On Sunday, Highpoint Church preacher Andy Savage told the megachurch congregation that he had “sinned” 20 years ago with a woman named Jules Woodson. At the time of his alleged assault against her, Woodson was 17 years old. The congregation responded with standing applause.
The New York Times reports that Savage did not directly address the actual accusations against him; he said he was “deeply sorry” for his “actions of 20 years ago” and added, “I remain committed to cooperate with you toward forgiveness and healing.”
What exactly is Savage requesting forgiveness for? In a blog post by Woodson published Friday, she accused Savage of assaulting her in his car on a dirt road in 1998 in Texas, after offering to drive her home from church. He was her youth pastor, and she was 17:
It was dark outside. As he was driving me towards 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.
Woodson wrote that Savage stopped the car, pulled out his penis and asked her to perform fellatio, among other things—actions which, she writes, believed meant that the loved her. But after several minutes, she wrote, he jumped out of the car and fell to his knees on the road, saying, “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 did not keep it to herself. She feared telling her mother but trusted authorities at her church, Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church. She told her story to their associate pastor, Larry Cotton. He was, she wrote, unsupportive:
Just as I had finished telling my story, Larry immediately spoke up and asked me to clarify. He said something to the effect of, ‘So you’re telling me you participated?’ I remember feeling like my heart had just sunk to the floor. What was he asking? More importantly, what was he trying to imply? This wave of shame came over me, greater than I had ever felt before.
Cotton wrote that she then told the church’s head pastor, Steve Bradley, who eventually spoke with Woodson’s mother, leaving her with the impression that Savage and her daughter had shared an “innocent kiss.” Savage was still allowed to go about his normal duties, including leading a workshop on the importance of abstinence.
Woodson believes that the only reason the church eventually took action was because she told other young women in her discipleship group that something had happened between her and the pastor. She wrote that the “innocent kiss” rumor persisted, and Savage that was allowed to say that he had made a “poor decision” and it was time for him to “move on.”
Woodsen wrote that she decided to come forward about Savage after seeing Today host Matt Lauer was dismissed over sexual misconduct allegations. She initially emailed Savage to ask if he remembered her, but after a month of no response, she said she decided to make her story public
Savage’s reception on Sunday was similar in tone to how he was treated 20 years ago, with congregants celebrating his confession and ready to move on. Highpoint’s head pastor, Chris Conlee, stood by his side and reminded the church that Savage was one of the people “hurt by the ripple effect of the consequences of that sin.” Woodson, who watched the event’s live stream, told the New York Times in a phone interview that it was “disgusting,” and does not believe the issue is resolved since Savage was never reported to police:
“I just hope that by me coming forward that I would give courage to one other person,” Ms. Woodson 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.”
Her sentiments are reflected in a popular hashtag #ChurchToo, a version of #MeToo meant to highlight the abuses allowed to run rampant in religious institutions where people in power can and frequently do use their position to silence victims and paper over their own actions with spiritual rhetoric:
The backlash against Savage and his church’s response may end up having more consequences. His book, The Ridiculously Good Marriage, has been cancelled by the Christian publishing house which had scheduled it for a release in July. His tweets are currently on lockdown. Maybe next Sunday, less people will be applauding him.