In 2005, the pastor of my hometown church took me to his office, swore me to secrecy before God, and then instructed me to undress. I told church staff years ago, and saw no response. I should have told the public then. Now I am.
This is an account of a disturbing encounter I had in 2005 with Jerry Bradley, who was then, and still is, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Milledgeville. This account is quite long, for a few reasons: First, because I want it to be definitive and thorough, so that no important questions are left unanswered for readers as they process it and decide on its significance. Second, this is lengthy because understanding my relationship with Jerry leading up to that day will help readers who are members of First Baptist understand how I — being neither a member of the church, nor a long-time attendee — knew Jerry well enough to spend time alone with him. Lastly, this contextual information will be important for understanding how and why I’ve come forward in the various ways that I have.
This account is divided into three parts. The first provides context and background — who I am, how I met Jerry, and what sort of relationship we had in the year or so before my encounter with him. The second part is an account of what happened that day, in as much detail as I can remember. The third part covers the significant events from that day up to now. There, I describe some of the long-term effects Jerry’s actions had for me, and provide details of who I told about this event. In that section, I also attempt to preemptively address some of the questions readers might raise — questions about how to interpret what Jerry did, how to understand the explanation of it that he gave me, how to decide what all this should mean for First Baptist Church, and how to consider the inevitable question whether I could just be making all this up. Finally, I end this document with a message to any readers who have had their own disturbing experience with Pastor Bradley. I hope there are few such readers, but I doubt there are none.
Everything I’ve written here is true to my memory of the events, and does not go beyond them. I would be willing to swear to the truth of everything I’ve written here in a court of law, should it ever come to that.
George Michael Glawson, Ph.D.
How I Met Jerry Bradley and Became His Friend
In 2002, in the second half of my junior year at Baldwin High School in Milledgeville, Georgia, I was seventeen years old, and trying to decide what to do after graduation. In the absence of any adult guidance on the matter, there were only two options that made any sense to me. The first was to study religion, a subject I had become intensely interested in since my Christian conversion the year before at a YoungLife camp. The second option was to pursue a career in the thing I was genuinely good at — playing the drums. I knew plenty of musicians I could go to with questions about becoming a professional, but when it came to the professionally religious, the only person I knew was the pastor of First Baptist Church, which I had attended semi-regularly since my conversion a little over a year before, and which I chose simply because my grandmother was a member there, and had once taken me there for vacation bible school. The pastor of the church was a man named Jerry Bradley, and he still pastors there today, according to their website. I had met Jerry once or twice before, shaking hands briefly after his sermon, though I had never had a real conversation with him up to then.
So, one Sunday morning, I waited until the sermon had ended and everyone else had filed out of the enormous front doors. I approached Jerry, and I explained that I was trying to choose between career paths, and that being a minister was among my top choices, and I asked if he’d be willing to meet with me sometime and give me his input. To my delight, he seemed eager, and we made plans to meet the coming week.
Jerry Bradley, when I knew him: At the time, he was probably in his early-to-mid thirties, but didn’t look a day younger than fifty. Well before we met, Jerry’s scalp had surrendered unconditionally to the encroaching force of male pattern baldness. He wore the sort of glasses one would naturally call “spectacles” without a thought. They suited him well. He looked like an accountant for a funeral home. But his appearance belied his skill as a preacher, making his sermons more impressive as he delivered them with a lovely, somniferous baritone.
Despite his appearance, when this grave, Puritan preacher stepped out from behind the pulpit, he could be as warm and friendly as a golden retriever. He had puns and Bible verses ready for any occasion, and in the gaps between dad jokes he would casually insert little antique Biblical phrases in conversation, as if King James English were a first language he accidentally slipped back into if he weren’t careful. For some reason, I automatically liked Jerry, perhaps because I saw something familiar in the way he held apparent opposite personality traits — gravity and levity — in tension. Or maybe it was just because he seemed eager to be liked. In any case, he seemed like a good person to ask advice about pursuing life as a minister.
Jerry and I met for that first time, chatted over chicken sandwiches and salads at Locos, an odd, moose-themed restaurant and bar downtown, which is no longer there. Jerry patiently answered my questions about a life in ministry — how do I know if I’m being called? what sort of degree would I need?, do I have to take math in seminary?, what does a pastor do all day when he’s not preaching?, what books did he recommend? His answers were informative and encouraging, but I came away from our discussion with something of even greater value — a kind of personal, moral affirmation. The fact that Jerry was willing to even sit down and talk to me about the idea of ministry gave me validation that I could be something other than the product of my upbringing, that I could be a different, better person from the one I had been up to that point, who I didn’t like much at all.
I would turn eighteen soon, and up to that point I had been a rowdy, and frankly weird kid — living evidence of years of trouble at home. To the extent that I had any reputation among the adults of Milledgeville, it was probably for doing things like dying my hair purple to test the disciplinary limits at the military school, or for my regular suspensions for mouthing off at teachers, or for spending weeknights playing in bar bands. The idea that Michael Glawsonwould ever aspire to the holy calling of ministry could have seemed laughable to my teachers, or my friends, or their parents, and I was painfully aware of this. But Jerry didn’t laugh or dissuade. Maybe he just didn’t know me at all, but even so, he took my interest seriously, and this small act of validation gave me hope that I could be a more respectable person than I had been, minister or no.
The conversation had given me plenty to think over and research, and I asked him if he wouldn’t mind meeting again sometime, once I’d given everything more thought. He told me he’d be happy to. In fact, Jerry said, he had personally enjoyed our conversation very much, that it was a nice break from work at the church and house visits with the elderly. Even if I didn’t have any new questions, he said, he would like to see me again sometime — just two guys, hanging out, getting to know each other. This was something I’d never really had before. At the time, I was estranged from the one older male in my life — my father — and I was excited by the prospect of the friendship of a respected, older man. I felt affirmed, special, selected, so we planned to meet again in the next week or two.
