by Tim Gilmore, 6/1/2018
For God so loves Trinity Baptist Church that he directed the Florida Department of Transportation to build Exit 355 off Interstate-10 to bring drivers directly before the church’s northern entrance. Whatever version of the Bible carries that translation of John 3:16 only Trinity’s Pastor Tom Messer knows.
When the FDOT opened the exit two years ago this month, Messer wrote in Trinity’s blog, “In the past two years, God has influenced the State to move the I-10 / Marietta exit to Hammond Boulevard. This has resulted in provision for much needed infrastructure on our campus, while at the same time it will increase the drive-by exposure to 20,000 people per day.”
His Biblical wisdom in hiding Trinity Pastor Bob Gray’s decades of sexual abuse of children, as Messer explained to me in his office that July, is that “God uses broken people.” Since all of us are sinners, Messer told me, no person’s sin is worse than another’s. Sin is the condition of humankind.
Melissa Ross, host of WJCT’s radio show First Coast Connect, surprised me when she asked me on air, on September 19, 2016, if Tom Messer should be in prison for his role in the coverup of Trinity’s child sex abuse. We were discussing the release of my book, Devil in the Baptist Church: Bob Gray’s Unholy Trinity. When she held me to the question, all I could say was “Yes.” A few months later, Jacksonville City Council invited Messer, once again, to give the invocation prayer at the start of council sessions. In 2015, Mayor Lenny Curry had appointed Tom Messer to a “Prevention, Intervention and At-Risk Youth Sub-Committee.”
Pat Cassell, who’d “served” Trinity Baptist Church for decades, believed there were hundreds of victims. When Messer met me in his office that day in July, he referred to “20 or 30 or 40 victims, however many there were.” Though more than two dozen former church members, after learning of their pastor’s decades of sexually abusing children, shared with me their stories of heartbreak, their questioning of faith, their loss of church employment, Messer told me, “I don’t give a rip about people who claim some personal or employment grievance against the church and act like Gray was some turning point in their faith.” Such people, he said, “weren’t mature enough in the Lord.”
Gray wasn’t arrested until May 19, 2006. In 1992, Trinity Baptist Church, under Tom Messer’s new leadership, had sent Gray to Germany, ostensibly to be a missionary to secular Western Europeans, as part of a deal struck with several families of Gray’s victims. Gray would resign from the pulpit if families agreed to deal with Gray’s sexual abuse of their children “within the church” and not go to state authorities.
In poor health, Gray returned to Jacksonville in 2006 to live the short remainder of his life at home. Several victims, now adults, were waiting. Statutes of limitations for child sex abuse had expired, so instead of criminal charges, victims launched civil cases. Hundreds of pages of deposition piled up. Gray told one interrogator he’d molested children because he loved them. Another time, under deposition, Gray said he’d begun sexually abusing children because his first wife was going through menopause. Even that most despicable lie contradicted the fact that the earliest allegations dated from 1949, when Gray was in his 20s. Bob Gray died in jail, awaiting trial, in November 2007.
In 1992, when Ann Stewart was 21, she told her mother what Bob Gray started doing to her when she was seven years old. Gray had grown Trinity Baptist Church from a few hundred members in the 1950s to the largest fundamentalist Baptist church in Florida. (It’s much smaller now, though also much wealthier.) Trinity Baptist Church operated Trinity Christian Academy, Kindergarten through 12th grade (and a nursery), and Trinity Baptist College, all on the same campus off Interstate-10. In 1992, Ann and her mother met with church leaders.
In her 2012 book, Hope for the Hurting, Ann writes that Tom Messer said Gray had admitted to abusing other children, but “only” to having “French kissed” them, saying, “That was all there was to it.” Gray had done far more to Ann, as he had to many other children, and Ann felt confused by Messer’s dismissal of Gray’s kissing children sexually.
Messer arranged for Ann to meet with church deacons to recount, once again, her allegations. She agreed, but was surprised, when she arrived, to find herself seated alone in Bob Gray’s office (now Tom Messer’s).
Finally, instead of the group of church elders, Bob Gray himself walked into the room. Ann sat alone with the preacher in the same office where he had sexually assaulted her for years.
“He did not speak a word,” Ann says. “He just held his head low.”
She felt terrified, vulnerable, but also felt “the guilt of a woman who had been caught in an adulterous relationship.” She felt ashamed at bringing a great man of God such pain.
As she cried and apologized, Tom Messer and several deacons entered the room. They asked her to state her allegations once again. They called her words a “confession.” The group of men shamed her, broke her down.
The next day at church, Tom Messer approached Ann and asked her if she thought it would be best to apologize to Bob Gray’s wife. Thus shamed, she said yes. She’d yet to discover there were so many others.
When I met Tom Messer in his office in July 2016, he told me his first reaction to hearing I was writing a book about Bob Gray and Trinity was “Sigh.” He kept calling it old news. But for whom? For the boy Gray raped who grew up and committed suicide? For the other children now haunted as adults?
Longtime church member and employee Dennis Cassell told me Trinity Baptist Church had been Gray’s “perfect pedophile paradise.” Pat Cassell, Dennis’s wife, said, “I believe there were hundreds of kids, hundreds of victims. He had the bus routes bringing kids into the church. He had the summer camp. He would trawl the school and discipline or counsel the kids that were troubled. We’ll never know but the smallest part of it.”
Tom Messer, said the Cassells, should be in prison. They called today’s Trinity a “bright and shining church” built on a “sepulcher” of “sacrificed children.”
When I asked Messer if he had counseled church members, back in ’92, not to report Gray’s crimes, he refused to answer. When I asked him if he ever considered reporting Gray, he said, “I’ve been very charitable to you. I’ve been more transparent than I’ve even been comfortable being.” Then he showed me the door.
It’s been two years since God, according to Messer, “influenced the State to move the I-10 / Marietta exit to Hammond Boulevard.”
Despite Bob Gray’s telling one child he violated, “I am like God in this church and you are just a little girl,” despite Gray’s telling one young boy upon whom he performed oral sex that if his father didn’t do that to him, he must not love him, God still wanted Trinity Baptist Church to have that highway exit.
Messer told me that what happened at Trinity was nobody else’s business. He called it a “family squabble.” He said, “If you don’t throw wood on the fire, eventually the fire goes out.”
How long does the fire need to burn? I look at this photo of my mother from two years before I was born, when the church employed her to watch three year-olds. My parents first met at Trinity. Did Bob Gray touch any of these children? Did Tom Messer shield Bob Gray after destroying any one of these particular children’s lives? Or just the lives of other children whose faces don’t happen to appear in this particular photograph?
Can fire have its own responsibility? Should it flicker out? Should it burn red hot? I know this fire will burn in my heart and my veins and my brain the rest of my days. It’s burnt into my DNA. The fire knows no name, no individual target, no home. We’re all part of its consumption. I’m so sorry, but it touches you too. When you acknowledge it, what do you do with it? And after you execute the fire, who are you?
[If you need the whole story, order Devil in the Baptist Church: Bob Gray’s Unholy Trinity, by clicking the image below.]