20! Think about 20! Don’t think about 17!

Highpoint Church/YouTube.

It was 20 years ago.

The Washington Post headline: “A pastor admitted a past sexual incident with a teen. His congregation gave him a standing ovation.” Others also focused on the applause. “Pastor admits to ‘sexual incident’ with teen 20 years ago, gets standing ovation” said CBS News. Newsweek also headlined the applause, calling it a “bizarre response.”

That sounded peculiar. The stories said the pastor had apologized. So SorryWatch bravely viewed the entire hour-and-17-minute YouTube video of the service in question, praise songs and all. It began to make more sense. The congregation didn’t get the whole story.

WHAT HAPPENED?

Keep in mind that “sexual incident” can mean all kinds of things, and mean different things to different people. To some, particularly in conservative churches, a kiss is a “sexual incident.”

This story highlights the importance of specificity in a good apology. The person apologizing needs to specify what the apology is for. Not hide behind the vagueness of “what happened,” “that whole thing,” “the sexual incident.”

Back in 1998, a 17-year-old high school senior, Jules Woodson, was hanging out at her Baptist church near Houston,Texas. There were a bunch of kids, but as it got later, people left, and finally it was just Woodson and youth minister Andy Savage.

Highpoint Church/YouTube.

I forgot to say this was 20 years ago.

Savage offered her a ride home in his truck. It was dark. He was the youth minister. He drove past the turn to her house. She asked why. Savage said “something along the lines of ‘you’ll see’ or ‘it’s a surprise.’ 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.”

No. Deserted dirt road. Dead end. The youth minister parked, turned off the lights, unzipped his jeans, and instructed her to perform oral sex. “I was scared and embarrassed, but I did it. I remember feeling that this must mean Andy loved me.” Or maybe he was just showing her HOW NOT TO BE A YOUTH MINISTER. He instructed her to unbutton her top. He lowered her bra. He touched her for what she guesses was was about 5 minutes, then jumped out, raced around the truck, came around to the passenger side, fell on his knees, and begged her not to tell what had just happened.

As Woodson recalls, he said, “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.” Feeling manipulated and angry, she promised silence “to get him to stop,” and he drove her home in silence.

After a few days of shame, fear, and anger, Woodson went to the head pastor, the sort of step A DECENT YOUTH MINISTER WOULD SUGGEST. But pastor Larry Cotton didn’t seem wholly sympathetic. “So you’re telling me you participated?” The sort of question A GOOD YOUTH MINISTER WOULD NOT ASK. Woodson said she was afraid to tell her mother, and he said to leave that to him. He said the church would handle the situation. He said not to talk to anyone about it.

But nothing seemed to happen. Savage went about church business, leading a 2-day “True Love Waits” event promoting purity and premarital abstinence, including avoiding contact that might lead to arousal.

A despairing and depressed Woodson told some of the story to friends in her church discipleship group. Oddly, word got out. Oddly, the church now acted, announcing that Savage would not be escorting the youth group on the ski trip. Rumors were flying, and the consensus seemed to be that Savage and Woodson had shared an ‘innocent kiss.’ Which A YOUTH MINISTER SHOULD NOT DO.

Highpoint Church/YouTube.

I should have mentioned this was all 20 years ago.

The church announced that Savage was leaving, and had a goodbye party. “No one could imagine Andy doing anything bad or immoral, much less illegal, and so, it somehow became my fault that Andy was leaving.” Apparently Savage did talk to Woodson’s mother, who was left with the impression that it was about a kiss.

On a blog discussing Woodson’s account, a commenter who says he was also in the youth group writes, “I… distinctly remember the incident and subsequent going away party… I was a high school senior. The church was definitely led to believe it was an ‘innocent kiss’ – and consensual as well. …I don’t think anyone could have imagined how horrific his actions actually were.”

Savage moved home to Memphis. Where he soon got work at Highpoint Church.

WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT THIS NOW?

Woodson was still troubled. The cover-up made it worse. “[W]hen I found out that the church had contacted my parents, years later, and asked their permission to bring Andy back on staff, it brought back a whirlwind of emotions. Of course, my parents said NO, but even learning of this was traumatizing. …although it’s been almost 20 years since everything happened, it still affects me to this day. There are… nightmares that haunt my dreams.”