Opening Up to Jerry
Our second lunch together turned into seven or so, always at the same restaurant, where I would always get the grilled chicken sandwich with pasta salad, and where Jerry would often insist on paying. As we got to know each other, he naturally guided the conversations toward details about my personal life that one might expect a pastor to ask a young attendee of his church: what my home life was like, what hobbies I had, and so on. I’ve always been a solitary person, but I liked Jerry well enough to open up to him, and his timing happened to be good. My home situation was totally deteriorating at that point. My father hadn’t spoken to me in more than a year, and my mother’s life had become a small sphere of sickness and pain that rarely included me. In the middle of that confusing time, it was a welcome relief that a kind, seemingly normal person outside my immediate circle of dysfunctional family and teenage friends was interested in me, and wanted to be my friend. I wasn’t an open book, but I shared enough of the details of my life to let him see that things were unusually hard at the time, and he listened with genuine concern. These conversations with Jerry were among the first I’d ever had with an adult who seemed to want to hear about the hard things, rather than brush them off, out of sight.
It was not long — probably around our third or fourth meeting — before I had made the decision to pursue music rather than ministry. I’d been looking at music programs and had been applying and auditioning all along as I was weighing my options, and I had quickly received a surprisingly good offer to start a degree in drum set performance at the McNally-Smith College of Music, in St. Paul, Minnesota.
As I prepared to move to start classes in the Spring, Jerry and I still continued to meet every week or two, our relationship having shifted focus well beyond my vocational questions. I could tell that his fondness for me was growing, and that he wanted me to like him. It was obvious by the way he sometimes tried to speak casually, in the way he imagined I would, even letting out the occasional anodyne swear in front of me with a feigned coolness that said “There’s more to me than the stiff, bespectacled preacher behind the pulpit.” In this way he sometimes acted like a buddy and an equal, while at other times posturing as a counselor or therapist, and then other times, like a spiritual mentor to me; each of these came in a semi-distinct persona of its own, with its own tone and conversational style.
At times I felt like these roles he adopted toward me had developed more quickly than I was comfortable with, or that he projected a sense of authority or entitlement — issuing spiritual instructions or asking personal questions without my having agreed to these roles — but this kind of relationship, with an older man who would give me spiritual guidance, was new to me, and I trusted his intentions, and so I generally went with it. It soon became clear, though, that opening up and sharing ever more personal details with Jerry was an implicit condition of our spending time together. There was little else he asked about. I imagined this was due to some innate moral concern that came with being a pastor.
As our conversations became more personal, they steered toward the topic that all Baptist preachers must see as the most fraught moral and spiritual battleground for young men — sexuality. I remember one of these conversations very vividly:
Jerry always suggested we meet at the church before our lunches, where I would wait outside his office until he finished whatever meeting or work thing he was doing, and then we would ride together to and from the restaurant. On this day, after we’d finished lunch and driven back to the church, we sat in his minivan, parked near the back edge of the church parking lot. Fifty yards away, down the paved slope I could see the building where I’d gone to vacation bible school, where I’d made a trivet out of popsicle sticks, and little colored porcelain tiles.
“Michael, are you a virgin?”, Jerry asked, donning his Solemn Mentor persona.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the question. Jerry already knew from our conversations about Christian life that I was genuinely committed to obeying God’s will, and since it is an unquestioned tenet of Evangelical Christianity that God only approves of sex between spouses, Jerry no doubt knew I was morally committed to being celibate. I couldn’t see why he needed to know whether I had always been successful in living up to that commitment — he’d never asked if I had stolen, or disobeyed my parents, or committed any other specific sin — but I answered anyway.
“No, I’m not. Not since I was sixteen,” I said.
“That’s a shame,” he replied with an odd tone, not of pity that I’d given up something good, but rather of real disappointment in me, even a touch of anger. He told me the story of how he and his wife had both “saved” themselves until their wedding night. He spoke in the same somber, musical baritone of his sermons, making his story into a sort of eulogy for his virginity.
I asked whether he would still have married his wife if she hadn’t “saved herself”, as he’d put it.
He replied without any hesitation, “Absolutely not”.
I remember being struck, and saddened by what seemed like the lack of grace in his response, the idea that he would have denied this woman his companionship, and everything their future together held, if he found out that she’d made one moral mistake — a sin God had surely forgiven.
As if he’d heard my thoughts, he explained that he just couldn’t have stood knowing that, at the same time that he was suffering through celibacy, she had been out there “having her fun”.
I remember that phrase — having her fun — how he had infused it with the disgust he felt for all that sex with other men that his wife hadn’t even had, and how it made me feel pointlessly ashamed for the few, clumsy moments of romantic affection I’d shared with others, the last only a little more than a year before.
The conversation seemed to have gone sour, and so we said our goodbyes and parted. This was the last time I remember seeing Jerry before I moved.
A Spiritual/Vocational Crisis
I spent the following year in St. Paul, studying jazz technique and music theory. Though I loved the subjects, I was, to my intense confusion, totally miserable inside. I knew no one in the massive city, and I had never lived alone, or even outside of Milledgeville. At one point, I hadn’t seen the sun in more than a month. I was sad, and constantly wrestled to subdue a shapeless sense of uneasiness and urgency that had hummed in the background of my mind since childhood, but that would lately go off like a screaming alarm, sending me into hours-long bouts of total interior panic without any clear reason.
I know now that what I was experiencing was the combination of serious lifelong depression and anxiety disorders, but it would be seven years before I learned enough psychology to make sense out of these problems, and seek out medical help. But at the time, my worldview was dominated by a moralistic Christian spirituality without much nuance or room for deep psychological or neurochemical causes of anxiety. So, I viewed my depressed, frantic state as a spiritual problem, a sign that something in my life was terribly misaligned with God’s will, and my misery as His way of letting me know I wasn’t on good terms with Him.
I sought spiritual solutions, trying to figure out how to find God’s will. I had not yet learned how to tell a good book from a bad one, and so I finally found myself one day sitting in the Caribou Coffee in the Mall of America, trying to force my frenzied mind to concentrate on the last pages of a flatulent, vapid little book by John Ortberg, called If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. I finished the book, and wandered over to the railing to get a view of the rollercoasters in the center of the mall. I’d concluded that God was upset with me because I had gone into music rather than ministry, and that I would never feel at peace until I gave up and let His plan carry me where He wanted it to. So I closed my eyes and prayed, begging God’s forgiveness for the selfish act of pursuing what I loved rather than what He wanted, and for lacking the wisdom to hear His guidance from the beginning. I promised Him that I would follow His will from that day on, no matter what it cost me.
