Responding to Andy Savage, Highpoint Church, and Sexual Assault

Is it truly any wonder that victims of sexual assault by clergy feel that it's not safe for them to come forward with their stories of abuse? The recent #metoo, #churchtoo and #SilenceIsNotSpiritual campaigns, involving the many heartbreaking stories of victims, have demonstrated time and time again that churches not only harbor and protect serial abusers, worse yet they oftentimes enable the abuse to continue. How? By silencing and shaming the victims, and engaging in ongoing cover-ups.

Sadly, this seems to be a recurring theme; we've been seeing it for years now in the Catholic Church, with its appalling cover-up campaign of pedophile priests. The attitude on the part of those in church leadership who engage in the cover-ups seems to be that they don't want the stories coming out publicly, mostly because it will damage the public perception of their church or ministry. So much of the time, the victims' stories are suppressed, denied or minimized; and sadly, those who suffered the abuse end up being sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism, money, fame, and so forth.

Recently, it came out that Andy Savage, “teaching pastor” of Highpoint Church in Memphis, TN, was involved in the sexual assault of Jules Woodson some 20 years ago. At the time, she was a 17-year old teenager, and Savage was the 20-year-old youth pastor of Woodlands Park Baptist Church in The Woodlands, Texas (now StoneBridge Church). After leaving Woodlands Park, Savage has gone on to have a highly successful career in ministry at Highpoint Church. Until now, Savage had thought the entire incident to have been successfully buried in the past; but oftentimes, those skeletons in the closet have disconcerting ways of rattling loudly enough to get someone's attention.

Exploring Themes

There are several themes that come out of this story; in the interests of space, unfortunately I can't cover everything in this post.

(If you want more information on this breaking story, here are some helpful links. General details of the situation can be found in this Huffington Post article, along with the statement from Savage's victim, Jules Woodson, on the Wartburg Watch site (warning, some graphic sexual content). Finally, a transcript of a recent service at Highpoint church, in which Savage and head pastor Chris Conlee publicly discuss the issue, can be found here on the MakeChurchSafe.com site). 

As I carefully processed through Savage's “apology” service at Highpoint, went through Ms. Woodson's statements, and read various articles on this issue, it struck me that there are several noteworthy aspects of this situation that need to be explored in further detail, and assessed critically.

It is also important to note that much of the current conversation, from Highpoint and Savage, centers on him, and not the victim. Do they believe he truly committed a crime, those 20 years ago? What support will there be for his victim going forward? Although it may seem like a commendable stance for his current ministry to stand by he and his family, what about his victim? And finally, what--if any--consequences will there be for Savage? 

The following themes may in fact help those who are seeking to process through what happened, both in the past, and how Highpoint is choosing to handle the situation.

  1. The assault itself by the-then youth pastor, Andy Savage, was clearly not only a traumatic experience for his victim, Jules Woodson, a 17-year old minor; further compounding her shame and guilt was the way church leadership (Woodlands Park Baptist Church, TX), handled it. They covered it up; did not call the police to report Savage's criminal activity; did not reveal the full extent of Savage's actions to the church; allowed him to depart back to his home city of Memphis, with a “leaving ceremony” of sorts; and even had the gall, years later, to contemplate bringing him back into the church as a pastor. So why didn't Woodlands Park follow due diligence, and report the matter to the police, as they should have? Failure to do that leaves them open to legal action, surely; not to mention it's the right thing to do, regardless of the PR consequences to the church or to Savage's reputation and future ministerial career. Woodland Park allowed Savage to get away with his criminal behavior scot-free, and worse yet, the church participated in the subsequent cover-up. When she did finally summon the courage to share her story in a women's ministry class, Woodson speaks of “breaking the rules of silence” enforced by the church, and that she knew by doing so “there would be consequences to my actions.” Woodland Park's actions only reinforced Woodson's shame, guilt and depression, and further speaks to the issue of why so many victims are fearful of coming forward to report incidents of sexual assaults, and specifically by members of the clergy. As I said at the outset, often the victims aren't believed, the assaults are denied or minimized, and the continuing culture of abusers--protected by the system--continues on.

  2. Note: What Andy Savage did to Ms. Woodson was a crime that should have been reported to the police by church leadership. But what did they do instead? Just a couple of days after the assault was reported to them by Ms. Woodson, the leadership allowed Savage to lead a 2-day "abstinence course" called--wait for it--"True Love Waits." In this course, Savage taught his students that they should have no sexual contact, or even touching, before marriage. Ms. Woodson states that the irony of the entire situation was not lost on her at the time. Instead of removing Savage immediately from leadership, and reporting the assault to the police, the leadership turned a blind eye and let an abuser teach a class on sexual abstinence. Those decisions by the church leadership at the time were beyond appalling, and only served to allow Savage to get away with his actions. In the wider church context, also, this narrative speaks to the damage that evangelical "purity culture" has wrought in the lives of many a young person, both in terms of mental health and relationships.
  3. The staff of Savage's current church, Highpoint Church in Memphis, TN, apparently was aware of the “sexual incident” (as Savage phrases it) between he and Ms. Woodson years before. The questions that arise are these: did Savage, when he came on board as the teaching pastor years ago, fully disclose every single detail of the sexual assault? In other words, did Highpoint know that he had sexually assaulted a minor, which is a crime? The words Savage used to describe the encounter (as nothing more than a “sexual incident with a teenager”) both minimizes the impact of his actions, and seeks to lessen the apparent trauma suffered by the victim. A “sexual incident” makes it sound like he had perhaps consensual sex with a teenager, or engaged in consensual sexual activity not involving intercourse. But even still, both of these actions would have constituted sexual assault of a minor, or statutory rape. Surely, then, Highpoint takes a share of the blame—wouldn't the sexual assault of a minor be grounds for refusing to put someone in a pastoral position, where he would be free to exploit other victims and potentially abuse again? When they installed him as teaching pastor all those years ago, surely someone must have questioned the wisdom of placing an offender in a position of such authority. That is, unless Savage lied to them at the time, and did not fully disclose the full horror of what he had done to Woodson. But it still raises the question as to whether or not Highpoint should have trusted Savage's continuing judgement and actions by placing him in such a leadership capacity.