Then came the #MeToo movement, and the idea of women taking pride in speaking out about sexual harassment and assault (which the incident was, under Texas law). Also Woodson saw a pious tweet by Savage about Matt Lauer’s firing from NBC News.

So saddened to hear of another high profile person in the midst of sexual misconduct allegations. It’s beginning to seem that sex on our own terms isn’t working. Go figure.

On December 1, 2017, Woodson emailed Savage.

Do you remember that night that you were supposed to drive me home from church and instead drove me to a deserted back road and sexually assaulted me?

Do you remember how you acted like you loved me and cared about me in order for me to cooperate in such acts, only to run out of the vehicle later and fall to your knees begging for forgiveness and for me not to tell anyone what had just happened?

Well, I REMEMBER.

#me-too

He didn’t answer. She thought he would answer and apologize. Nothing. After more than a month, on January 5th, Woodson went public on a pair of websites about sexual abuse.

The result was enormous publicity, and, very soon – January 7th – the church service with the notorious ovation.

Here’s Savage’s apology, slightly edited for length. Bold face added.

…I’ve never wanted to minimize anything about what’s taken place. 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 student in the church. I apologized and sought forgiveness from her, her parents, her discipleship group, the church staff, and the church leadership, who informed the congregation. In agreement with wise counsel I took every step to respond in a Biblical way. 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…. I… disclosed this incident to Chris – Conlee – before coming on staff at Highpoint… This incident was dealt with in Texas 20 years ago, but in the last few days it has been presented to a wider audience…. Again, I sincerely ask for forgiveness from her, and pray for God’s continuing healing for everyone involved. When this happened 20+ years ago. I did everything I knew to do under the counsel I was given to cooperate with those involved, to repent of my sins, take responsibility for my actions, and seek forgiveness. I never sought to cover this up…. In hindsight, I see that more could have been done for Jules. I am truly sorry more was not done. Until now, I did not know there was unfinished business with Jules. So today, I say, ‘Jules, I am deeply sorry for my actions 20 years ago. I remain committed to cooperate with you, towards forgiveness and healing.’ …I am sorry to Jules, to her family, to my family, to my church friends…, and most of all, to the Lord. My repentance over this sin 20 years ago was done believing that God’s forgiveness is greater than any sin…. Since then, I have tried to live my life in keeping with that original act of repentance. For any painful memories or fresh wounds this has created, for anyone, I am sorry. And I humbly ask for your forgiveness. I love you all, very much.

Head down, voice choked. He got maybe 24 seconds of applause. Notice the stress on how long ago this all was. 20 years! He doesn’t specify what he did. He doesn’t mention how that was misrepresented 20 years ago. He doesn’t mention ignoring the recent email showing that there was “unfinished business with Jules.”

Highpoint Church/YouTube.

Which, by the way, it’s been 20 years since then.

Those applauding didn’t get the whole story. They weren’t applauding “I’m sorry I assaulted a 17-year-old and tried to shut her up and the church helped me do that but then they said I had to go.” They were applauding “I’m sorry I once did a bad thing, and I tried to make it better, and I thought it was all fixed, and it was SO LONG AGO, and now I have to go through this again in front of thousands of people, and I’m so humiliated.” They don’t know that “I never tried to minimize anything” is untrue.

Savage’s version doesn’t contradict Woodson’s account, but it’s not specific. He doesn’t mention that the incident got downplayed from oral sex and fondling to a kiss. He doesn’t say he swore her to secrecy. He says he never tried to minimize what took place? No, that’s precisely what he did, then and now.

It’s a bad, dishonest apology, but the congregation didn’t know that. They were moved by his humility.

Lead Pastor Chris Conlee got up, put his arm around Savage, held out his other hand in a quelling gesture and instructed the congregation, “We are so grateful for your support. I know when you support Andy in that way, you are also supporting Miss Woodson. You are supporting her healing.”

Highpoint Church/YouTube.

I hope Andy told you this was 20 years ago.