The next day I dropped out of my classes and began submitting applications to the handful of undergraduate programs in theology that focused on preparing one for seminary. A few days later I was accepted at my top pick, Southeastern Bible College, (now Piedmont International University). I took the fast turnaround as a sign that I was finally on the right track (rather than a sign that the 300-student school wasn’t drowning in applications), and I packed my bags for the drive home to Georgia, then to Birmingham, just in time for the start of the Fall semester of 2004.
Reconnecting With Jerry
A year passed at Southeastern, and, to my horror, my anxiety hadn’t abated at all. My religious misinterpretations and self-sabotaging reactions that began with abandoning music soon developed into a pattern of continual “sacrifices” aimed at demonstrating my devotion to God. I “fasted” — starving myself for days just to show Him I was willing to. I read the entire Bible, front to back, more than once. I prayed prostrate, or sat in silence for long periods, trying to hear God speaking to me. On more than one occasion I impulsively withdrew just shy of all the money in my bank account, and gave it to the homeless people who slept near the fountain of Birmingham’s Little Five Points. I did this not out of real love for them, or for God, or anyone else, but as an attempt to please God enough that he’d lift me out of the fire of my anxiety and existential dread, over which I pictured him dangling me. None of it worked, ever.
Christmas break approached, and I went home to Milledgeville. The other students I knew were talking about their plans for Summer mission trips, and when I realized that this is what Christian college students did with their Summers, the thought of spending mine in leisure seemed sinfully selfish. So, because I had come to see God’s will for me as requiring continual sacrifices of happiness and comfort, I began searching the internet for the longest, most grueling Christian service opportunities I could find for the coming Summer. I thought not in terms of skills I had to contribute, but rather in terms of suffering I was willing to endure. I’ve always hated the heat of a Georgia Summer, I’ve never had any experience working with children, and the years of my mother’s illness and of accompanying my parents to the hospitals where they worked had left painful impressions on my mind. So, I settled on a three month mission trip to work in orphanages and leper colonies in India, where I was guaranteed temperatures around 115F.
All that was left was to secure letters of recommendation from my Church, and $3,500 for the trip. I drafted letters requesting donations, and sent them to the small handful of people I knew around Milledgeville who might think fondly enough of me to contribute. Even if they all donated twice what I could reasonably ask, though, I knew I would still be short at least $2,000. The only other person I knew who’d gone on mission trips was my grandmother, who joined other members of First Baptist each Summer to build houses for the poor in Ghana. It occurred to me then that FBC might have some sort of fund for supporting their members’ mission trips, and that maybe, even though I wasn’t an official member, I could qualify for some support. I had kept in touch with Jerry through email during my transition from music to theology, and when I wrote asking if we could talk about my trip, he gladly agreed.
That Day In His Office
Jerry and I reprised our usual routine of meeting at the church and riding to the usual restaurant. On this occasion, I believe we took an old truck that Jerry or the church owned. He asked about my classes, and about the details of my upcoming trip to India. I told him about my intense struggle to find God’s will, and the sacrifices I was making to try to please God. From this conversation and others before it, Jerry certainly understood the intense psychological and emotional weight my relationship to God had on me, and how seriously I took my commitments to God. He seemed impressed by my recent decision to pursue ministry, and I was proud of that.
As the lunch ended, I broached the topic of funding the trip, and asked whether FBC ever helped fund its members’ or friends’ missions. He regretted that no such funds existed, and my disappointment was probably obvious. He tried to encourage me, though, with the promise that, if it was God’s will that I go, the funds would appear; he’d seen it happen a hundred times. It worked, and I felt encouraged in the vain hope that I wouldn’t have to use the last of my college savings to pay for the trip.
After lunch that day, we got in his truck and rode back to the Church where we would usually part ways, but when we arrived, Jerry asked if I would come with him to his office for a few minutes to discuss something that was on his mind. It didn’t occur to me at the time to ask why the discussion needed to happen in his office, but he had asked before that I meet him there in case he were caught up attending to something, so it didn’t strike me as very unusual.
We took the stairwell, which was always full of stuffy, stagnant air, then walked through his secretary’s office, which was situated like a foyer to his so that you had to pass through hers first.
He immediately excused himself for a moment, and went back out of the office as if he’d forgotten something. I heard him speak to his secretary, though I couldn’t tell what he said. Then he came back in the office, and quietly, carefully shut the door in a way that immediately made me a bit uneasy.
A closed door was probably not that unusual for him, I thought, since he sometimes counseled members about personal matters. It was unusual to me though, since he had never shut the door any of the other times I had met him in his office, and nothing we had talked about that day had been very personal or confidential. My unease grew and was compounded by being in that dimly lit, confined space.
Once he had closed the door, he moved quietly, and took a seat behind his desk, which stood between our respective chairs. He sat for a moment, staring directly at me, then slowly, and with a gravitas that seemed totally forced and unnatural to the situation, he looked me in the eyes and said,
“Michael, I want to ask you a very important question. Do you trust me?”
His demeanor had undergone an intense shift from the casual and friendly air he’d had as we lunched, to one that was intensely serious and direct. It was a persona of his that I’d never encountered. He held unblinking eye contact and spoke calmly, but with a tone that made every question an imperative.
I told him that, yes, I did trust him.
“All right,” he said, “Again, I want to ask: Michael, do you trust me?”
As before, I told him that I did, my discomfort growing.
He told me next that he wanted to go through an exercise with me, but that first, before we began, the exercise required that I promise him two things: First, I must promise him that whatever was done or said in that room would stay in that room. And second, I must promise that I would trust him and follow his directions exactly as he gave them, no matter what. Furthermore, this exercise was so important that it was essential I make these promises not just to him, but that I swore them to God as well.
This sounded dangerous and unreasonable, and it increasingly seemed like the sort of situations parents warn their children about. And, I did not, in fact, trust Jerry in any profound way, certainly not so much that I would have blindly pledged my trust to him on my own. Nevertheless, in that moment, the cost of refusing what he clearly wanted from me felt far too great for me to instinctively say no, and directly refusing would require pausing the scene to think through the situation and craft a response that was sufficiently polite, but also conveyed my discomfort. The flow of the situation, as he was directing it, simply didn’t allow for any of that.
