When I published my Open Letter to First Baptist Church of Milledgeville on October 19—less than a month ago now—I was hoping I could get it across the eyes of a few hundred people. Three hundred reads seemed like it would be enough to help it circulate into the right hands—the influential lay members of First Baptist.
In that short time a lot has happened. The letter received a dramatic reception by the church, and was shared and read over 18,000 times, spreading far beyond the group that it was addressed to. At least some people have a legitimate interest in everything that’s happened since I published, but aren’t regular attendees of the church. Since they don’t have access to the updates shared during church meetings, I’ve decided to write a follow up to the letter detailing what’s happened since.
Some of what follows is my own direct experience. All the other information came to me either directly from deacons at First Baptist, or some other first-hand source that I identify.
The most important thing I have to say here is that I believe the person who has taken over the duties of pastor, Dr. Terry Quick, is morally unqualified for that position because he knew about an accusation against Jerry for over a year, and did exactly what his predecessors did: silently let Jerry quash it. Another associate pastor, Rev. Phil Bishop, did the exact same thing. I say much more on this later, after I lay out other necessary details. Now, on to those.
I published the letter on a Friday night, with the intention of giving it enough time to circulate among church members, but not enough time for the church to formulate and issue an official response, since my past experience told me the church would either push back, or flatly deny my accusation. When I published, I immediately shared a link to the letter on Facebook, and I tagged Jerry Bradley, and First Baptist Milledgeville. Within a few hours, Jerry had read the letter, and began calling members of the church’s deacon board (a sort of board of directors for a Baptist church). In his phone calls, Jerry didn’t only inform them of the letter and confirmed its general truth, he also delivered his resignation as pastor. One deacon told me that, in Jerry’s call to him that night, Jerry told him “I’m done with ministry for good”.
The next morning, Jerry took a handful of some sort of medication, in an attempt to end his life. This was extremely difficult news for me to process. I don’t want to say any more about that, other than I hope Jerry sticks around with us. On the whole, I think th world is better off with him in it. Whatever the case, the same deacon as above described this to me as “a pretty lame attempt” at suicide. I don’t know how true that is, or whether it was just an attempt to assuage my conscience, but the attempt was apparently serious enough that Jerry was hospitalized for a number of days for treatment and observation. I’m told that he’s physically okay now.
Early that Sunday, before the church would have begun, I received a Facebook message from a male member of the church, about my age, who told me that he had read my letter and believed me, because Jerry had done almost exactly the same thing with him, and that he had told the deacon board so. He said he would like to talk.
Through talking with that man, members of the deacon board, and other current and former members of the church, I learned that other people—the last number I heard was eight, and I’ve been told it’s grown since then—began coming forward almost immediately, and many with stories that matched mine almost exactly. Almost.
These other men’s accounts differ from mine in two important ways. The first is that the explanations Jerry gave those men for the purpose of this bizarre exercise often have nothing in common. For instance, Jerry told me he’d had me undress in order to teach me how I shouldn’t trust people in ministry too much or make myself vulnerable to them, because thy could mistreat me. However, this man, who told me Jerry had done the same things with him, said that Jerry told him he was doing it in order to keep the man accountable to his commitment to work out regularly. So it seems Jerry just liked to have young men take their clothes off for him, and he’d use whatever explanation he could to get them to do it.
There is also a second consistent difference between my story and the accounts given by others. In my account, Jerry had me take my belt off, then stopped. My memory is that he stopped in response to my obvious anger and recalcitrance. However, I am told that in all of the other accounts, Jerry only had the young men take their shirts off (and that he would sometimes take his own shirt off too)—that he never went further down than the shirt. I’ve also been repeatedly told that I am the only person who interpreted this strange ritual as sexual in nature.
There are several things I want to say in response. The first has to do with my memory of being instructed to take off my belt. In my memory, Jerry told me to take the belt off, I did, and at this point I expressed my anxiety and anger in a way that led Jerry to stop the exercise. Afterwards, he remarked that he “could have told me to keep going [but, mercifully, didn’t]”.
