WINTER PARK, Fla. - 9 Investigates has learned a former pastor who was accused of repeatedly raping a young girl he met at his church, was also accused of inappropriate behavior by three women around the same time, and his church knew, according to newly released documents.
The Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ launched a "fitness review" into the Rev. Bryan Fulwider in late summer 2008, but he kept his job with the First Congregational Church of Winter Park.
The allegations surfaced in Winter Park police’s full case file, which is now public record following Fulwider’s October suicide. According to police, the years the rapes allegedly occured overlap with the complaints that led to Fulwider’s fitness review with the conference.
- Overturned semi closes lanes, causes traffic delays on I-4 in Longwood
- Osceola County man accused of killing estranged wife can't be held on murder charges, judge rules
- Man arrested in November kidnapping, robbery case, deputies say
- Leesburg officer slipped, hit head on pavement while ducking from gunfire, police say
The conference told Channel 9 reporter Lauren Seabrook that it terminated Fulwider's authorization after the rape allegations came to light in October. But conference officials said even after that, they said that wouldn't stop a church from hiring him.
Officials said local churches are free to hire whomever they choose as a minister, even if that person is not authorized.
First Congregational Church of Winter Park officials declined to comment on their policies when it comes to hiring a minister.
The victim in the rape case told investigators the abuse started in 2005 and went on for years. Part of the evidence Winter Park Police were building against the former pastor included documents from 2006 when other church staff members noticed he was getting too close to that girl at a retreat.
Those notes show the girl was “snuggled in against” Fulwider at a campfire, and when he was confronted, he allegedly told staff that the girl had a crush on him.
Police wouldn’t learn until more than a decade later that Fulwider was allegedly raping that girl, because no investigation was launched at the time.
Two years after that retreat, three simultaneous complaints by women were reported to the Florida Conference of United Church of Christ, which oversees ministerial privileges. That led to a fitness review of Fulwider.
One woman wrote in her complaint that Fulwider started sending text messages with a "sexual undertone" that made her uncomfortable, including a text in which he stated he envisioned her "wearing nothing but a whipped cream bikini."
The second woman detailed a time when Fulwider took her to a bar, saying, "I feel he abused his power. He used his status as a church pastor to engage in a situation with me that I would not, under normal circumstances, have gone along with."
The third woman noted she stopped messaging Fulwider after she "became uncomfortable when the messages became far too personal and sexually suggestive in nature."
“One certainly might argue that would put the church on notice that something needed to be done with this pastor, more than just recommending counseling and being satisfied,” WFTV legal analyst Bill Sheaffer said.
The review led to conference leaders recommending a psychological evaluation for Fulwider and boundary training, with leaders noting, "We are particularly concerned about your lack of awareness of the dynamics of power."
Fulwider stayed on with the Winter Park church until going on a leave of absence in 2012, and his privileges were revoked by the Florida Conference earlier this year when the 59-year-old was arrested on charges of child rape.
Fulwider died by suicide in October while out on bond awaiting trial.
In a written statement, Conference Minister Rev. John Vertigan said:
"I continue to be hopeful for the avenues of justice afforded to those impacted by Rev. Fulwider’s actions and we have cooperated with law enforcement with respect to this case while also trying to embody a community of healing and grace for those same people whenever and wherever we are able.
The Florida Conference is the body that reviews the ecclesiastical fitness of ministers for continued authorization as ministers in the UCC. We have a process for addressing concerns about fitness for ministry. When these concerns were raised by the three women mentioned in the Sentinel article, the process was followed and resulted in appropriate discipline. The Florida Conference does not make decisions to hire or fire ministers from their jobs; that is the employer’s decision. When the more recent concerns about his conduct with a minor were raised, the Florida Conference took immediate action to suspend and then terminate Rev. Fulwider’s authorization for ministry according to our process.
Fitness reviews in the United Church of Christ are typically confidential out of respect for those raising concerns. I pray for their privacy even now."
First Congregational Church of Winter Park Senior Minister Rev. Shawn Garvey said:
“Our Church strives to make decisions rooted in compassion, wisdom and prayerful discernment. As we continue to journey as a family of faith through the profound emotions raised by events from a decade ago, we have been fully cooperative, and will continue to cooperate in the process. We continue to pray deeply for healing.”
© 2019 Cox Media Group.