So, I said “Okay. I promise,” while thinking to myself, “Don’t worry, you’re bigger than he is. You can take him.”
Then, for a third, unbearable time, he said “Now I want to ask you one last time, and I want you to think before you answer, so that you’re totally sure.” He paused, then, dragging out each word, said, “Michael. Do…you…really…trust me?”
Again, I said yes. I have no doubt, though, that he could clearly detect in my voice the anxiety that was rising in me. I could feel my face and hands getting hot, and I had probably begun clenching and unclenching my jaw.
Finally, the Exercise began.
He instructed me to stand up, and to walk over to the big mirror that hung on the wall, to my left, and to the right of the door. I did, and stood there facing it. He told me to look at myself and to concentrate on his voice.
Then, speaking clearly, he said, “I want you to unbutton your shirt.”
I specifically remember what I wore that day: my shirt was light green, and of a very thin material, with long sleeves and a darker green pattern of vertical stripes with little lines of ivy woven between them. Under it, I wore a thin, white t-shirt of the kind we’d had to wear under our military school uniforms. My pants were khaki, held up by a belt that matched almost nothing, but which I wore with everything — a woven khaki strap of cloth with the kind of buckle that is just two steel rings you use to thread the strap through and then back on itself. I don’t remember my shoes.
I unbuttoned the green shirt, and let it hang.
He told me to take it off.
I did, and dropped it to the floor, or maybe over my chair.
“The other one too,” he said with a tone that added of course.
I pulled the white cotton shirt off, over my head, and put it aside.
Even when I was a physically healthy weight, as I was then, I have always been self-conscious of my body, particularly the way I carry excess weight in my chest and belly, and I have had a lifelong habit of constantly tugging at my shirt to keep the cloth from following the contours of my chest and stomach too tightly, for fear of others glimpsing the outline of the creases and bulges that I think shouldn’t be there.
I stood there, shirtless, turning redder in the mirror as Jerry sat silently for what felt like a very long time, I assume, letting his eyes move over me.
He then told me to take off my belt.
I unbuckled it, and I think I took it off completely, but I’m not sure. I may have just let the ends hang.
The belt was a turning point for me though. There was no doubt in my mind where Jerry was going, and it was too disturbing and embarrassing for me to keep calm for much longer. I had no intention of letting Jerry have any kind of access — visual, physical, or whatever — to my naked body, and especially not under the thin guise of a spiritual exercise. I suddenly, in the moment, felt ashamed that I had played along and gotten so deep into this disgusting, cliché, abusive situation — a religious leader swearing me to secrecy then telling me to get naked for the implicit purpose of helming me be a better Christian. It was so obvious. I still feel ashamed that I didn’t have the integrity and will to just say “fuck this”, and walk out.
But, I understand now that moments like this are so bewildering that the people caught in them simply don’t feel like they have the freedom to defy the situation, or the person orchestrating it.
At that moment, even though I lacked the guts or whatever to make an explicit verbal protest, I realized that I had decided to stop playing along, and instead let my exasperation show completely. So I sighed with disgust, shook my head and rolled my eyes in the way I do to say, silently but clearly, “this is insane, it’s bullshit”. I let it show, as clearly and completely as I could, that I understood what was really going on here, and that I wasn’t willing to continue.
In response, Jerry’s demeanor changed too. He stopped issuing instructions, tried to switch gears, and asked a question.
“Tell me Michael,” he said, “what do you see?”
I don’t remember my exact words beyond that I began by saying “I don’t know Jerry…”, in an accusatory, exhausted tone that I felt a little proud and gutsy for. I told him something to the effect that I saw a half-naked guy standing shirtless this office.
After a moment of silence, the pastor said “You can put your clothes back on now.”
I don’t think I had looked away from the mirror since the exercise began, and now as I turned to look at him, I suddenly wondered if he had been masturbating as he gave me directions. He was sitting with his chair pulled up close to his desk, though, and his hands were out of sight, in his lap or on his knees. I still wonder about this.
I put my clothes back on, and turned to face him. This was the part where he would have to explain what had just happened, and I think it was clear from my demeanor that it was going to be difficult.
When he spoke, his demeanor had shifted again, from intense and controlling, to red-faced and nervous. In contrast to his usual measured, calculated way of talking, he was nervous and unconfident.
The first thing I remember him saying was “You see, I could have made you go further, but I didn’t.”
I don’t know how he meant me to understand this, but I understood him then, as I do now, to mean that stopping short of telling me to show him my genitals was an act of kindness that I should be grateful for. See, I could have made you show me your penis, or your anus, or your balls, and you would have had to, because you promised God that you’d do whatever I said. But I didn’t make you do that. See? I’m not a bad guy.
I have absolutely no doubt at all that he had intended to have me go further, but that the changes in my facial expressions, audible sighs, and body language I made when he told me to take my belt off caused him to choose to not issue the next instruction to take off my pants. I have no doubt that, if I had continued to appear cooperative, he would have had me completely naked in his office, and I’m not sure it would have ended there. It’s not just a happy coincidence that Jerry quit telling me to take my clothes off right when I started to show that I was really furious.
Beginning with his comment that he “could have made” me go further, he went on to produce a rambling stream of thought explanation for what had happened. He talked about how I was special, not like other people my age, how I was smart and ambitious, how I was going places in ministry. Oh, he knew it all too well. But the ministry was a dangerous world, he said, and there would be people along the way who would see all this potential in me, who would see how special I am. And many of them would be bad people. And this is what they would do: they would try to bring me into their confidence and secure my loyalty to them, and once they had my trust and loyalty, they would abuse it for their own perverse ends. They’d put me in awful situations against my will for their own sick pleasure, or for immoral ends, or for their financial benefit. He had seen it happen, and he was deeply worried that I would fall prey to these manipulative wolves in sheep’s clothing.
So this had been an object lesson, one that would help me escape the traps the wolves would set for me, because it would teach me the most important lesson: that I should learn to never give my trust to anyone, no matter who they are.