Then he talked forever. A few high points: “Holy Spirit, would you… heal [Miss Woodson] of the pain that was caused, from this sin 20 years ago. God, would you also heal Andy, Amanda, and their family, from the lingering effects of this sin 20 years ago…. Does God want us to condone the sin?… Of course not!… Andy did not condone the sin 20 years ago. Andy does not condone it now…. I have a 17-year-old daughter…. What about the conversations you think I’ve had in the last couple days? — But guess what? This sin didn’t happen in the last couple days. This sin happened over 20 years ago. That does not minimize the sin… he repented of this 20 years ago …he left the ministry for a season… Only God can take what he hates and use it for what he loves. That’s why Andy’s ministry has been all about healthy dating relationships… healthy marriages… healthy families…. Isn’t this that we pray happens…. Isn’t this the result that the leadership wanted 20 years ago?…”

Referring to the New Testament admonition about those without sin casting the first stone, he said, “Andy was the sinner – 20 years ago20 years ago, Andy – we’re not minimizing, we’re not excusing sin… It was a terrible sin 20 years ago. But Andy confessed. He asked for forgiveness. He received the forgiveness of Jesus Christ…. He became a person of love, who then dedicated his life, now, to helping people live in such a way that they have pure relationships, God-honoring relationships…”

Highpoint Church/YouTube.

You know, it must have been easily 20 years ago.

He finished upbeat. “A good friend of mine called me this morning. He said, ‘God just gave Highpoint Church a ministry to heal women who’ve been abused in some type of sexual sin.’ Guess what? We’re gonna commit to that…”

Savage mentioned five times that this happened 20 years ago. Conlee mentioned nine times that happened 20 years ago. A number they never mentioned is 17, as in she was 17 years old at the time. (Conlee’s daughter, however, gets to be 17.)

We don’t think they’re ready for that ministry.

Maybe they agree. A few days later, Highpoint Church gave Savage an indefinite leave of absence. Conlee said they would arrange a third-party audit of “our church processes and Andy’s ministry.”

As for Woodson, she called Savage’s apology “disgusting.”

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3 Responses to 20! Think about 20! Don’t think about 17!

  1. tanita says:

    Wow, I go to church, and I wouldn’t have waded through that, so thank you for taking one for a team you’re not even signed with, Sumac.

    I am grateful that I haven’t (YET, which means “you’re eligible to,” right?) lived through anything like this in a church setting, but the overwhelmingly patriarchal stance of Christianity as a school of thought makes it difficult to imagine that at some point I will not… The cripplingly male-dominated laity will, in many denominations, weigh in on the side of the “King David was a man after God’s own heart” argument, forgetting that there were some pretty devastating cause-and-effect actions for what HE did. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that the laws of physics don’t still apply to an arrow once loosed from a bow. It is still going to fly… and fall, and it may yet cause bloodshed along the way. Stuff happens, as it were.

    People’s biggest argument surrounding situations like this is that there should be a statute of limitations on behavior, but their wailing, When, oh, WHEN can he come back? is conveniently forgetting that one of the more firmly worded verses in the New Testament states that it is better to hang a millstone around the neck and throw into the sea those who are willing to cause hurt to children. We seem to mainly embrace cis-men in the Christian church.

    To be clear: This doesn’t mean that good people still can’t love him and hang with this guy – Sarah Silverman’s discussion of Louis CK was so perfect an explanation – we can, and do love some pretty flawed people – but that doesn’t mean that the community they hurt should have to put up with them. When can he come back? How about never? No more pastoring for this guy. No working with women, children, or teens. He can still attend church, in another city, and just spend the rest of his time atoning in other ways. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t forgive him. It just means that I doubt the sincerity of his apology, and Woodson shouldn’t be forced to even look at him, ever again.

    Ugh. *runs to shower*

  2. Justice says:

    This mess is an epidemic in the Bible belt. I wish I hadn’t witnessed first hand the cripplingly male-dominated laity and the overwhelmingly patriarchal stance of Christianity. I also wish I knew more people like Tanita. Here are two more examples of events where Memphis area pastors, and friends of Chris and Andy, worked to gaslight victims and protect perpetrators.
    https://medium.com/@JB.Martinez/is-covering-up-abuse-authentic-manhood-fed9593b2af3

    https://medium.com/@michael_hansen/how-the-church-conspired-to-cover-up-my-sexual-abuse-f748638e5c56

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