This past Friday, The Wartburg Watch exposed megachurch pastor Andy Savage for sexually assaulting a teenage girl, Jules Woodsen, who has now come forward to share her story. Twenty years ago, Savage drove then-seventeen year-old Woodson down a secluded road and sexually assaulted her. At the time, Savage was an adult college student and serving as a youth pastor at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church in Texas.
After the assault, Savage reportedly begged her to keep the abuse a secret, as most abusers do. Despite his insistence, Woodson could not keep silent.
“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. Little did I know, the very people I was about to entrust to protect me and help me would not only victimize me all over again but would also engage in a cover up to protect my abuser and the image of the church.”
Sadly, the pastor to whom Woodson reported the abuse responded with a victim-blaming question about her “participation” in the assault. The pastor then promised to deal with the situation. Days later, however, Savage seemed unaffected. He reportedly taught a “True Love Waits” workshop about sexual purity after Woodson reported the assault to her pastors. Further, RawStory was unable to locate a police report filed by the church pastors.
Recently, Woodson came forward with her story after Savage posted a tweet condemning Matt Lauer—accused of sexual abuse. Observing his hypocrisy, Woodson sent a personal email to confront him, which he reportedly ignored. Woodson shared her story with the Wartburg Watch “in the hopes of reaching other sexual assault survivors.”
On Sunday, Savage made a public apology at Highpoint Church, which can be viewed here and read here. Highpoint Church has declared its support for Savage in a statement on their website, and the congregation gave him a standing ovation when he spoke on Sunday.
The church’s response to this abuse is problematic, but it’s also indicative of the way the church at large often responds to abuse. I’d like to analyze the apology, which reflects common language and attitudes toward assault.
1. Reframing Sexual Abuse As A Sexual “Incident”
I agree with those who have called the sexual encounter with a minor-parishioner a sexual assault. However, you will notice that, in Savage’s apology, he does not use the terms “abuse” or “sexual assault.” The omission of these descriptors is important.
Male abusers often gaslight victims and cast doubt on the nature of an assault by using alternative and less specific language like “mistake,” “affair,” “failure,” "sexual sin," or “inappropriate relationship.” In this case, the term “incident” undermines the victim’s story and reframes the perpetrator’s actions. Perpetrators often use language to externalize and distance themselves from blame that rightly belongs with them. This type of language minimizes the seriousness of the offense and the pain of the victim. We should use accurate language when we discuss sexual abuse in the church.
2. Saying "This Happened A Long Time Ago"
Savage mentions over and over again that the abuse happened twenty or more years ago—as if it lessens the impact of the assault or his responsibility for it. He reasserts this by stating that “until now, I did not know there was unfinished business with Jules.”
Often, when abusers harp on the time passed, it is an attempt to distance themselves from their own actions—as if the assault happened a lifetime ago and isn’t all that relevant today. It subtly paints the victim as needlessly bringing up past “sins” that have already been dealt with. This implies that the victim is the problem rather than the trauma the abuser inflicted on her. The church should not allow time to erase abuse or decrease the accountability of the abuser.
3. Failing to Report to Police
Savage details his repentance process as a church leader, and how he took a sabbatical from ministry. He uses Christian buzz words like “biblical” and “repentance,” and even sheds some tears. He says, “I took every step to respond in a biblical way.” This sounds convincing on the surface, but something is missing. As far as we know, Savage never reported himself to the police in the past nor does he say he plans to do so in the future. Savage has never submitted himself to law enforcement.
A perpetrator should allow the police to judge whether or not a crime was committed and what the consequences should be. A biblically repentant abuser should make himself accountable to law enforcement immediately after an assault, and the church should ensure this happens.
4. Confusing Support for the Abuser with Support for the Victim
The speaker who follows Andy Savage encourages the congregation to support Savage and asserts that, “I know when you support Andy in that way, you are also supporting Ms. Woodson. You are supporting her healing.”
Church leaders should not conflate supporting a perpetrator with doing a service to the victim. This adds weight and credibility to an abuser’s “apology” and does nothing to support the survivor’s healing. Church leadership should not promote forgiveness and support of a perpetrator who has not demonstrated appropriate remorse or taken responsibility for his actions by naming them as abuse.
When we listen to apologies from abusers, whether they be from pastors, celebrities, politicians, or regular people in our lives, we can’t get caught up in the in tears, excuses, or standing ovations. These are not the marks of true repentance. Instead, we need to carefully listen to what abusers actually say when they claim to repent of their actions. And, even good words are not enough. For words to carry weight, they must be followed with appropriate actions—such as reporting to the police and getting long-term professional help.
As Boz Tchividjian says, we need to be careful to avoid the “dangers of mob forgiveness that finds redemption stories where they don’t exist, while at the same time affirming perpetrators and re-traumatizing victims.”
I commend Woodson for bravely coming forward with her story and I pray that she finally experiences the justice and healing she deserves. May our response to abuse in the church begin with our concern for the victim. And may we listen to perpetrators with discerning ears for signs of true repentance.
For further reading, check out http://www.ashleyeaster.com/blog/woke-abuser.
2. To gaslight a person is to manipulate them psychologically such that they question their own sanity, particularly by leading them to doubt their own experiences or perceptions of reality.