I remember him saying this last thing explicitly. I had been watching him deliver this fumbling exposition from some distance inside my head, and the moment he said that this had been the grand lesson, I could have laughed. It was obviously a stupid and false lesson to teach anyone, because, despite what Jerry Bradley thinks, there are people in the world whom you really can trust, who won’t use your trust to humiliate you for their gratification. More importantly, the lesson made a fool out of him, because it carried the clear implication that he was untrustworthy too, and that I should never have trusted him in the first place. If he really believed this about himself, why not tell me from the start, rather than having me undress in order to make the point that he couldn’t be trusted? It all seemed so absurd, and I still think he didn’t intend before that moment for this to be The Big Lesson. I think he just fumbled his way to this explanation because he had not planned on having to give it in the first place, and because he’s just not nearly as smart as his sanctimonious, learned persona is intended to suggest.
In response to his grand reveal, I simply nodded. Okay, thanks. I had no idea what to say; I just wanted to get out of the situation, out of that office.
He stood — finally ready for our lesson to end — and walked from behind his desk to stand beside me. But before he let me go, he reminded me what I had promised him and God — my promise that I would keep everything that had happened a secret, forever.
Was I still good for my word?
I told him that I was, and turned toward his office door to leave. He was positioned roughly between me and the door, so that it would have been physically awkward for me to move past him to open the door myself. Before he reached to open the door and let me out of the room, he stuck his hand out, shifting his tone back to Casual Jerry mode, and said, “So, are we still cool?”
“Yeah, Jerry,” I lied, “we’re cool”, shaking his hand without smiling. He opened the door, and I walked through his secretary’s office, down the stairs, and out into the shock of the brisk, sunny day.
I sat in my car for a while, trying to piece together exactly what had just happened. I felt so many things: shame, fear, confusion. I felt alone. I wasn’t morally or theologically savvy enough not to feel fearful of breaking the promise I’d made before God to keep all this secret. I was disgusted by Jerry’s clearly sexual interest in my body, angry that I had been used, and hurt by the fact that someone I trusted had manipulated me for their own secret, private pleasure. I drove off and tried to put it out of my mind for a while.
As I processed the experience over weeks and months, there were moments where I really did try to see what Jerry had done as a spiritual exercise intended for my benefit, but which had just missed its mark, however wildly. In the end though, I knew that what he had done to me wasn’t benign, and it wasn’t really intended to be an object lesson at all.
I reasoned that object lessons have to be distinguishable from, and safer than, the real challenge or situation they’re preparing you to face. Otherwise they’re just abuse in the disguise of creative teaching. Like jumping on a person in the dark, beating the hell out of them, and taking their wallet, to “help them learn the importance of avoiding robbers”. An assault doesn’t miraculously turn into a valuable pedagogical service just because you tack on “and that’s why you should watch out for people like me”. Jerry hadn’t given me an object lesson on foreseeing and avoiding manipulative, abusive ministers. He’d just been a manipulative and abusive minister, and he clearly knew it from his own weak attempt at framing the experience not as real sleazy sexual role-play, but as pretend sleazy sexual role-play that illustrated how I shouldn’t trust anyone in ministry. Even in his own explanation, what he’d done was intended to be abuse.
Coming Forward: People I Told
Some will wonder why I waited until now, more than a decade after it happened, to tell anyone about this, but, in fact, I’ve been telling people about that day in Jerry’s office for years. As it turns out, Jerry wouldn’t even need my secrecy to avoid the consequences. As early as a year after that day, I began telling members and staff of FBC, and other ministers who knew Jerry exactly what happened. As far as I can tell, they’ve done nothing.
What follows is an account of how I decided to break the promise I made Jerry and God to keep quiet, and whom I told.
When I returned to the States at the end of my Summer mission, I was still feeling conflicted and guilty about telling anyone, because of the promise I’d made, but I had begun to feel even more burdened by the thought that what I had experienced with Jerry could be part of a pattern of behavior that included other, younger people at the church. So, when school started that Fall of ’05, I sat down with the head of my theology department, Jason, and I told him everything that I’ve written here. Jason had pastored a church for years before becoming a professor, and he told me in no uncertain terms that what I had experienced was manipulation and abuse, that it seemed obviously sexual, and that it was a clear sign that Jerry was not fit for the pastorate. He encouraged me to tell other people in the church.
Telling My Grandmother, and The Unexpected Cost
The one person at FBC whom I trusted most was my grandmother, who had been a member since long before Jerry became the pastor there, and who had taken me there as a child for vacation Bible school. This woman — really my adoptive grandmother — had been my paternal grandmother’s life partner since well before I was born, and had probably been a FBC member about as long. Anyone who has been active in the church for long has experienced her radiant kindness, and seemingly inexhaustible energy.
When the semester ended, I went home to Milledgeville for Christmas break, and during one visit with her, as we sat in what she always called the “television room” of her yellow brick house on Clark street, I nervously recounted what happened, just as I told my professor, and just as I’ve told it here.
While she has always been unquestionably loving toward me, she is also a strict pragmatist and a peacemaker. She has a toughness, even a hardness, that was formed during a Great Depression, and solidified during her career as an Army colonel and a professor, at a time when women rarely lived as she did. So, perhaps I should have expected her reaction.
For a moment, she seemed genuinely troubled, silently chewing over the details. Finally though, she came to a decision in her head, and when she makes a decision, the matter is settled: “Well,” she said, “Jerry can be kind of a strange guy sometimes. I don’t think he meant anything by it.”
I was floored. I tried to push, telling her that it wasn’t just strange, that he seemed to have intended to have me naked, and that my main concern wasn’t really what he’d done to me, but the fact that anyone who did this sort of thing in their role as a pastor was probably doing similar things with others. Nevertheless, she demurred and changed the subject — her way of letting one know that the conversation was over — and that was the end of it.
Somewhere inside me, a bottom had dropped out, and I was in free fall. I had opened up about a matter of intense emotional concern to a person I trusted, perhaps most of anyone in my life at the time, and she had just wanted to dismiss the matter and avoid its uncomfortable implications. For a moment I hated her.
