Until now, the #MeToo movement has focused primarily on celebrities, politicians, and journalists. However, we cannot overlook those who suffer because of abuse they have received at the hands of Church leaders. Victims of these crimes deal with the trauma that can potentially affect them for the rest of their lives — especially if they are too ashamed to seek help:
“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.”
This is the confession Pastor Andy Savage made last week at Highpoint Church in Tennessee. He admitted to engaging in sexual activity with a minor while serving as her youth pastor in 1998.
The congregation gave him a standing ovation, presumably because a sinner was willing to publicly confess his sins — a Biblical concept.
Unfortunately, Savage’s story is not an isolated incident — but rather an example of sexual abuse that occurs all too often in both Catholic and Protestant churches.
Jules Woodson’s Story
When Savage read his confession to the congregation, he only admitted to a “sexual incident” with an underage girl. He claimed not to know that there was “unfinished business” with the victim saying he believed that the incident had been “dealt with in Texas.”
However, according to Jules Woodson, the victim of Savage’s sexual assault, the incident was far worse than Savage implied. In a blog post, Woodson offers the unseemly details of this time in her young life.
According to Woodson, Savage offered to drive her home following a youth service at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church, (now known as Stonebridge Church), however, instead of taking her home, he took her to a secluded area and asked her to perform oral sex. Woodson did what he asked, until Savage stopped, apologized, and begged her never to tell anyone what happened. The young girl got Savage to stop begging by assuring him she would keep the incident secret.
Eventually, when the pain of keeping quiet became too much to bear, Woodson approached Associate Pastor Larry Cotton. She hoped that opening up to Cotton would bring about a positive resolution, but the opposite occurred. After Woodson finished telling her story, the pastor said: “So you’re telling me you participated?” This statement was an indicator to Woodson as to how this incident would be handled by the church hierarchy.
Nevertheless, Cotton assured Woodson that he would inform Senior Pastor Steve Bradley and that her abuse would be addressed. All this went on without the parent’s knowledge.
Meanwhile, days passed with no apparent recriminations toward Woodon’s abuser. Naturally, she was disturbed by the fact that her perpetrator was still on staff at the church — hypocritically leading an event promoting sexual purity. Eventually, at a meeting with her female discipleship group, she broke down and told them the whole story. Word spread around the church, eventually reaching Cotton and Bradley so that the leadership was then forced to act, and remove Savage from his church position.
Woodson describes being upset when she saw the video of Savage recently confessing the incident and the subsequent reaction from the congregation. “It’s disgusting,” she told The New York Times. She refuted Savage’s claim that the issue had been “dealt with.” The incident was never reported to the authorities, and the leadership only acted when the matter was exposed to the rest of the church. Woodson said she finally came forward in her blog post to prevent similar circumstances from reoccurring.
“I just hope that by me coming forward that I would give courage to one other person,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if I was his only victim. What matters is that this was a big problem and continues to go on.”
Sexual Assault In The Protestant Church
Typically, when discussing sexual abuse in the church, the focus is on members of the Roman Catholic clergy. Indeed, the most publicized sex scandal involved abuses carried out by Catholic priests. However, this issue is prevalent in Protestant churches as well.
According to Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham, top insurance providers for both Protestant and Catholic churches claim the number of reports received by sexually abused minors indicates that this is a greater issue in Protestant churches than Catholic institutions.
Tchividjian has become a prominent advocate for sexual abuse victims in the church. In an interview with Vice, he stated that “traditions of shame, male power structures, and public relations myopia” empower abusers while minimizing victims. Thus, he formed an organization called GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), to counteract the tendency of churches and other Christian institutions to protect the abuser at the expense of the victim.
In Woodson’s case, one can see how the church tried their best to ensure that she would not bring Savage’s crime to light. Regrettably, this is often the case as churches fear the negative optics of the scandal. Others simply blame the victim — implying that they are somehow responsible for the sexual impropriety. Tchividjian states that this is an especially sensitive issue for male victims as they are less likely to report abuse because of the shame involved. Male sexual abuse survivors have told him they do not come forward “because they thought that they would be labeled a future offender and everyone would keep their kids away, or they would be accused of being gay.”
The Church Must Be Held Accountable For Sexual Abuse
Jules Woodson’s story is emblematic of the #MeToo campaign and demands we ask more from our church leaders. Organizations like GRACE can help to expose instances of sexual abuse in the church, but Christian leaders must do more to protect children in their congregations. They need to encourage victims to come forward, and have the courage to address these issues with honesty that Biblical principles demand of their adherents.