are unforgiveable.

Laura G Owens

Writer. Blogger. Essayist. My focus is wellness, social commentary and personal essays that explore the messiness of being human. Our ambivalence. Our uncomfortable feelings that when revealed, shed shame and reveal our authentic selves.

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Site last updated February 22, 2024 @ 6:33 pm; This content last updated January 2, 2024 @ 4:28 pm

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