Pastor Andy Savage Apologizes For "Sexual Incident" With Teen Girl, But It’s Her Response You Need To Hear
It wasn't just Hollywood that felt the full impact of the #MeToo movement. People around the world shared their experiences with sexual violence, and held those who had assaulted them accountable. Jules Woodson said a pastor, Andy Savage, sexually assaulted her almost 20 years ago in Woodlands, Texas, and she went public with her allegations last week. Savage publicly apologized to her in church Sunday and received a standing ovation from his Memphis congregation, but Woodson told Memphis' Action News 5 that she found Savage's apology sorely lacking.
“His apology isn’t enough because number one, he’s lying about how he handled it,” Woodson said. “He never came to me, the church told him he couldn’t talk to me and they told me I couldn’t talk to him,” she explained.
Before going public with her story, Woodson sent an email to Savage back in December — on the heels of the Harvey Weinstein scandal — with the subject line, "Do you remember?" In the email, Woodson reminded Savage of a night two decades prior, when Savage was supposed to drive Woodson home from church but instead allegedly sexually assaulted her on a deserted back road. It was only when Savage didn't respond that Woodson spoke out, in a blog post detailing what had happened.
"It's very hard to tell your story," Woodson told Action News 5. "It's very hard to speak up, especially when you feel pressured by the church to be silent."
Woodson also told Action News 5 that she went to the leaders of that Texas church the day after the alleged assault in 1998. However, Woodson said that the church leaders did not contact authorities or impose appropriate consequences on Savage; instead, they permitted him to resign.
"There was just this big cover up, and I felt so much pressure to come forward," Woodson said.
Savage, however, claimed to his congregation that he had "apologized and sought forgiveness from [Woodson], her parents, her discipleship group, the church staff, and the church leadership."
The #MeToo movement inspired Woodson to tell her story, and in the email she originally sent to Savage in December, she signed off with this hashtag.
In a statement to his congregation at Memphis' Highpoint Church, Savage acknowledged that he "had a sexual incident with a female high school senior in the church" in Texas, and said that he "was sorry then and remain so today." A video of the Sunday service showed Savage publicly apologizing to Woodson.
“In hindsight, I see more could have been done for Jules,” Savage told his congregation. “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.”
It was this apology — in which Savage did not explicitly admit to assault — that Woodson found insufficient, and described as "disgusting." Savage requested Woodson's forgiveness before his congregation, but according to Christa Brown — who writes about clergy sex abuse, church cover-ups — Savage's behavior is a reflection of a more systemic problem in evangelical communities.
“Religious leaders use forgiveness theology as a cover, and as an avoidance, of accountability,” Brown told The Washington Post. “And it’s a way of further shaming victims. ‘What a bad girl you are, you aren’t forgiving.’”
Brown also argued that responsible organizations would implement more structures of accountability in order to ensure that faith leaders don't exploit their positions of power. Indeed, as Brown noted, Savage focused on forgiveness in his statement, rather than accountability.
Although Savage's congregation felt that he deserved a standing ovation, he and others connected to the Texas church are nonetheless facing severe backlash. According to The Washington Post, Christian book publisher Bethany House has canceled the publication of Savage's upcoming book. Larry Cotton, a pastor in whom Woodson confided back in 1998, has been placed on leave at his church in Austin, pending an investigation into Woodson's allegation that he attempted to cover up what Savage had done.
Woodson told Action News 5 that she hopes telling her story will spur change, especially in church communities where survivors of sexual violence may be pressured to remain silent.
"I want other victims of sexual abuse, especially within the church, to know that they're not alone and to know that they have a voice," Woodson said.