During the rise of the #MeToo movement, I publicly wrote the following:
"...I say let the stories come. Let them all come out. This wickedness so transcends our normal divides that the whataboutism game we play has become laughable. No matter your tribe, your tribe is guilty. So let every attempt to deflect or defend come to an end, and let us instead listen and learn from the courage of the abused. They are our prophets now, with voices that will no longer allow us to hide or ignore the epidemic. Indeed, the long overdue purge has begun, and may it not relent until every hidden darkness faces the light of justice."
I still believe that. Let it all come out. Let the purge continue undaunted. Even when it is my own church’s past that needs purging.
Brad Waller was a minister at Tates Creek Presbyterian Church (TCPC) from 1995 to 2006, where his primary responsibilities included directing the youth and college ministries. Since his departure, TCPC has grown and changed in many ways, and the vast majority of our congregation has never known or heard of Brad. But there are still some in our congregation, along with others in the Lexington community and beyond, who knew him as a beloved pastor and mentor.
After leaving TCPC 12 years ago, he served for a very brief time at Twin Oaks Presbyterian in St. Louis, and then moved to Savannah, GA, where he was an Assistant Pastor at Independent Presbyterian Church and then Senior Pastor at Grace Church of the Islands.
Earlier this year, a student at Savannah College of Arts and Design (SCAD) informed his campus minister of an experience he'd had with Brad that left him feeling very uncomfortable. This campus minister followed up with other SCAD students and discovered that they too had similar experiences. It was reported to the Savannah River Presbytery (in the Presbyterian Church, a "presbytery" is the governing body over local churches), and this began a process of investigation and discipline that culminated in a meeting of the Presbytery on April 17.
At the presbytery meeting, Brad made the following confession that has since been made public record: “I, Brad Waller, confess to the sin of abuse of authority in my role as a pastor. I have been rubbing the feet of men and youth in my care. There was a sexual element to this, however, physically it never went past foot-rubbing.”
The Presbytery voted at the same meeting to immediately depose him from his office (remove his ordination) as a minister. The Presbytery’s statement reads:
“At the April Stated Meeting of Presbytery at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Martinez, on Tuesday April 17, the Savannah River Presbytery voted to depose Brad Waller from Gospel ministry, for the abuse of power against minors and young men under his care, for the purpose of auto-erotic stimulation derived from foot rubbing, to which he confessed before the court [presbytery].”
Upon receiving this news from Savannah, we obviously became very concerned over the possibility that similar abuse took place while Brad was on staff at TCPC. We wrote an email to our congregation informing them of the situation and inviting them to an information meeting. After sending this email, we began receiving phone calls, emails, and social media messages from people sharing stories of abuse that took place while Brad was a pastor at TCPC. We also received several names of people to reach out to because abuse was suspected. We followed up with every name given to us, and through that process other acts of abuse were uncovered as well. There have been multiple unconfirmed stories and allegations that have come to us secondhand, as well as stories from victims that we have not been granted permission to share; that being said, if we only count the number of confirmed stories at this point that have come directly from a victim and that we've been given permission to share, that count is now at 10.
The most consistent and common stories were of Brad rubbing the feet of high school and college students (all male) during private counseling and mentoring sessions. This happened too frequently to count, with one victim telling us he can’t remember meeting with him without Brad rubbing his feet. However, evidence is also beginning to emerge that conflicts with Brad’s statement that “it never went past foot rubbing.”
Therefore, to summarize as clearly as possible: it has come to our attention that Brad Waller sexually abused boys and men under his care as a pastor of TCPC. While all of this misconduct took place over a decade ago, our church leadership is nevertheless committed to handling this horrific news with utmost sincerity, urgency, and transparency, which is why we have chosen to release this forthright statement.
Toward that end, allow us to answer some common questions that have come our way:
Is This Really Sexual Abuse?
Yes. That is the short, simple, and sufficient answer that the victims deserve. No matter the nature of the abuse, they need to hear us say unequivocally that it is abuse.
