This Is Not What Taking Full Responsibility Looks Like: Pastor Andy Savage’s Sexual Assault Coverup

This Is Not What Taking Full Responsibility Looks Like: Pastor Andy Savage’s Sexual Assault Coverup January 10, 2018

Some of you may have seen headlines covering this story, which just broke this week:

A Memphis megachurch gave a standing ovation to a pastor after he admitted to sexually assaulting a teenage girl just days before he conducted a workshop promoting abstinence.

The woman said she was 17 years old and a high school senior when she met Savage, who was then in college and working as a staffer at a Texas Baptist church now known as StoneBridge.

She told the Wartbridge Watch website that Savage drove her 20 years ago to a remote area, where he forced her to give him oral sex, fondled her and then jumped out of the vehicle, fell to his knees and begged forgiveness.

Out of all of this, this is what blows me away:

“I took every step to respond in a biblical way,” Savage said, reading from a prepared statement. “I resigned from ministry and moved back home to Memphis. I accepted full responsibility for my actions. I was and remain very remorseful for the incident and deeply regret the pain I caused her and her family, as well as the pain I caused the church and God’s kingdom.”

You can read the full story on the Warburg Watch.

There was never any police report filed. Apparently, responding in “a biblical way” means keeping the law out of this. But the problem is bigger than that. Savage lied through his teeth in his statement. How did Savage actually respond? Here is the account given by Jules Woodson—Savage’s victim, who was 17 when he assaulted her while driving her home from a youth group event (he was her youth pastor)—as reported by RawStory:

[After the assault] Savage got out of the truck and ran to her side of the truck, fell to his knees and begged for her forgiveness. She said she got out of the truck feeling “terrified and ashamed.” he continued to plead with her.

“Oh my God, oh my God. What have I done? Oh my God, I’m so sorry. You can’t tell anyone Jules, please. You have to take this to the grave with you,” she remembered him saying.

She was quickly angered and told him that she wouldn’t tell to get him to stop pleading with her. The two got back into the truck and he took her home. “I was in shock.”

In the aftermath she said the guilt and anxiety of the assault was “eating at her soul.”

“I couldn’t concentrate at school. I couldn’t think about anything else. The fear, shame, anger and hurt consumed me,” she continued. “As embarrassing as it would be for me to tell all the ‘dirty’ details of this horrible secret, I had no other choice. What happened to me was not right nor had it been my fault. I had to report this.”

The church members who gave Savage a standing ovation for his statement presumably did so because they assumed he was being honest. He wasn’t. Savage shouldn’t have been given a standing ovation regardless—an admission of sexual assault isn’t exactly praiseworthy—but the applause (one can assume) came in response to Savage’s claim that responded in a proper and biblical manner, taking full responsibility for his actions.

However, according to Woodson, he did nothing of the sort.

We really should be past taking predators at their word. At the very least, Savage’s congregation should have fact-checked before assuming he was being truthful, and applauding his testimony. De facto assuming that a person who sexually assaulted a child under their authority is going to tell the truth about the aftermath of that incident is a bad idea—and that’s putting it mildly. Their account is essentially always going to be spin.

Let’s return to Woodson. What happened when she could no longer keep the secret and went to her pastor and assistant pastor about it? Before we turn to that let’s review Savage’s claim, in his statement to his congregation:

“I took every step to respond in a biblical way,” Savage said, reading from a prepared statement. “I resigned from ministry and moved back home to Memphis. I accepted full responsibility for my actions.”

According to Woodson, Savage told her not to tell anyone that he had assaulted and molested her. As long as she kept silent, he did too. So much for taking responsibility! Finally, Woodson went to associate pastor Larry Cotton (head pastor Steve Bradley was unavailable). Savage worked at the same church; he was the youth pastor.

“Just as I had finished telling my story, Larry immediately spoke up and asked me to clarify. He said something to the effect of, ‘So you’re telling me you participated?’” she recalled. What followed was a “wave of shame” come over her.

She was told that the associate pastor would inform the head pastor and the church would deal with the situation. In the days that followed Savage went on as though nothing was outside of the norm. In fact, he even taught a workshop titled “True Love Waits” about sexual purity and abstinence. The workshop wasn’t merely about sexual abstinence, it was a full-force, no kissing, no touching form of abstinence workshop.

In other words, nothing happened. Nothing. Savage did not take responsibility for his actions. He did not resign. In fact, he went on teaching workshops on sexual abstinence, as if he hadn’t just sexually assaulted a child.

Woodson fell deeper and deeper into a depression. She ultimately confided to her women’s discipleship group.

“Looking back now, I know without a doubt, it was a cry for help. Tears ran down my cheeks. I remember feeling a slight sense of relief as this was no longer just a secret between myself, Andy, Larry and Steve,” she said. “However, I too remember feeling as though I had just played my last card. I knew I had broken the rules of silence and that there would be consequences to my actions.”

The rules of silence. 

But no! Full responsibility! Biblical response!