I think, now, about how my grandmother would have grown up as a girl, and then as a woman, in a time when the desires and actions of respected men weren’t open for scrutiny, in a culture that had not yet developed a standard response to the sexual manipulation of young people by their religious leaders. So, perhaps she just didn’t know how to go about taking this story seriously.
Now though, I think she had other, more personal incentives to dismiss what I’d told her.
I think that taking my story seriously and doing something about it would have just been far too socially costly for my grandmother, for it would have jeopardized, or at least intensely strained, her most important relationships and social identity at a time when she needed them most — as she approached the end of her life. She was retired, and her partner, my paternal grandmother, whom she had loved intensely for half a lifetime, had died a few years before, and left her living alone. I and her biological family all lived out of state, if they lived at all. So now, as far as I could tell, First Baptist Church was her only social community, and, in it, she was well known, and well loved. It was her life outside that empty house. Tt gave her things to do. It was her entire community of friends. And Jerry was the central pillar of it all. Treating my experience as something significant could only destabilize the thing that she singularly relied on for the sense of belonging and companionship, without which she would have to spend her last years all alone.
But, surely, you’ll say, even if I told the church about my experience and they all somehow believed I was just a making it all up, surely, even then, no one would intentionally shun her as punishment for my wrongdoing.
That’s true, I think. But it’s easy to imagine a softer, less intentional sort of shunning taking place: friends becoming a bit more scarce over time; friendly, casual conversations gradually becoming briefer and more seldom, with friends and acquaintances eager to seer clear of any awkwardness; gossip flourishing , sensed, but out of earshot. That’s how I think it would have gone, with no one meaning the slightest harm.
Who could ask a person to risk so much? To risk spending the last years of life without the benefit of friends or company?
I realize now that our conversation that day dealt a lasting blow to our relationship, for it created a rift between us — one that perhaps opened from my side, but that nevertheless continually widened as my resentment at her response made me cynical toward the idea that she loved and cared for me at all. I sometimes wondered — stupidly, shamefully — whether perhaps her decades of obvious love had just been feigned out of duty to her partner. Even when I missed her enough, or selfishly needed something from her badly enough to overcome my cynicism and call, I would sometimes consciously think to myself, “She won’t really give a damn about anything you have to say — about who you’re dating or what conference you’re going to — not if she didn’t even care about The Jerry Thing.”
And so it was I, rather than the community of First Baptist, who became more scarce in her life.
I know now that I should have been more conscientious in fighting against these resentful and cynical thoughts, and that giving in to the instinct to shut myself off from her was as much an expression of my bad character as it was a legitimate reaction to feeling like she had casually dismissed me in a moment where I needed help. The failure in our relationship was mostly due to my own inability to understand and accept why it felt like she didn’t care, even though I knew she did. That’s my fault.
But the conversation that day about The Jerry Thing was the catalyst for those feelings and their subsequent harm to our relationship, for they acted as the wedge that forced a little new distance between us, without which I might never have grown apart from her as I did.
In the time it took me to accept and understand how she could have hurt me the way she did, that rift between us grew immensely. And, as it grew, so did the shadows and fissures in her aging mind.
Today, her body is probably healthier than mine, and she’s still a regular fixture at First Baptist, as far as I know. But if you strike up a conversation with her, she can only hold the thread of it for about fifteen seconds before it slips her grasp, and she has to start again from the beginning. The last time I saw her, I had brought my then-girlfriend to Milledgeville to meet my family for the first time. The three of us sat in her living room and my girlfriend watched with pity as my grandmother and I cycled through round after round of the same thirty-second conversation, which began each time with my grandmother loudly exclaiming that I had gotten too fat. After a dozen or so rounds I threw in the towel and we said our goodbyes, and I understood that the person I had known all my life had become permanently inaccessible to me. I’ve dreaded the next visit ever since — wondering if she will even know who I am — and, because I have been a coward, that next visit has never come.
That was probably six years ago. I include all this here, in an account of my experience with Jerry Bradley, because my encounter with him that day contributed, in some non-trivial way, to steering the course of my relationship with a person who is very important to me, whom I’ve known and loved my whole life. As I’ve said, Jerry isn’t solely responsible for the deterioration of my relationship with my grandmother, and he certainly could never have known how having me undress for him would have harmed my other relationships. But the way he used his position of authority in the church to manipulate me did, to some degree, great or small, help separate me from a person who loved me, and whom I loved, and I have never had many of those. I didn’t need any help being a half-assed grandson, but his actions and her response together helped make it feel pointless to try to be a good one.
Telling Jerry’s Youth Pastors
My grandmother was not the last person I told though. The Spring of 2006 passed, and when Summer came, First Baptist’s youth minister, Justin, called to ask if I would be willing to play drums for a week-long camp he was taking the youth group to. I had known Justin for years; we were about the same age, and had gone to high school together, where we both played in the marching band. We were friends, though not particularly close, and I should stress that Justin was young, and I’m not sure exactly what official role he had at the church, though he presented himself to me as something like the youth pastor there.
I was never one to turn down a gig, and I agreed to Justin’s invitation, despite the fact that I thought — rightly — that Jerry would probably be there too.
The thought of confronting him or telling others had weighed on me in the weeks leading up to the camp, and on the second or third day, I pulled Justin aside, along with another youth leader who was considerably older than Justin and I, and who had himself been a youth pastor under Jerry before pursuing graduate school in entomology, where he studied bees. We stood outside, leaning up against a set of handrails made of unfinished two-by-sixes, and I told them the story I’ve told here.
I asked them what they thought I should do, and whether they had ever experienced anything similar with Jerry. They were clearly uncomfortable, and their responses were curt. Neither, they said, had ever experienced anything like this with Jerry, and they didn’t know what I should do. They both seemed unwilling to pursue the conversation any further. I do not know if it was because they had something in their own experience that they were unwilling to share, or if they disbelieved me, or if they just wished the conversation to be over so they could quickly forget about it. We never spoke of it again, and it would be years before I gained the courage to tell anyone else at the church.
Writing to First Baptist’s Staff
Two years later, I graduated college and moved to South Carolina to begin my Ph.D. That first year of graduate school, I joined a theology discussion group led by a pastor named James, and another member of that group, a psychologist. We bonded over our love for horror movies, and my attempt to share their love of microbrews. Sometimes we discussed our various experiences as part of our Christian communities.