I am absolutely certain that Jerry made this last comment, and that it has been a part of my memory since that day. I know this because from the very first conversations I had very soon after with friends (unnamed in the letter) about what happened, we spent a lot of time discussing how to interpret that comment.
However, I have lost some of my confidence in my memory of being told to take off my belt. I know that this detail is in my memory. It’s very clear in my mind; I can see the belt. But when I’ve asked friends about whether I told them about the belt, none of them is totally confident one way or the other. Also, in my original letter to the church, I’m told I didn’t mention removing my belt. I don’t have copies of that letter, but apparently First Baptist kept some on file. It disgusts me that they kept copies of that letter. But I suppose it’s good to document things, even (or especially) when you’re simultaneously covering them up.
Anyway, regarding my memory that Jerry had me take my belt off, I can say I strongly expected others to come forward with stories where Jerry went much further than he did with me. So it’s perplexing to me that their stories stop before the point where mine did.
There are a few possible explanations for this strange discrepancy between my story and the others:
1) I am lying. (I’m not.)
2) The current assumption is that I am the first person Jerry did this with (no one so far says it happened to them before me). And so perhaps my negative reaction to being told to take my belt off “taught” Jerry that this was a line he couldn’t cross, and so he respected that line in his subsequent “exercises” with other young men. (This explanation was offered to me by one of the deacons. I don’t believe it for a few reasons: First, it’s just statistically very unlikely that I was the first person Jerry did this with, given that : we know he’s done it with several other young men, he has pastored multiple churches, and other people he did it to before me might not come forward for a number of reasons—they might not be members of the church, they might have moved far away, they might not want anyone to know, etc. Second, I don’t think that a person intent on having young men undress in his office is all that worried about making them uncomfortable.)
3) Since I cannot find definitive proof that the belt was part of my story from the beginning, I think it’s possible, as I turned the story over in my memory, trying to understand it and pin the facts down, that my mind invented this detail. (Memory is extremely malleable, and it’s possible that my subconscious mind created this detail as evidence for the belief I had from the beginning that Jerry’s behavior toward me was sexual.)
I honestly don’t know what to believe at this point. The detail is in my memory, but it would be irresponsible to insist on its truth without a bit more evidence than I have. So I’m at about 50% on my belief that it actually happened.
Regardless whether Jerry had me take my belt off though, one point I am still confident on is my belief that what he did to me was sexual. Taking clothes off with others in private is, on its face, pretty obviously sexual, or at least erotic (for him). If it weren’t sexual, I think he’d have wanted to make that clear from the beginning. Something like “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about what’s I’m going to tell you to do here…”, but he didn’t say anything like that.
But what about the other men’s claims that they never perceived their encounters as sexual? Why am I apparently alone on this point?
I think there are lots of reasons why most of the people who experienced what we did would try to avoid any sexual interpretation of the encounter. Especially if they were still members of the church and local community. Here’s a few:
1) Jerry picked people who trusted and admired him, and so they (we) already had powerful reasons to try to view whatever he did in the best possible light, and to find ways of reinterpreting anything he did that seemed wrong. This is a pretty standard strategy for predators.
2) I am, as far as I know, the only person who only had just one of these encounters with Jerry. Everyone else seems to have experienced them multiple times. (One reason I didn’t is that I didn’t live in Milledgeville.) Anyone who repeated gritted their teeth through this ritual, though, would have probably wanted to come to some non-sexual interpretation of what it meant, in order to keep enduring them with a good (Baptist) conscience. Jerry provided them with de-sexualized explanations that helped them do that, and they continued to give Jerry the benefit of the doubt.
3) There’s another powerful incentive for us not to have thought of it as sexual: Anyone who repeatedly tolerated this mistreatment, and also viewed it as sexual would now have to explain why they didn’t resist, fight back, or tell someone, and why they continued to endure these sessions. It could make room for speculation and gossip about their sexuality. For a heterosexual Baptist man this is a very powerful reason to genuinely believe that what Jerry was doing was not homoerotic.
