Last January, frustrated at seeing her abuser blame sexual assault brought to light by the #metoo movement on lack of biblical sexual standards, Jules Woodson went public. Megachurch pastor Andy Savage, she said, had sexually assaulted her while she was a 17-year-old student and he was her youth pastor twenty years before. Savage responded by announcing to his congregation that he had committed a sexual indiscretion twenty years in the past, and that it had been properly addressed at the time.
It had not. It had been covered up.
Savage’s congregation responded to his statement by giving him a standing ovation. That ovation raised the interest of the press. Evangelicals have a PR problem when it comes to dealing with sexual assault or sexual abuse in their congregations—but they only have that PR problem because they have an actual problem. Giving an alleged abuser a standing ovation doesn’t look good because it isn’t good. As more details came out, Savage was placed on administrative leave.
Two and a half months later, Savage has offered an update. In this post, I’m going to go through this update paragraph by paragraph. In many ways, it is a textbook response. Savage’s update is phrased in such a way as to allow him to appear suddenly “woke” and reformed, even as he continues to refuse to truly accept responsibility or to admit fully to what he has done.
Throughout the last two and a half months, I’ve had the opportunity to spend much time in prayer and God’s Word, as well as to reflect on the thoughts shared by so many who responded to the post by Jules Woodson and to my statement on January 7th. Your passionate opinions on this important matter have truly helped me to gain perspective that I simply could not have achieved on my own. I have come to understand Jules’ vantage point better, and to appreciate the courage it took for her to speak up.
I am not impressed with this beginning. Savage’s reference to “Jules’ vantage point” makes her allegations—that he sexually assaulted her—seem subjective, and his nod to “the courage it took for her to speak up” leaves unstated the reality that she only had to go to the effort to speak up because he hid the fact that he had sexually assaulted her for two decades.
When Jules cried out for justice, I carelessly turned the topic to my own story of moral change, as if getting my own life in order should help to make up for what she went through and continues to go through. Morality is meant to guard against injustices, not to minimize them, to compensate for them, or to obscure them. I agree with Jules that, of all places, we as the Church should be getting this right.
The references to “moral change” and “getting my own life in order” make this once again sound like it’s the story of a youthful sexual indiscretion. His statement that he agrees with Jules the the church should get this right once again leaves unstated the fact that he and the multiple churches he have been associated with have been the ones getting it wrong.
As I’ve reflected during my leave of absence, I have come to see that many wrongs occurred in 1998. The first was my inappropriate relationship with Jules, which was not only immoral, but meets the definition of abuse of power since I was her youth pastor; therefore, when our relationship became physical, there could be no claim of mutual consent. Another wrong was the failure to follow due process afterward; Jules deserved, and did not get, a full investigation and proper response 20 years ago.
There are some truly solid things about this paragraph on the first read through. On the second read through, however, it falls apart. Savage calls what happened an “inappropriate relationship” rather than sexual assault, and states that it “meets the definition of abuse of power” rather than directly stating that he abused Jules. There is still a lack of personal responsibility.
Savage thats that “when our relationship became physical, there could be no claim to mutual consent.” Again, on the first read though this seems like an important acknowledgement. The problem is that he is incredibly dishonest, here, about what actually happened. He makes it sound as though he and Jules were in a relationship, and that relationship simply “became physical.” He and Jules were not in a relationship. She made it clear in her statement that she viewed him only as her youth pastor.
Jules confined in Savage about how difficult her parents’ divorce was being for her, and about a party at which she was coerced into unwanted sexual activity, because he was her youth pastor and she trusted him. They were not in a relationship. She was only alone with him, the day he assaulted her, because her mother had asked him to drive her home from a youth group activity. When he missed the turn to her house, she thought he was taking her for ice cream. Instead, he took her into a secluded area of the woods, stopped the car, and ordered her to perform oral sex on him. They were not in a relationship.