About a year after we met, I told them about my experience with the pastor of First Baptist Milledgeville. Their reactions were predictable — disgust, outrage, disappointment — but they shared my concern that Jerry might be abusing other people in the church, and they encouraged me to try, again, to tell others at First Baptist what I’d experienced.
This time, instead of approaching anyone directly, I decided to write a letter where I described, much more briefly than I have here, what happened in Jerry’s office that day, and I picked three people from the church’s website to send it to. One was Jerry’s secretary at the time — the same woman, I believe, who had been secretary on the day. The second was a man listed as an assistant or associate pastor. The third went to the youth pastor at the time. I don’t recall their names, but I don’t believe either of the two men are still at the church now, and I’m not sure if Ms. Eilleen was the secretary at the time or not. If she was, though, she received one of the letters, and I know she is still at the church today.
I addressed each of the letters individually, in hopes that this would prevent the recipients from colluding together to ignore me, but I think this may have had the opposite effect — allowing for two of them to ignore it individually, each thinking they were the only one who knew. I did receive one distressed sounding voicemail from the youth pastor, whom I responded to over email, because I felt too nervous to talk over the phone, but I never heard anything more from him, or from either of the other two recipients. That was about four or five years ago, and the last time, until now, that I tried to tell anyone at FBC what happened.
Hesitations About Coming Forward
I have long felt that it’s absolutely necessary for members of the church — especially parents — to know about Jerry’s bizarre, manipulative, abusive behavior. And, since many of the staff evidently disagree, a public statement seems the only option. I chose to write it now, not only because my conscience tells me it’s long overdue, but because it seems like it’s finally the right time. The spate of high profile outings of sexual misconduct has gained enough public awareness and momentum to push the public to finally take stories like these seriously. Nevertheless, I have had several persistent reasons to hesitate, which I want to explain here because there are real costs to outing powerful or popular people’s misdeeds, and those costs are a part of the story that needs to be told so others can understand the long-term position abusers put others in. It’s a position that I have been in for years, and that others among you might be in now.
The first cause for hesitation in coming forward has been the fear that I simply wouldn’t be believed. It seems unimaginable to me that anyone would put the effort into maliciously concocting and publishing a story like this, but I know that, for some, it will be just as hard to believe that their pastor sexually manipulates his young congregants. So maybe some people really will entertain the idea that I’m just a malicious liar.
In that case, another worry arises: how would those people go about showing that I, rather than Jerry, am the abuser?
I think that, to whatever extent a person cherishes their untarnished perception of Jerry Bradley, to that extent, any fact or speculation about me will seem like a legitimate tool for defending that image of him. It’s natural for people to believe the best about those they love, and I’m sure there’s plenty of people who love Pastor Jerry enough to instinctively fight against an accusation like this, using whatever they can. So who knows what embarrassing details or speculations about me will emerge when I stir the waters? Not I. What I do know is that Milledgeville is a small place to spend the first twenty years of life, and I sometimes spent mine foolishly, and visibly. I know, though, that nothing I’ve ever done will amount to a reason to believe I’m lying here. Nevertheless, telling this story makes every memory of every stupid, embarrassing, irrelevant detail of my life feel like a potential weapon against me. I’m sure every person in my position has felt the same.
I think there is something important to notice here though, and it is this: The abuser’s popularity and esteem not only gives them access to others, and the power to abuse them; it gives everyone else a reason to protect the abuser, and to turn against the victim; and it gives the victim plenty of reasons to keep quiet. When popular or powerful people decide to abuse others, they find that the deck has already been stacked in their favor.
A second fear I have is that that what Jerry did to me just won’t seem serious enough to warrant a serious response. I worry that some will say “He just had a kid take his shirt and belt off in his office. It’s weird, sure, but it’s not really a big deal.”
That response strikes me as glib and morally irresponsible though, for two reasons: First, it ignores the fact that Jerry clearly intended to have me go further — i.e. he told me to take my belt off, which only makes sense as a step toward my pants coming off, and he told me himself that he could have made me go further, which means it’s something he was thinking about.
Secondly, that response implicitly tells anyone in the midst of being sexually manipulated that if they find a way to leave or stop the situation before it becomes assault, then nothing wrong was really done to them, and they’re giving up their right to complain about it, even though the person’s abusive intentions were clear. If the adults at FBC adopt this response, they’re sending a terrifying message to their young people: Shut up.
A further concern has to do with my professional life. I taught at my alma mater for eight years while finishing my Ph.D. I’ve published my work in books, magazines, and encyclopedias, and I’ve delivered talks at universities throughout America and Europe. I’d rather any of those things land at the top of a Google search for my name than the story of how a minister coaxed me into stripping. I can’t control how closely this story sticks to my name, though, and it’s more important that anyone else who’s been harmed has this small encouragement to come forward, so I’m taking that risk.
Deciding to Come Forward Now
A final concern remains: what will this do to Jerry if people in the church — beyond those staff members who already know — ever read this? If they believe me, I imagine it would end Jerry’s career as a pastor.
Does he deserve that? Should one instance of perversion and abuse of authority carry enough weight to end a career and permanently mark a person? And what about the Bradley family, and the embarrassment it will bring them?
I care about those things. I even care about how this affects Jerry, personally. I don’t want his life to be ruined, or his family to feel shame. What he did to me was gross, and hurtful, and had at least one far reaching negative consequence, but it didn’t ruin my life. I could forgive him, if he asked for it.
In the end though, my main concern isn’t about the effects of my experience with him. My main concern is that Jerry is using his access to young people to sexually molest them, and that many of them will love and respect him too much to scowl and sneer their way out of the situation the way I did. I think my experience with him gives too much plausibility to this concern to keep ignoring it, and I think that I have acted immorally when I have let any other worry outweigh my concern for the young people at FBC Milledgeville. I have for a while used my fear of being disbelieved as an excuse to avoid this unpleasant task, and whatever reaction it might get. For that, I am ashamed, and I feel morally compelled to quit being quiet toward the public.
