The results of an independent investigation detailed how a former youth pastor victimized members of a Lexington church, and the review recommended new staff training and policies to prevent abuse.
Tates Creek Presbyterian Church announced in June 2018 that it would look into Brad Waller, who worked as a minister for youth and college-age adults between 1995 and 2006. Waller had been accused by multiple men and youth. He later confessed to a church governing body in Savannah, Ga., that “there was a sexual element to this, however, physically it never went past foot-rubbing,” according to Tates Creek Presbyterian.
When Waller left Lexington, he moved to a Presbyterian church in St. Louis and later to Savannah, Ga., where he became senior pastor at Grace Church of the Islands. A student at a Savannah college came forward in early 2018 saying Waller had made him uncomfortable, and eventually, Waller made a statement confessing to “the sin of abuse of authority in my role as a pastor.”
After Tates Creek Senior Pastor Robert Cunningham became aware of the allegations against Waller in Georgia, Waller told Cunningham that there were no incidents of foot rubbing while he worked at Tates Creek Presbyterian. Those conducting the independent investigation said in their report that they believe Waller “was not being forthright regarding the nature and extent of his behavior,” according to the report.
The report, made by the organization Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or GRACE, included multiple interviews with men who recalled Waller touching their feet with his face. Some of the men said the episodes happened when they were in youth programs at the church. The full names of those interviewed were withheld from the report.
Cunningham released the report’s findings publicly over the weekend, saying the church was as committed to transparency at the end of the investigation as it was at the beginning.
“Addressing our past is important,” Cunningham said in a letter to the community.
To begin its investigation, GRACE surveyed and then interviewed people who had information about Waller’s activities. The survey had 41 responses.
One person, who is called Adam in the report, said he remembered an off-campus church youth event during which participants slept outside in tents.
“I remember sleeping in the tent and waking up to something touching my feet. And as I woke up and looked down, it was Brad, Pastor Brad,” Adam said. “And he had his face touching my feet ... I don’t even remember him being in the tent to start with.”
Adam told the investigators that Waller acted like he was waking up, and had fallen asleep by his feet.
In his interview, Frank said he had known Waller as a mentor and role model since Frank was 12 years old. He said he’d spent a lot of time with Waller at Tates Creek Presbyterian Church and Waller’s house.
“And I don’t even remember like when it started and honestly didn’t really think it was that weird. ... At first ... Brad would, you know (say), ‘hey pop your leg up here,’ and he’d start ... massaging my foot or ... feet,” Frank said. “Didn’t really think much of it. And eventually I, again memory fuzzy as far as exactly when, but I mean it got to the point where like he’d be asking me to put my feet all over his face, and ... just really wouldn’t know what to say because I was so uncomfortable. But you don’t want to say no.”
Investigators made multiple unsuccessful attempts to reach out to Waller, according to the report.
GRACE’s investigation found no evidence that the church was aware of the allegations against Waller, according to the report. The report also said that some people who held administrative support roles in the church saw Waller rubbing feet of other males. Because it was done so openly, it was dismissed as normal or considered odd but not an act of misconduct.
“Waller held a position of trust, and those who served under him and those he shepherded had great affection for him,” the report said. “These may have hindered them from being able to recognize Waller’s conduct as improper or recognize the fact he was potentially deriving sexual gratification from his contact.”
Victims who spoke with GRACE investigators said they were impressed by how open and supportive the church and Cunningham have been since the allegations against Waller came out, according to the report.
As part of the church’s response to the allegations, leaders drafted a “comprehensive Child Protection Policy” in May 2018, according to the report. It outlines allowable physical contact and requires open doors and unblocked windows if church personnel have to meet individually with a minor. It also outlines when and to whom unacceptable behavior should be reported. Had that policy been in place when Waller was at the church, it is possible the abuse would not have continued undetected, the report said.
Ultimately, the report made by GRACE commended the church and Cunningham for quick action, transparency and humility.
The group recommended training for employees and full implementation of the protection policy, including expanding some of the rules to contact with college-age adults. It also proposed that all campus pastors complete a seminary course on sexual abuse.
In response to the report, Cunningham said in a letter to the community that the church was humbled and grateful for the commendations from GRACE and the victims interviewed. He also acknowledged that the church was not without fault.
“I want to begin by publicly confessing our institutional failures that were revealed in the report,” Cunningham wrote. “Specifically, we believe there were two issues that need to be owned by us—the first issue is about policy; the second issue is about culture.”
Cunningham wrote in the letter that the church had no recorded protective policies in place at the time Waller was at the church.
“This is unacceptable, and we are heartbroken at the thought that formalized policies and procedures could have prevented much of this abuse,” Cunningham wrote. “Even in the years after Brad’s departure, we still failed to implement policies.”
The letter also states that there was not a culture of awareness at the church at the time of the reported incidents.
“Because of the unconventional nature of Brad’s misconduct, it was difficult for victims and others to identify and comprehend his abuse,” Cunningham wrote. “However, it is clear from the report that there was a pervasive feeling of something being ‘off’ with Brad’s behavior. We believe that if our people had an understanding of the nature of abuse, particularly from those with spiritual authority, it could have been identified and prevented.”
A committee has been established to help implement the recommendations. The church also plans to seek an external audit of its Child Protection Policy.
Cunningham’s letter said the deepest apologies were reserved for the victims.
“I am profoundly grateful to those who participated in this investigation, and I want to thank you for your kind words in the report,” Cunningham wrote. “However at the same time, I do hope you will accept our apology for the failures I have confessed. Both in policy and culture, our church failed to protect you. I wish so badly we could go back 20 years and change things, but all we can do is move forward in repentance.”