  4. Even if Highpoint were not aware of the full extent of Savage's actions, which would appear somewhat to lessen their responsibility in placing him in the teaching pastor role, their current reaction to the scandal nonetheless still speaks volumes. The response by head pastor Chris Conlee of Highpoint runs along these thematic lines: “Yes, Andy Savage did something bad with a teenage girl, but it happened 20 years ago. And besides, we knew all about it when he came on board; but he said he'd repented and 'responded biblically' at the time by seeking forgiveness, quitting the ministry, etc. Furthermore, he hasn't done anything bad since he's been here—he's a stand-up guy with a great family. Surely he and his family have suffered enough without us heaping more shame and guilt on him, or casting stones in his direction. And moreover, we feel really, really bad about what happened to the poor victim, too. So let's say a blanket prayer for everybody involved in the situation, and move on.” This is not, says Conlee, “taking anybody's side” in the situation—except for God's side, of course, which (in his view, at least), involves saying a quick prayer, asking God and everybody in the church for forgiveness, and burying it all in the past, where it apparently belongs. It's what God would want us to do--according to their reading of the Bible, anyway.

  5. Savage's recent “apology” involves denial, distancing and minimization. He repeatedly states that “the incident occurred 20 years ago” (distancing statements); it was only a “sexual incident” and not sexual assault of a minor, a criminal act (minimizing of behavior). He also minimizes the impact of his actions with justification and rationalizing behavior: he claims to have told important people about it, but they all agreed that it was not a big enough deal to warrant any sort of punitive action. For example, in his apology, Savage defends his character since the assault by trotting out the following evidence: that a) he informed his future wife when they were engaged, but she married him anyway; b) he informed the church, but they hired him anyway; c) finally, he claims that in all the years since “the incident,” he's never done anything even remotely close to repeating such behavior. Of course, we are just taking his word for it, at this point. His argument is as follows: He's disclosed his actions, properly repented, done all the right things, made all the right moves, been a great guy for years; so all of those things should really, really...motivate us to let him off the hook for this whole thing. Right? And the church's response follows a similar line: Hasn't he suffered enough already? Come on, everybody—let's give the poor guy a break. Never mind the victim, after all; well, we did pray for her, so she should be good to go. God will take care of the rest...

  6. To me, finally, it's pretty sickening that not only did Savage and Conlee spin this whole situation to suit their own ends by turning it into a “biblical teaching opportunity” at Highpoint, what makes matters worse is this: the congregation responded by saying repeated “Amen's” throughout the service. Following Savage's initial “apology” statement, they gave him a standing ovation. All is forgiven.

Conclusion

I began this post by asking the question: “Is it truly any wonder that victims of sexual assault by clergy feel that it's not safe for them to come forward with their stories of abuse?” Given the treatment of Ms. Woodson, both by her former church—who did not call police, covered up the initial sexual assault, and let Savage walk away scot-free—and the current response by Savage and Conlee of Highpoint, pretty much sums up the whole mess.

Victims of abuse like Woodson, and the many more who have been (or are currently being abused) by members of the clergy, know for certain that their stories won't be believed by those in church leadership. Worse yet, they are afraid—and rightfully so—that they will be cast as the one who destroyed some poor pastor or priest's career by coming forward with their accounts of being abused. The fact that those in leadership view so many of these situations as needing to “protect the empire at all costs,” in turn end up destroying many a victim's life by their actions.

In so many cases, then, the abuser is therefore enabled to keep on abusing, protected by the church system and culture of silence. Meanwhile, the victims are left to suffer, alone with their pain, trauma, shame and guilt. In the case of Savage, I would not at all be surprised if, in the coming weeks and months, more victims come forward. It is hard to believe that this was a one-off incident; if the recent #metoo campaign has shown us anything, it's that the first victim who speaks up tends to open up the floodgates for other victims to come forward.

If that does occur, what then will become of all the high-sounding and pious rhetoric of pastor Chris Conlee? Summarizing his defense of Savage, and the church's position of “forgive, forget, and move on,” Conlee states that we shouldn't throw stones at a good man like Savage, who has certainly made mistakes in his past. Why ever not? “Because you never heal by hurting others,” he intoned at the conclusion of the service. 

There may be a kernel of truth to his statement, but note that in all of the story, neither Savage nor the churches of which he was a part have had to pay any sort of price, both in legal terms or in loss of position.

The clear message, then, seems to be this: “We want healing, forgiveness, and restoration for everyone involved—as long as it costs us nothing.”

#ChurchToo .jpg