An accused pastor’s suicide: The pain we see and the pain we don’t

(RNS) — Last week, confronted with criminal charges of having repeatedly raped a teenage girl, the Rev. Bryan Fulwider killed himself while out on bail. At the time of the alleged offenses, he was senior pastor at First Congregational Church of Winter Park, Florida.

Many will no doubt think that the pastor’s death should put an end to the disturbing questions about what he may have done during his life: Let the dead rest in peace.

But the problem is this: The death of a child molester doesn’t automatically bring peace for his victims. To the contrary, it often brings greater pain. Having already had their innocence, trust and bodily autonomy stolen, a perpetrator’s untimely death may then rob victims further by depriving them of the opportunity for vindication and justice in a court of law.

As reported, the arrest documents said Fulwider had raped the girl “well over 100 times” beginning when she was 14. Though Fulwider pleaded not guilty, prosecutors described their case as “extremely strong,” pointing to an hourlong recorded phone call in which Fulwider admitted to having a “sexual relationship” with the victim when she was younger than 18 and that he was a predator in the “eyes of the law.” Fulwider’s own sons have said “we believe the victim.”

If we assume the truth of the victim’s allegations, then Fulwider’s suicide will not spare her the traumatic fallout from all that he did to her. For many clergy sex abuse survivors, trying to heal from such a soul-murdering offense is a lifelong process.  

Sexual abuse in childhood carries a known correlation to a host of serious problems in adulthood, including alcohol and drug addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic depression, inability to trust, relationship difficulties, familial estrangement, cancer, suicide ideation and more.

Fulwider’s death will not prevent any of these difficulties; nor will it heal the internal pain of the woman’s traumatic memories. This is the invisible pain that lingers in the shadows. Our self-protecting instinct is often to turn away from the darkness of what the victim will suffer. Some may even choose to focus instead on the more readily visible pain of the p...

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