The Jules Woodson story: #churchtoo is increasing consequences for men like Andy Savage
By Becky Castle Miller is the Discipleship Director at an international church in the Netherlands and writes about emotionally healthy discipleship at medium.com/wholehearted. She conveys her five kids around town on bikes and studies New Testament in the middle of the night via Northern Live.
Andy Savage was the Youth Pastor at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church in Texas when he sexually assaulted a girl in his youth group. He offered to drive Jules Woodson home one night after an event. When he passed the turn for her home, she thought maybe he was taking her to get ice cream. Instead, the man who was much larger than her and in authority over her took her out into the dark woods, groped her breasts, and told her to suck on his penis.
That’s the kind of language you won’t often read on Scot’s blog. I include it not to titillate or to offend but to inform. Now you know what Savage’s current church, HighPoint, wasn’t told this past Sunday when they applauded him, giving him a standing ovation that went on for twenty seconds.
Woodson made her story public last Friday, January 5, and on Sunday, January 7, Savage got up in front of his church and confessed to a “sexual incident” with a “high school senior” when he was a “college student.” (Direct quotes from his statement.) The church celebrated what they thought was his honesty. Would they have responded as generously if he had told the full truth? What he should have said was, “As a Youth Pastor, I lied to a student in my ministry to get her into a car with me alone. I drove her out to a deserted place and told her to perform oral sex on me. Then I demanded that she keep it secret.”
Several pastors in multiple churches over the intervening years failed in their mandatory reporting duty by never making a police report. Sexual assault is a crime, and clergy sexual abuse is also a crime in Texas.
A lot has happened in a week. As of Friday, January 12, a week after the story broke:
-Savage admitted to a sexual encounter with a student under his shepherding care. Though he didn’t share the details nor describe it as assault, he at least did not deny it happened.
-Woodson filed a police report in Texas. A detective opened a case. Tragically, because of the statute of limitations, they are not able to press charges, even though Savage’s actions violated several Texas laws. If Savage and other church leaders had not covered up the matter for so long and forced silence on Woodson, criminal justice could have been served.
-Even though Savage has escaped criminal justice by telling Woodson to keep quiet, marketplace justice has been swift.
-Bethany House cancelled publication of Savage’s forthcoming book on marriage.
-Baker Books cancelled publication of a book by Chris Conlee, the current Lead Pastor at HighPoint, the church where Savage is Teaching Pastor. Conlee said in a church statement that he knew about Savage’s choice to have sexual contact with a student in his ministry and still partnered with Savage in their church.
-Austin Stone Church has placed on leave Larry Cotton. He was the Associate Pastor at Woodlands whom Woodson told about her assault when it happened. According to Woodson’s account, Cotton covered up and lied about the abuse instead of reporting it. Austin Stone is hiring a third party investigative firm to look into Cotton’s decisions in that case.
-Savage went on the radio show of his sympathetic friend Ben Ferguson and further shared details of his treatment of Woodson. He only sees it as problematic because he failed to keep his own standard of sexual purity, speaking only about the immorality of his actions and completely missing the unethical and illegal aspects of his choices. He announced that he will be taking a leave of absence from HighPoint while a third party investigates.
Contrast all this response with a sexual abuse case I covered in September. A Christian university was accused of mishandling and covering up rape, also failing to report the incident and an alleged confession by the rapist to the police. The school put intense pressure on those reporting it to stop talking about it. The major Christian leaders named in the coverup have faced no public consequences for their actions and inactions to this date, though investigations are ongoing.
What has changed in the past four months?
It’s being called “The Reckoning.” The #metoo movement of women (and men) sharing their stories of men sexually assaulting them has given more and more victims the courage to speak up. It’s been followed by #churchtoo, focusing on sexual abuse and coverups in the church. As more survivors of spiritual and sexual abuse have spoken about their experiences in churches, it’s given others not just courage but also hope. Hope that people will listen, hope that people will believe, hope that abusers will actually face justice.
The Reckoning has hit the hills of Hollywood and the halls of Congress, and now it’s coming to a church near you. On Twitter, Ryan Ashton wrote, “@andysavage is the Church’s Harvey Weinstein moment.” I hope that this is the moment when churches and Christian leaders will learn how to respond correctly to abuse reports and bring healing and justice to victims rather than further damaging them.
Read the post that broke the story, which includes the text of Woodson’s police report:
Follow @wartwatch and @watchkeep on Twitter for frequent updates.