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Eric Dudley, former priest defrocked for sexual misconduct, opening new Tallahassee church

Eric Dudley, former priest defrocked for sexual misconduct, opening new Tallahassee church

By Jeff Burlew
Tallahassee Democrat
March 11, 2021

A once-prominent Tallahassee religious leader who was defrocked amid sexual misconduct and harassment revelations is attempting a resurrection of sorts -- with plans to publicly launch his new church on Easter morning.

Eric Dudley, former rector of St. Peter's Anglican Cathedral and St. John's Episcopal Church, will open the doors of Christ Church on April 4 at Thomasville Road and South Ride. The church bought the property Jan. 19 for $545,000 with money raised from its congregation of influential local residents.

Dudley emailed a short statement to the Tallahassee Democrat but did not respond to specific questions about the church.

"Our hope is to be a parish family who reflects among ourselves, and within the larger community of Tallahassee, the Grace, Mercy and Love of the Cross of Christ," he said.

Dudley's public reemergence has fanned outrage among some and prompted officials with the Anglican Church in North America to disavow him. Known as a staunch gay-rights opponent, he was ousted from St. Peter's in August 2018 after several men accused him of sexual harassment, including unwanted kissing and touching.

It's truly no surprise," said one of Dudley's victims. "If he were actually repentant and remorseful for what he did, he would have changed his career, rethought about life and focused on healing and restoration. But he did exactly what we knew he would do, which was start his own church and just continue to use the power and authority of the clergy even though he's no longer ordained in The Anglican Church at all."

In late 2019, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, an independent group that assists churches with abuse investigations, confirmed the allegations, saying Dudley abused his power as long-time rector of St. Peter's. He was deposed from the Anglican Church that same year and barred from operating a ministry under its banner.

The Right Rev. Neil Lebhar, first bishop of the Gulf Atlantic Diocese of the Anglican Church, declined to discuss the matter, other than to say Dudley is no longer a priest within the denomination. Harris Willman, administrator for the Jacksonville-based diocese, said church officials weren't surprised by Dudley's move."

We have heard that that might be happening," Willman said. "He's free to do whatever he wants, but he is not at all connected to the diocese or the Anglican Church in North America."

The GRACE report said Dudley, a married man with children, pursued attractive young men, giving them gifts and job opportunities within the church while subjecting them to unwanted physical contact and emotional drama. During one incident, Dudley told one of the victims, "I'm not gay. I'm an affectionate person. I need to be touched by you."

"Once Father Eric developed trust in his relationships with the reported victims, he would use abusive tactics to further manipulate them," the GRACE report said. "Father Eric followed a pattern, exploiting the victims emotionally, financially, spiritually and physically."

Dudley did not cooperate with the GRACE investigation, though he admitted to harassment, unwanted touching, which he claimed was non-sexual, and alcohol abuse. The report said he offered a "vague apology" but never took full responsibility for his "inappropriate actions."

Father Marcus Kaiser, the new dean and rector at St. Peter's, said he wishes any church well "as long as they proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ." But he called Dudley's new church "problematic."

"Certainly he has been deposed and is not recognized as functioning clergy in our denomination," Kaiser said.

Dudley dropped off the public radar screen in the wake of the church scandal, but he was preaching again within months of the release of the GRACE report, according to church emails and other documents obtained by the Democrat.

The church met regularly at a private residence and small farm on Maclay Road owned by Robert and Marilynn Evert. An invitation for "Fellowship at the Barn," which didn't mention Christ Church by name, said services would start on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, and continue Sundays after that.

Around the same time, longtime Dudley supporters formed Christ Fellowship of Tallahassee, Inc., a nonprofit corporation doing business as Christ Church.

Several prominent business people serve as officers: Ed Murray, founder of commercial real estate firm NAI TALCOR, Marilynn Evert, CEO of Health Management Associates, a national consulting firm, and Mary Pat Moore, retired vice president for the Florida Association of Health Plans. None responded to emails or calls from the Democrat.

The church met virtually over Zoom for a time during the pandemic. Moore told church members in a July 6 email that Dudley and another priest, Gene Strickland, "devised a plan" to have communion kits delivered to them. Strickland provides contracted chaplain services for the Leon County Sheriff's Office.

Dudley wrote the congregation Nov. 20 saying the church needed a new location -- and donations to pay for it -- because zoning restrictions wouldn't allow it to advertise as "an ongoing church open to the public" at the Everts' property.

"We cannot grow if we cannot be visible in the community," he wrote, "and while I have no desire to grow large, if we are going to be a church for God's purposes, then our doors need to be widely open."

Dudley also wrote that he and the vestry had a contract on the 2-acre Tai Chi Society site and needed to raise $550,000 by the end of December to close on the deal. He noted that one parishioner committed $200,000.

The church recently posted a flier at Florida State University's College of Music advertising for a new pianist. The ad included an email address for Dudley that included his first and middle name but not his last."

My name is Eric and I'm the lead priest," the ad says. "Christ Church is a new church and we've purchased a property in Midtown ... and we hope to grow. Our community is a mix of young couples, some singles and older couples and has a sweet, loving spirit with a lot of laughter thrown in."

The flier says Christ Church is a "non- denominational church in the Anglican tradition," with prayer book with communion every Sunday and Episcopal hymns. "We are worshiping currently on private property but plan to worship for the first time in our new dwelling on Easter Day ... and would love to have a pianist on board by that day."

Dudley's new church, located at 2100 Thomasville Road in the former home of the Taoist Tai Chi Society, doesn't have the storied history of St. John's, one of Tallahassee's oldest churches, or the grandeur of St. Peter's, one of the town's biggest.

The church is retrofitting the two-story, 4,000-square-foot house, Dudley said in his email to the Democrat. He told parishioners that it could easily accommodate 120 people in worship, with space left over to accommodate Sunday School classes.

Dudley said in the Nov. 20 email that he has "no desire to build some large, program-size parish." But the victim who spoke with the Democrat doubts that.

"All he knows is big church," said the man, who asked not to be identified.

Dudley served as rector of St. John's from 1995 to 2005, when he announced he was leaving to start a new church because of "deeply unrepentant heresies" in the Episcopal Church, which had consecrated an openly gay bishop. He went on to start St. Peter's, taking half of St. John's congregation with him, and build a new multi-million cathedral on Thomasville Road, north of the new Christ Church site.

However, Dudley shared some of his feelings in a pandemic-themed Easter message last year to his new congregation, calling his fall from St. Peter's "my disaster."

"Over this last year and a half, as I have had to face huge loss in my life: loss of job, career, friends, money, respect, etc. (all the things I greatly valued) I've had to look hard, and deep, within myself to answer the question: what really is essential? What gives my life hope, purpose, meaning, even when so many of the things I cared about are gone?"

The victim said it's wrong for Dudley to continue acting as a priest even after the Anglican Church "wiped our hands of him."

"He knows that the collar is a symbol of authority, so he doesn't want to give that up," he said. "Just because you put on a collar doesn't mean you're clergy. He no longer has the credentials to do this. So he's absolutely a charlatan."

Eric Dudley was defrocked as a priest with the Anglican Church in North American on Feb. 18, 2019, according to the Gulf Atlantic Diocese. The grounds were violation of ordination vows; conduct giving just cause for scandal or offense; disobedience or willful contravention of the canons of the church or the constitutional canons of the diocese; and willful refusal to follow a lawful godly admonition.


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