I do sincerely believe the other men who say they didn’t view Jerry’s treatment as sexual. I think they really do believe it wasn’t, because they had very powerful incentives to view his treatment of them in the best possible light. I believe I am the only person who views his actions as sexual because I had fewer of those incentives, and the ones I had were weaker. More specifically: 1) I’m not a member of the local community, and so I don’t have to worry about my peers speculating as to why I was complicit in an apparently-homoerotic ritual. 2) I wasn’t around long enough for Jerry to do this to me regularly, and so the worry about seeming complicit is even lower. And 3) I’m not a conservative Christian, and so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with homosexuality. It wouldn’t bother me for people to speculate about my sexuality.
Even so, when it comes to these other men, I think any speculation about what their experiences mean about their own sexuality is seriously, maliciously ignorant. Jerry cleverly selected people who admired him for all the other sincerely good things he’d done, and that admiration was strong enough to make them believe his explanation of what he was doing to them, no matter how much those explanations varied from one person to the next. And I think Jerry was very keen to have these men not think of his actions in sexual terms, even though I think for him they definitely were sexual.
In any case, Jerry is no longer in a position to inflict this bizarre mistreatment on his parishioners. I say above that I believe the man who has taken up Jerry’s duties in the interim, Terry Quick, along with an associate pastor, Phil Bishop, are not the right men for the job. I firmly believe that they should also step down or be terminated. The reason has to do with something I’ve kept secret since I published the first letter.
In that letter, I tell how I wrote to three of the staff members of the church, telling them about my encounter with Jerry. Each of those recipients would have thought they were the only on I’d written, because the letter was addressed directly to them. I know now that, one by one, they each took their letter directly to Jerry, the very person I was accusing of deception and sexual misconduct. And one by one they let Jerry convince them to ignore it. I would love to know how those conversations went, but I can only assume Jerry told them that I’m a liar, or that I’m crazy. And it worked. Each of those people put aside the skepticism they should have felt, and protected the accused by keeping it quiet. That was in 2011, and none of those three recipients still works at the church today. Terry Quick and Phil Bishop weren’t in their current positions then.
What I haven’t told anyone until this week, though, is that the 2011 letters weren’t the only ones I sent.
In October of 2017 I wrote an anonymous email to Terry Quick, and another to Phil Bishop, telling them that, years ago, when I was a teen attending FBC, Jerry Bradley had made clear sexual advances toward me, and that I worried he was doing it with other young men in the church. Of course, unfortunately, I was right.
In the last portion of the messages I sent to Dr. Quick and Rev. Bishop, I said the following:
Understand that my claim is not that Jerry Bradley is a thoroughly wicked person. He’s not. He’s got plenty of virtuous qualities. But I know without any shadow of doubt that among all those, he also has deviant sexual interests that he has expressed towards young men in ways that hurt and horrified them.
If this letter encouraged you to just look at your pastor a little more closely, to treat his motives with scrutiny, and to make sure that young people under his wing aren’t being manipulated, I would be glad of that. And if I’m making all this up, or if I’m just crazy and Jerry is morally sound, then in the end all your scrutiny will reveal that. And that would be a good thing.
I sent those messages, and then I waited one year. I am confident that both letters were received, opened, and read (there are ways of tracking these things, if you’re clever), but even so, during that year nothing at all seemed to have happened. Jerry remained pastor, and I didn’t hear a word from Quick or Bishop.
These two pastors—if you’re an FBC member, your pastors—received a sincere letter, written directly to them, by a person claiming to have been sexualized and harmed by a church leader. And how did they handle it? They took it to the very person accused of being a deceiver and predator, and when that person told them to ignore the person claiming to have been abused, they did exactly that. And they responded to that person with total silence.
To be vulnerable for a moment, I can tell you that this was painful for me. It was yet another disappointment in the church, another blow to my confidence in people who claim to be so committed to embodying the loving will of God that they’ve made it their vocation, and get paid for it. Both of these people refused me the kindness and dignity that I deserve as a human who’d been wronged and hurt. That hurt and made me feel kind of hopeless, even though it had already happened once before. Even now, none of the staff who I wrote in 2011 or 2017 have bothered to personally contact me. I wonder what Jerry told them to convince them ignore me. I wonder if they still believe it.
