It’s been more than 20 years since Tom Brady received the letter that still shocks him to this day.
Brady was in his mid-20s, just a few years beyond seminary and into a career as a pastor that would later bring him to Lawrence’s First United Methodist Church. The letter was from a man he’d known from his seminary days, when Brady was the senior high youth pastor at a pair of churches in the Denver area. The man sending the letter was Bryan Bush, who worked alongside him as the leader of the junior high youth program.
Within the first few words, Brady’s world was turned upside down.
“I got a letter from him that said that he had inappropriately had relationships with some of the boys and had fondled them and told me his whole story,” Brady says, “none of which I knew.”
It’s a story that in time would become one of the biggest molestation cases in Colorado history. Bush, now deceased, eventually confessed to sexually abusing 30 boys on 50 different occasions at three different Presbyterian churches. On June 18, 1991, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison for molesting 11 boys between 1981 and 1988.
Bush was in prison doing time before anyone got wind of the sex abuse scandals that would rock the United States’ Catholic Church, and later Christianity as a whole.
The Bryan that Brady knew
When Brady met Bush in the mid-1980s, it was clear the young Texan was everything a church could want in a youth leader. He was enthusiastic, energetic and constantly engaging the fickle junior high set.
“The kids loved him,” Brady says. “He was fun, he was really devoted, he kept the numbers up. ... He had summer activities and a good rapport with the parents.”
Though he was just in his mid-20s, Bush was able to play the role of father figure, using his considerable family inheritance to spoil youth group kids with trips to the movies and parties hosted at his expensive home that boasted attractive amenities for the teenage set.
“They loved hanging out at his house because he had a pool table and a sauna and pool. It was like, ‘It’s pretty cool for our youth director to have all this,’” Brady says. “So, when I looked back, I thought, ‘Wow, he had the perfect setup to do all this.’”
Much of the molestation took place at sleepovers Bush held at his home without his wife present. He gave the boys, generally between the ages of 12 and 14, drinks laced with antihistamine cold capsules and Phenobarbital pills to knock them out before fondling them. Later, he became less worried about the boys being unconscious and his attacks became more aggressive.
Brady says when he was first contacted by Bush about the molestation, he became angry at himself for not realizing what was happening, but as he reflected, he realized what kind of mastermind with which he was dealing.
“He was good, he sought out boys who either didn’t have a father figure or had a real weak father figure. And Bryan was that kind of ... he kind of filled that gap for them, because he’d take them places and do fun stuff,” Brady says. “He just went too far with it.”
‘He was a precursor’
Since Bush’s confession in 1990, it has become increasingly clear that other members of the clergy have taken it all too far.
Among the most prominent cases are ones involving the Catholic Church that came to light later that decade. A year after Bush’s sentencing, the Rev. James Porter, a Catholic priest in Massachusetts, was accused of abusing five children in the 1960s and 1970s, and he later pleaded guilty to 41 counts of abuse. In 1993, legal cases were brought against the Dallas diocese claiming sex abuse by the Rev. Rudolph Kos. And in 1999, a former Massachusetts priest, John Geoghan, was indicted on child rape charges.
The abuse accusations in the modern day seem nearly endless, starting with the cases mentioned above and growing from the United States into Europe and beyond. But back when Bush confessed, he was almost an aberration. Case in point? Tony Pugh, the cops reporter assigned to the case for The Rocky Mountain News, is still steamed that his exclusive jailhouse interview with Bush was buried all the way on page 28 of the newspaper. Today, he says, that never would have happened.
“He was really a precursor to a lot of the stuff going on now. It’s almost like drunk driving back in the day, back in that time before it became a real big public menace and nobody really took it seriously,” says Pugh, now a consumer economics reporter for McClatchy News Services in Washington. “And nobody really knew the extent of how bad things were in the clergy in terms of abuse. But this guy, he was a serial abuser.”
Even more unusual was the fact that Bush first sought out his victims to confess before heading to the police. He made it to two homes, with his psychologist Robert Powitzky — and Brady — in tow. That letter that Brady received from Bush detailing the molestation? It came with a request to be a neutral party and friendly face for the kids and the parents when Bush was planning on telling them of his crimes.
It’s something Brady wishes he hadn’t agreed to do.
“I really felt like he had the best interests of the kids in mind ... after going through it, I wish I hadn’t,” Brady says of the home visits, which took place shortly before Bush turned himself in to police. “One kid physically had to leave the room and went out and threw up because he was so overwhelmed and embarrassed that his parents knew what happened. ... (The parents) would have been happier if it had just been kept a secret, I think.”
That incident is described by Pugh in an April 16, 1990, article as harrowing even to Bush. Bush is quoted as saying, “He shouted for 25 minutes straight, literally. That was how much this stuff had been kept secret. I listened to him yell, ‘I’ll kill him, I’ll kill him. I want to get a hold of him and kill him.’ I was in the living room, and I could hear everything. ... He ended up throwing up.”
Bush’s own words
Even after Bush had confessed and went to jail to serve his 16-year sentence, Brady kept in touch, writing letters. Brady is sure he’s one of the only people in Bush’s life who bothered to correspond with him before his death in a Colorado correctional facility early this decade.
“I’m pretty forgiving. I think he came by his situation honestly. I mean, I don’t think he was an evil person. I think he was pretty messed up, sexually, obviously, and that his childhood experiences just carried with him and became a part of who he was,” says Brady, touching on Bush’s claims that his own molestation as a child caused him to prey on young boys. “But when he wasn’t doing inappropriate things, the kids loved him and he was a great youth director and probably made a positive difference in a lot of kids’ lives. It’s just the few that he didn’t ...”
In the letters Bush wrote Brady, it’s clear he’s trying to use his strong faith to slay his own personal demons. In a clear-headed passage from a Jan. 18, 1998, letter, Bush explains why he had not sought parole, though he could have gone before the parole board three times:
“I have chosen to waive parole because 1. There is no way that they will let me out until about one year prior to my discharge date (end of 2002) and 2. because I know I am not ready yet. The second reason might surprise you some, but as I have progressed through my S.O. (state-ordered) treatment, I have come to see how dangerous I am. The key is being truthful about what goes on deep inside my mind. It was this violent, sadistic side of me that I have spent my entire life trying to hide from everyone as well as myself.”
He even urges Brady to use his experience with himself to strengthen his own church, saying, “I see God preparing you — although through much pain — to help the church to recognize the signs of abuse and to intervene when appropriate. Your instincts are getting good — please continue to allow God to develop them.”
Brady says right now his instincts are telling him to make sure every parent knows that there’s a possibility their child is not safe, no matter whom they are with. That children may not be safe in any situation, even with a trusted, popular member of the church. And though there are mechanisms in place to raise awareness and prevent situations where something inappropriate could happen, there’s no fail-safe way of knowing if someone is as a slick and determined predator as Bush.
“The church is a perfect place for somebody that is looking to target a certain type of child to be. Because we’ll accept anybody. It would be a lot harder in a school system or some other kind of institution to be able to do that,” Brady says. “I do think I know a lot more than I did when I was 21, but if somebody’s clever and secretive and has done it before, I’m sure it’s possible to keep it covered up.”