That said, we also understand that this particular form of misbehavior is both unconventional and bizarre, leaving many people (particularly those who knew and loved Brad) wondering how to process it. Does rubbing feet, instead of the more private parts of the body, really constitute sexual abuse? What if the victims didn’t know or feel that there was anything sexual taking place while it was happening? Are we overacting in this heightened #MeToo abuse culture and making a bigger deal of this than it deserves? Simply put, nobody is denying that this is inappropriate, but is this “really” sexual abuse?
These are questions we have heard from others and processed ourselves, so let us offer a thorough reasoning of why this is sexual abuse and why we are taking it as seriously as any other form of abuse.
First and foremost, Brad’s own confession says as much: "I have been rubbing the feet of men and youth in my care. There was a sexual element to this…" This should be the end of the discussion. Pastors abusing their power to touch any part of the body of those under their care for any type of sexual purpose is both abusive and evil, and we refuse to entertain any argument to the contrary.
The Centers Against Sexual Assault (CASA) intentionally defines sexual assault with an extensively broad definition, because it can come in so many forms. Included in their definition is “Unwanted touching e.g. pinching, patting, embracing, rubbing, groping, flicking, kissing, fondling...”, and certainly Brad’s misbehavior falls into this category.
Another crucial factor is the issue of consent. Obviously, age is the first consideration, and tragically we have been told by some victims that Brad did this to them while they were minors. But even beyond the age of consent, CASA includes “unable to understand the sexual nature of the act” as a factor in consent. In other words, if someone is being touched, but they do not recognize the sexual nature of the act, then they cannot and are not giving consent. Some victims felt uncomfortable and exploited by Brad’s behavior in the moment, and some didn’t feel anything about it until after they read Brad’s confession stating that there was a sexual element to it, but in both cases it was abuse. A simple litmus test would be to ask them, "If you had known that there was a sexual element to Brad touching your feet, would you ever have consented?" Their answer, in every case, was firmly "no."
Finally, we must consider Brad’s position of authority. He was deposed of his office on account of “abuse of power” because it was his position of spiritual authority that allowed him to abuse victims. In listening to the stories of the victims, a common theme was a love, respect, and trust in Brad as their pastor and mentor. In some cases, they remember being very uncomfortable with his actions, but didn’t want to disappoint him because he was a father figure to them. One person wanted to tell somebody, but loved Brad so much and was worried about ruining his reputation. These are textbook thoughts of victims abused by a person in authority over them.
So yes, this is sexual abuse by every standard, and therefore we are treating it as such.
Was Anyone in Leadership Aware This Was Taking Place?
We currently have no knowledge that any staff members or church officers of our congregation knew of Brad’s abuse. The Senior Pastor of TCPC at the time is now deceased, but we have no reason to believe he was aware. However, if it is discovered that leadership was aware and did not act, we are committed to confess and repent publicly.
What Steps Are We Taking in Response?
I became aware of the situation on April 22. Within 10 days, I had informed all our pastors and elders, we held a meeting of our session (board of elders), hired an attorney to walk us through the process, and hosted a congregational meeting to inform our people of the news and answer questions they may have had.
We reported to and met with the police, and based on the latest information, they are currently not choosing to investigate. If more information surfaces, and the police choose to re-open the investigation, we will fully cooperate.
In addition, our session has made a very significant institutional decision that we need to make you aware of: we unanimously voted to seek a third-party independent investigation.
It is important for everyone to understand the difference between an internal and an independent investigation. An internal investigation is when we (or our attorney) investigate ourselves. In this scenario, we maintain control over the investigation. An independent investigation, however, is inviting a third party to investigate us. In this scenario, we are relinquishing control over the investigation and inviting any and all findings and corrections. It was important to us that we choose the latter.
We have contracted with GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) to perform an investigation of our church. The investigation will be led by Boz Tchividjian, who has emerged as a leader in a long overdue clean-up of the sexual abuse crises in the Church (the work of Boz and GRACE were recently featured in a Washington Post article that is an important read for all Evangelical Christians).
The scope of GRACE’s work with TCPC will be threefold:
- GRACE shall investigate allegations of misconduct by former youth minister, Brad Waller, including but not limited to, how TCPC responded to such allegations.