As to what my account means for our perception of Jerry (and, thus, for his future) I think some things are certain:
My story means, at the very least, that Jerry has made it well into adulthood and marriage, gotten through seminary, gained years of experience as a pastor, and spent years raising his own children, and yet he still cannot tell whether it is good pastoral care to coax teens into sworn secrecy before God, then have them take off their clothes.
This is the very best possible case, and if it’s the truth, I can see no other conclusion but that Jerry is so incompetent in his understanding of morality, decency, and the duties of a pastor, that in moments where he sincerely tries to shepherd young people, he sometimes makes them feel sexually manipulated and abused in the process. And he keeps them quiet about it. Even if it’s possible for a person with good intentions to accidentally do these things, that person is simply unfit to be a pastor, and anyone who keeps him in a position with access to young people is just as responsible for any harm done.
It seems very unlikely to me that this horrible best-case scenario is the true one though. I simply don’t take Jerry at his word. This is because his explanation of what he did to me — that he was doing something bad to me to give me an inoculating experience of bad things others might do to me — contains an admission that he knew what he was doing was abusive, and was a reason not to trust ministers like him. And his “I could have told you to go further” quip clearly shows that he was thinking about going further. His fumbling attempt at framing this as something well-intentioned is just a lie.
So, in the end — unless one thinks I’m just delusional or lying — there seems only one reasonable conclusion to draw: Jerry has a sexual interest in teenagers, or boys, and he sometimes fails to control those desires. And in those cases, he uses his authority and their trust first, to have them swear secrecy on pain of offending God, and then, to have them do things with their bodies for his pleasure. And we also know that some of his staff turn a blind eye to it, or actively cover for him.
This is a very dark picture I’ve painted, and its darkness is what will make some people reject it, because it seems totally incompatible with any positiveexperience of Jerry.
But does my account mean that Jerry Bradley is an utterly vile person? That his ministry is a sham? That every kindness he’s ever shown to anyone was just an act, meant to conceal his darker nature?
No, it doesn’t.
No one should think my story forces them to make an exclusive choice between believing that Jerry has been a predator toward some people, or that he has been kind and loving toward others. I think he’s been both. For some of his acts he deserves our love and admiration, and for others he deserves our disgust and anger. Virtue and vice mingle in each of us, and admitting one doesn’t mean denying the other.
I hope Jerry will admit to what he did to me, so that I can forgive him, and so he can begin to seek the forgiveness of anyone else he may have hurt. But he has to make that choice now. Whether he does so will depend partially on whether he trusts those around him — especially his congregation — to be gracious in the face of his sins. No matter the nature of one’s sins, the culture of the church shouldn’t be a barrier to owning up to them, and so I think it’s incumbent upon those in his church who are inclined to be forgiving to let him know that they are as eager be gracious as they are to hold him accountable, and to protect their young.
Being gracious to Jerry, however, does not mean retaining him as a pastor. I think it would be a sin. The very best reasons tell us that it’s not likely that an otherwise decent, trustworthy person could do what he did to me on a fluke. So, it would be inexcusable to continue the decades of nearly unlimited access Jerry has had to so many young people who admire and trust him even more than I did. I think the odds are that, among all those young people who spent years under Jerry’s ministry, there will be others who have had their own, troubling encounters with him, and I think it’s unlikely that mine was the worst of them. I think retaining Jerry in his position as pastor has been an unconscionable sin on the part of the current leadership, and it is left now to his congregation to made a different choice. I with them well as they try to make it.
Finally, because I believe there are probably others who have been mistreated at the hands of Jerry Bradley, and because I imagine that some of them will eventually read this, I’d like to close by speaking directly to them:
To Anyone With a Story Like Mine:
The first thing I want you to know is that you’re in an unusually difficult situation. Your experience probably wasn’t exactly like mine, but that doesn’t mean anything. If you were made to feel gross, or used, or ashamed, or tricked, then it shouldn’t have happened. It wasn’t just an honest mistake on their part, or a simple misunderstanding on yours. It wasn’t your fault at all, because other people’s actions aren’t ever your fault, no matter what you did, or said, or wore, or thought, or anything else.
If you were sworn to secrecy — even if you were asked, like I was, to swear to God himself — that promise you made is no good. It was never any good, because it wasn’t a fair promise, because it was designed to trick you, and promises you were tricked into, or pushed uncomfortably into out of fear, or nervousness, those promises don’t bind you. No good person — especially God — would ever want you to keep a promise like that, just to keep the bad things done to you a secret. So you can tell whomever you want, whenever you want, and no good person will ever think you’re dishonoring your word, or God, or anything else.
None of this means that you have to tell anyone what happened though, if you don’t feel ready, or if you don’t know anyone you trust to take you seriously and to care. If you’re still young, you don’t need to feel like you owe it to adults to tell them, if you don’t trust them to believe you. Whenever you do decide to tell your story to someone though, know that you’re giving them an extraordinary gift by trusting them and being open with them about one of the heaviest things inside you.
Gifts, though, aren’t the kind of thing you ever owe to anyone; they’re the kind of thing you give freely, when you’re ready, and when someone has shown you they will take good care of that gift. In this case, that means taking your story seriously, and helping to protect others from going through what you did. If you don’t know anyone now that you trust like that, then you know it’s extremely hard to bear your story on your own. But know that one day, if you keep your eyes open for them, you will meet people who are kind and smart, who are good listeners, and who will take your story seriously, and then you will want to tell them. And it will feel good when you finally do.
You should think about one last thing, too. If you do have people you trust to listen to you and take you seriously, remember that your story could be a very important gift, not only to them, but also to other people who’ve gone through something like you have. It could help them find the courage to tell their own story, and to get help, or protection. And it could even prevent other people from ever being put through things like what you were put through, or things even worse
So, if you think you do want to tell someone, and you do know someone you trust to listen and to take you seriously, I want to encourage you to tell your story. It’s hard to do, but it’ll be worth it. Write it out first, if you need to — it doesn’t have to be long like this. Or, if the thought of saying them makes you feel nervous, record your story in a video just for your person, so you can practice saying the hard things on your own.
Or, just walk up to that person and say “Hey, I need to talk to you about something serious. It’ll take some time. Are you ready?”