We don’t usually cover mega-church news here but this story connects to the broader news trends which have been dominating headlines for months. The story involves a pastor named Andy Savage who teaches at a mega-church in Memphis, Tennessee. Twenty years ago, when he was the 22-year-old youth pastor at a church in Texas, Savage manipulated a 17-year-old high school senior into performing a sex act and then immediately regretted it and begged her not to tell anyone. This week, after the victim detailed her experience in a blog posting, Savage admitted what he’d done and apologized. The congregation gave him a standing ovation:
According to the Denver Post, the victim in this case, Jules Woodson, sent Savage a brief email last month saying she hadn’t forgotten what he had done. When Savage didn’t respond, she published a lengthy account of the incident online.
According to Woodson’s account, in spring 1998 she was hanging out with a group of kids at their church, Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church. Savage, the youth minister, was also there. After the others left, Savage offered to take the 17-year-old high school senior home.
“It was dark outside,” Woodson wrote. “As he was driving me toward my home, he passed the turn he should have made to go to my house. I asked him where he was going. I don’t remember his exact response, but it was something along the lines of ‘you’ll see’ or ‘it’s a surprise.’ I know for sure he did not tell me where he was taking me. I remember feeling special and excited, as in my mind, he obviously wanted to spend more time with me before taking me home. I assumed we were going to get ice cream.”
Savage pulled into an isolated area and parked the car. He then exposed himself to her and had her perform oral sex on him, she said. Savage also fondled her breasts, Woodson wrote. After five minutes, Savage abruptly stopped. “I remember him pleading, while he was on his knees with his hands up on his head, ‘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,” Woodson wrote. “My fear and shame quickly turned to anger. I had just been manipulated and used. I swore to him I wouldn’t tell anyone just to get him to stop,” she added. “We both got back in the truck. As he drove me home, I don’t remember there being any conversation. I was in shock.”
Woodson did tell church leaders about the incident and they promised to deal with it. She was told not to speak with Savage and he was apparently told not to speak to her. Savage did lose his job, but Woodson says he never had to admit to the congregation what he had done. The church never explained what had happened to her or why he was leaving. Savage says he described the entire incident to his wife before they married and to his current employer before he was hired, so this incident was not a surprise to them.
Savage claims the incident in Texas was consensual and not illegal for that reason, despite the age difference. But he has also announced he will take a leave of absence while the church investigates further. Given that they already knew about it before they hired him it’s not clear to me what is left to investigate but I guess they have to say something. Also, one of the pastors Jules Woodson originally told about the incident (at the church in Texas) has been placed on leave so a 3rd party investigation can be carried out there.
Now for all of the uncomfortable questions to which I don’t really have answers. What was the correct response here? Clearly, a church can’t have a youth pastor who preys on the young women in his care so firing Savage was the minimum response. Should they have announced the reason he was leaving either before or after he was gone? Should they have simply called the police and let them deal with it? Should the girl’s parents have called the police if the church would not?
And there are just as many questions about the incident 20 years later. Should his current church ever have hired Savage in the first place, knowing this was in his past? Should they have contacted Woodson? Under what circumstances is forgiveness appropriate for the person responsible for the misconduct? What should Savage have done or said when he received the email from Woodson last month? Should he have begged her forgiveness then?
Finally, when someone confesses a sin before a church, what should their response be? Does the standing ovation mean the church supports sexual misconduct or were they praising his willingness to own up to at least part of the story?
Again, I don’t have answers to any of these questions but here’s my first impression. The Texas church was right to fire him. Given the age of the woman involved they should have at least spoken to someone about whether or not a crime had been committed. Not telling the congregation why Savage left seems like a PR move on their part. I’m not surprised this happened but it seems like the wrong decision. At a minimum, every other parent of a teenage girl who interacted with Savage should have been informed in case someone else had a story to tell.
As for the more recent reaction, I think the applause is probably the least confusing part of this story. No one is excited to learn their pastor misbehaved with a teen girl, but honesty and repentance are highly valued in evangelical churches, especially confessions to personal failings. The impulse is to forgive. To the degree people think that Savage was giving them the truth, they would applaud that current behavior, not his past behavior.
But is he really being completely honest? After all, he didn’t say anything in public until the accusations were out there. His hand was forced. And his account of what happened didn’t offer the kind of shocking details that might have made his congregation a little more sympathetic to his victim than to him. In the clip above he says he apologized to Woodson (which she says isn’t true) but he leaves out the part about driving the unsuspecting teen to an abandoned spot and later begging her not to tell anyone what he’d done. It’s certainly not a full confession. If the church really wanted to achieve some kind of repentance here, they should consider inviting Woodson to tell her side of the story. Maybe there really is a way to find some peace for both parties.
But this story seems to get at a big question that hasn’t been answered since the Harvey Weinstein story broke: Is there a way back for men who engage in misconduct that is serious but not necessarily criminal? If so what is it?