- GRACE shall provide the parties [TCPC leadership and the victims] an Executive Summary that outlines the investigative findings. GRACE shall also propose recommendations with regard to how TCPC can demonstrate repentance to anyone negatively affected as a result of the alleged misconduct and how such was handled by the church. GRACE shall also propose recommendations as to how similar types of situations can be better addressed in the future.
- GRACE shall meet with the TCPC leadership to more fully review the investigative findings (as outlined in the Executive Summary) and proposed Recommendations.
As you can tell, this will be an institutionally vulnerable process. Essentially, we are inviting an independent sexual abuse audit of our church, but we want everyone to know that TCPC wants to hide nothing. That is not to say that mistakes were not made, only that if they were made, we don’t want to hide them. Instead, we want the opportunity to apologize and repent in any way we need to. Also, we want to be better equipped—both in policies and training—to make every effort to prevent this from happening again at TCPC. Therefore, we welcome this investigation, along with its findings and applications.
Finally, I would like to offer a closing word to four groups of people:
To The Victims:
My deepest apology is reserved for you. I have literally wept on multiple occasions at the thought of high school and college students being abused at the church I love and pastor. I am so sorry. I want you to know that all of this transparency, urgency, and energy is for you. Perhaps this news has reopened old wounds, or even opened wounds you didn’t know were there. For example, one victim told me that he never thought anything of it, but now that he knows there was a sexual element to it, he feels so violated. We also understand that this process might be painful for victims of sexual abuse unrelated to Brad. So I want to say, to any and all victims of any and all sexual abuse, we grieve with you and this investigation is for you. GRACE will be setting up a survey for you to share your story, and we want to encourage you to participate. Be assured, it is a safe and confidential place for you to share, and your response will only go to them, not us. If you know of anyone who was potentially impacted by Brad’s abuse, please point them to the survey when it is made available to the public. Again, we are so sorry.
To the Outside Community:
To our city, I’m sorry this happened at our church. While this took place over a decade ago, this is still our past and our institutional sin to own. And so we own it. Our vision statement is “We exist for the glory of Christ and the good of the Bluegrass,” and sexual abuse is the very antitheses of that vision. It dishonors Christ and is horrible for the Bluegrass, and so we ask your forgiveness. We also pledge to make every effort to prevent this from happening again at TCPC.
to the TCPC Community:
Perhaps you are concerned about what this may mean for the reputation of our church. Our church is healthy, growing, and accomplishing so many wonderful things, and you may be worried about what this means for us. I want to ask you to resist that temptation. I am as excited as ever for the future of TCPC, and we are not going to allow this to derail the forward-thinking vision of our church, but right now, we need to pause and take this seriously. I am determined that we prioritize righteousness over reputation, and I’m asking you to do the same. Emotions of embarrassment and shame are only natural, but be encouraged as well that your church is fighting for justice and healing. Pray for the victims and for the investigation, and be patient with us as we spend some time prioritizing both. And above all, remember that our God is faithful to bring beauty from ashes, redeeming what sin has laid waste.
to the Media:
Some have already reached out, and we understand that there will probably be more now that our story is open to the public. Our leadership has decided to name me as the exclusive point person for all things media, so I am the only one free to comment. That being said, I want you to know that we are trying to be as honest and forthright as possible from the beginning, and I can’t think of anything more that I’m free to talk about than what is already in this statement. One thing I can say for certain is that I will absolutely not be sharing the names of any victims. It is also my intention to back away from public comments until after the investigation is complete, at which point we promise to be as forthright as we are being here at the beginning of this process. Having said all that, we are indeed committed to public transparency so feel free to reach out, and I’ll do my best to accommodate. You can do so by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That is all we know to share at this time. Once the investigation is complete, we will follow up with further public communications.
Once again, I am very sorry. This is but another reminder that no church can commend its own faithfulness, but only the faithfulness of our Savior. He alone is our boast. He alone is our hope.
Robert H. Cunningham
Senior Pastor, TCPC