When word got back to the head pastors they were forced to act. Savage was removed from a youth group trip skiing and rumors were beginning to spread. Still, the church never told the congregation about what happened.

“Instead, they held a going away reception for Andy at the church in which he was allowed to simply say that he had made a poor decision and that it was time for him to move on from our church,” Woodson recalled.

Biblical response! Full responsibility!

She later learned that her parents never even knew what happened so Woodson told them.

Hang on a moment. They  never even told her parents what Savage had done? The first step in taking responsibility for doing something is admitting you did it. And I’m sorry, but knowing that a child was the victim of sexual assault and not telling her parents is the height of irresponsibility! I’m seriously seeing red right now.

The church even had the gall to call her parents years later asking if they would be OK bringing Savage back on as a staffer.

And then there’s that.

When the church asked them how they’d feel about bringing Savage back, Woodson’s parents told them no, and the church let it drop—but they get zero points for that. The church leadership was probably afraid that if they brought Savage back, Woodson’s parents would tell everyone at the church what he had done. In other words, they were very likely motivated by a desire to hide a crime rather than by respect for the family’s wishes.

And no one reported it to the authorities. No one.

By the way, everyone knew that Savage had been paying attentions to Woodson, and no one had done a thing about it—despite the fact that she was 17 and he was her youth pastor. In fact his attentions toward her were so pronounced that when the church announced that Savage had “made a poor decision” and was leaving, Woodson says that people thought he was being pushed out because “we had exchanged an ‘innocent’ kiss.” In fact, Woodson says that people in the church were angry with her because Savage was popular and they blamed her for his being forced to leave. Even if it had been just a kiss, she was still 17 and he was still her youth pastor. 

So much for protecting minors from being preyed on by spiritual authority figures. So much for keeping an eye out for grooming.

In summary, it happened like this—he assaulted her, he tried to cover it up by telling her to tell no one, she told the associate pastor, he did nothing (another act of coverup), so she told someone in her women’s discipleship group. At that point the pastors determined that they had to do something or word would get out, so they again covered up what happened by telling everyone that Savage had “made a poor decision” and shuffling him to another church.

That is not what taking full responsibility looks like. And if that is what taking “every step to respond in a biblical way” looks like, as Savage claims, I have questions.

Let’s return to Savage’s statement one last time:

“I took every step to respond in a biblical way,” Savage said, reading from a prepared statement. “I resigned from ministry and moved back home to Memphis. I accepted full responsibility for my actions.”

Savage emphasizes resigning from the ministry as a sign that he accepted full responsibility. But—leaving aside the fact that he didn’t actually leave Woodson’s church until her church decided to shuffle him out to avoid his crime coming to light—did he actually leave the ministry? to his alumnus profile at Union University, he left StoneBridge Church in April 1998 and went on staff with Germantown Baptist Church, back in Memphis, in July 1999.

How old was Savage when he assaulted Woodson? On some level it does not matter—he may have begun working as a youth pastor while still in college, but Woodson was 17 and he was her youth pastor. The authority he would have held over her as a youth pastor ought to have been a red flag regardless of his young age. But just how old was he?

According to his alumnus profile at Union University, Savage worked at StoneBridge Church from June 1995 to April 1998. Savage’s biography at Highpoint Church states that “Andy began his life in ministry after his freshman year of college, serving first as a Youth Pastor at StoneBridge Church.” In this context, Savage’s Instagram handle—“andysavage75”—likely reflects his year of birth.

Given all of this, Savage would have been 19 when he began work at StoneBridge Church in June 1995, at the end of his freshman year of college. Woodson says that Savage sexually assaulted her in early 1998, three years later. Savage would have been 22. In other words, we’re not talking about an 18-year-old or 19-year-old kid fumbling around as an unprepared and brand-new youth minister; we’re talking about a 22-year-old grown adult who had already spent nearly three years serving as a youth pastor.

And yet, here is how Savage’s official statement on the Highpoint Church website reads:

As a college student on staff at a church in Texas more than 20 years ago, I regretfully had a sexual incident with a female high school senior in the church.

Savage was 22 and Woodson was 17 when the assault occurred. By noting only that he was a “college student” and by stating that she was a “high school senior” he gives the reader the impression that the age difference may have been far less—and even that Woodson might have been already 18. In other words, right off the bat the statement is still about coverup and not about taking full responsibility.

Note too that he describes it as a “sexual incident.” Not assault. An incident.

I apologized and sought forgiveness from her, her parents, her discipleship group, the church staff, and the church leadership, who informed the congregation.

The church didn’t even tell her parents what Savage had done, so how could he have apologized to them and sought forgiveness from them? The congregation, too, was not informed—they were told only that he had “made a poor decision” and not what it was. Most of them ended up assuming that he’d kissed Woodson, and that it was consensual. This is not what informing the congregation looks like.

Do you want to know the saddest thing about all of this? When Savage abducted Woodson in his car, driving her into the woods to sexually assault her, she thought he was taking her for ice cream.

"Lol I’m trying to convince her."

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