I have been careful in everything I’ve said here not to insult or demonize anyone, and so I hope it’s clear that I don’t say this lightly, but I want to speak now in my capacity as doctor of applied ethics. From everything I know at this point, I can only conclude that the way Phil Bishop and Terry Quick handled my letters to them was not only flatly stupid, but seriously unethical. And what they did to me–blindly believing whatever Jerry said to convince them I should be ignored, and treating me with contemptuous silence–that was plainly immoral. And the clear stupidity and immorality of their actions make them unfit to lead a church, especially one full of young people who look up to them as people they can trust if they find themselves in danger, or if they are being harmed.
It could have been anyone who wrote anonymous emails to Dr. Quick and Rev. Bishop. It could have been your son or daughter, or you, and it seems to me that the result would have been the same: Jerry would easily convince them to ignore you. If the next pastor were to molest a young person, and they, out of fear, anonymously told Quick or Bishop, we have good reason to believe that absolutely nothing would be done about it. This was a test of these pastors’ moral mettle, and they decisively failed.
Even now, neither has said a word to me—not to me, personally, anyway. After I published the open letter, however, Phil Bishop decided to dignify me with a response. Here’s what he had to say:
On June 25, 2017, you emailed me a troubling message concerning my Pastor. Today I read a lengthy article shared on the First Baptist Milledgeville Facebook page. It was later deleted. After reading it, I remembered the email I received from you. I had discussed it at length with Jerry and then filed away in my own records should I ever need it. I assume you and the writer of the article are one and the same person? If you posted the article on Facebook would you kindly send it to me here? I would greatly appreciate it. As you can imagine, the article set some things into motion and your story will not be ignored. I would like to have all pieces of the “puzzle” in mind as we move forward.
Associate Pastor for Worship
First Baptist Church, Milledgeville, GA
Notice: there’s no apology for coldly ignoring a person who’d been victimized by a predator, no words of comfort, no sympathy. He talks about a letter from a victim of sexual abuse as if it were an invoice: he discussed it, printed it out, and filed it away just in case it might be useful to him in the future. I wonder if other victims of Jerry’s abuse have received the same casually gutless, patronizingly polite treatment. Whatever the case, Bishop’s nonchalant response and Quick’s total silence show the same thing: these are not people who can be trusted to carry out the challenging moral duties of their positions. They lack the wisdom to know that you don’t handle serious allegations by letting the accused decide how to handle those accusations. And, even though they have certainly done right by many people in their work as ministers, they lack the kindness, humility, and guts to handle tough situations where victims are involved.
I didn’t mention my letters to Quick and Bishop in the open letter because I wanted to give them a chance to come forward on their own and admit that they had mishandled the situation. I am guessing that they’ve instead been sitting back, hoping whoever wrote them (probably me) just won’t bring it up. I assume they understand it would be disastrous for them if their congregation knew that they had responded so carelessly and coldly to claims of sexual abuse in their church. I hope that the congregation understands that Dr. Quick and Rev. Bishop’s cold, careless moral ineptitude poses a serious danger to the young people they’re charged to protect, as a shepherd protects his flock from wolves—especially those posing as sheep, or other shepherds.
I’m holding out faith that the deacons at FBC will do what’s right for their congregation now. My conversations with deacon Wes Cummings have bolstered my confidence that he’s the right person for the job. He seems to possess the wisdom, strength, and moral acumen to handle this very complex situation as it continues to unfold. If I’m wrong on this point, though, I hope that the congregation will demand that Dr. Quick and Rev. Bishop be replaced with others who have the character that these two clearly lack. And I hope that, in the meantime, Dr. Quick and Rev. Bishop will admit their failures to the congregation, and that they will seek the forgiveness of those who they could have protected, but didn’t.