Even in this statement, in which Savage acts as though he has learned something—about power differentials and consent—he continues to lie about what happened, to lie about what he did. The problem was not that, at age 22, he had a relationship with a 17-year-old while working as her youth pastor, although that alone would have been an abuse of his power and position. The problem is that he drove a child to a remote area (arguably kidnapping), sexually assaulted her, and proceeded to cover it up.“[O]ur relationship became physical” is a pretty damn interesting way of saying “I kidnapped a child, took her to a remote area where she could not get away, without her consent and against her will, and ordered her to give me oral sex.”
Admittedly, at 22 and in my first job, I truly believed that I was being guided through proper steps for restitution, which included resigning my position and moving from Houston to Memphis. Those steps seemed significant at the time, and I trusted in the process assigned to me. Only through my recent time of reflection have I realized that more should have been done.
The amount of passive voice in this paragraph would definitely be flagged by an English teacher. “I truly believed that I was being guided through proper steps,” he says. What others did, and not his role in the coverup, takes center stage. It’s a sort of “they made me do it” defense. They told him not to tell anyone what had happened. They told him not to apologize to Jules or his family. Or at least, that is apparently what we are to believe.
There is mention of the fact that Savage himself ordered Jules not to tell a soul what he had done, before any of the other pastors at the church even knew about it. He was under no guidance of other pastors when he did that. That was all him.
And finally, rather than admitting outright that he should have done more, he says simply that “more should have been done.” Holy passive voice batman! Way to dodge taking responsibility. It’s the “mistakes were made” defense.
Of course, this does little to relieve the suffering Jules experienced because of my mistakes and the neglect of due process that followed. I sincerely want to get this right. I want the Church to get this right. I want Jules, finally, to see it gotten right.
The language here is still off. Savage refers to sexually assaulting a child under his care as youth pastor as a “mistake.” That was not a mistake. It was sexual assault. He still, even here, cannot bring himself to reference “the suffering Jules experienced because of my sexual assault.” It is still a “mistake.”
That is why, after much prayer and counsel, I now believe it’s appropriate for me to resign from my staff position at Highpoint Church and step away from ministry in order to do everything I can to right the wrongs of the past. Apologies are important, but more is required. I know that stepping down once, or even a second time, still doesn’t make things right for Jules. But addressing my own acts of abuse this way acknowledges the importance of confronting abuse in our culture and in the Church at large. In addition, I will continue striving to grow through this experience going forward as I seek God’s will.
There are many people who will look at this, at Savage’s resignation, and overlook any deficiencies in language in the rest. I’ve heard people say, sure, this pastor or that acted wrongly–but should that really cost them their job, their livelihood? Let me ask you this—if a teacher had done what Savage did—if a teacher sexually assaulted a student—would you want them back in the classroom? Would you feel bad if they lost their license?
We disbar lawyers for unethical conduct. We take away CPA licenses for fraud. Why don’t we have a similar process for pastors? Savage’s actions twenty years ago ought to have disqualified him from ever serving as a pastor again. Stepping down from his pastorate at Highpoint is not a courageous act. He should never have been able to pursue another pastorate to begin with, after so drastically and horrifically abusing the power of his office twenty years ago.
To my Highpoint family, I am grateful for all the ways you’ve loved me, my wife, and our boys. I would never have been able to come to this place of understanding and conviction without your love and loyal support throughout this process. I will always treasure the opportunities we’ve had to serve the Lord together.
Point of order, Savage told the church administration about what he had done twenty years before when he was in the hiring process, and they hired him anyway. And now we’re to believe they’re the ones who have helped him “come to this place of understanding,” and to make the decision to resign? They’re enablers. Those who hired Savage despite his gross abuse of his former office should be sacked as well. I don’t believe for a minute that he would be let go now if it weren’t for external pressure.
I am sure that many evangelical laypeople and pastors, as well as others, will praise Savage for his “courageous” actions and his “bold and honest” statement. I will not be among them.
Do better, evangelicals.
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