A Memphis congregation's response to reports that a pastor sexually assaulted a woman when she was a teenager is forcing some evangelicals into their own #MeToo moment.
After Jules Woodson posted a detailed allegation that her then-pastor, Andy Savage, sexually assaulted her as a teenager, the pastor admitted to a “sexual incident” with a high school student in a message on the church’s website. He did not name Woodson in the statement.
Woodson wrote that while Savage was driving her home, he pulled into an isolated area before parking the car. He then exposed himself to Woodson before having her perform oral sex on him and fondling her breasts, she said.
Yet instead of following the course of so many recent sexual harassment scandals — reports that have toppled careers in Hollywood, media and politics — Savage’s public outing seems not to have upset his position, The Washington Post's Kyle Swenson reported.
“In hindsight, I see more could have been done for Jules,” Savage told the Highpoint congregation on Sunday. “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.”
His remarks were followed by a 20-second standing ovation.
As conversations about sexual assault have overtaken politics, Hollywood and the news media, some Christians worry that the issue is not a priority within evangelical circles.
Kately Beaty, Christianity Today's editor at large, tweeted that the emphasis on forgiving men in positions of power prevents evangelical efforts to combat sexual assault:
“Two themes here highlight why we won't see a
#metoo outing in evangelical circles: — Sexual abuse is framed as individual sexual sin and not also a crime — Quickness to forgive (male) perpetrators, who retain control of the story in church community.”
A recent Pew Research poll suggests that the majority of Christians take sexual assault seriously. When surveyed, 65 percent of white evangelicals said the issue of sexual assault and harassment is very important. Nearly one in four — 24 percent — said it was somewhat important.
But white evangelical voters' recent support for various politicians facing sexual assault allegations have led some within their community to express concern about how things are being handled. Despite President Trump facing more than a dozen accusations of sexual assault, the majority of white evangelicals continue to approve of him, with one faith leader going so far as to call him evangelicals' “dream president.” And more recently, white evangelicals overwhelmingly backed former judge Roy Moore in his race for an Senate seat in Alabama after several women accused the conservative Christian of sexual misconduct with them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.
During that race, Christian author Trillia Newbell told The Fix that evangelicals' ongoing support of politicians and public figures facing allegations of sexual assault suggests that tribalism is what is most important to some evangelicals.
“I do think that the current political season and cultural climate has caused many women who have been abused, neglected or treated as objects rather than image bearers to feel like there are certain inappropriate behaviors that Christian men are willing to look past for the sake of the party-line,” she previously said. “No inappropriate treatment of women should be considered acceptable and okay, especially for men who know that Jesus had to die for that sin.”
Woodson told Memphis's Action News 5 that the apology from Savage was insufficient.
“His apology isn’t enough because, number one, he’s lying about how he handled it,” she 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.”
Savage did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hanna Paasch, a writer who started #ChurchToo to magnify the prevalence of sexual assault within Christian communities, told The Fix that there is great value in Woodson coming forward to share her story.
“There’s power in telling the truth and in warning current congregants of the abusive tendencies and histories,” she said. “To me, this is further proof that evangelicalism is less concerned with the care of their congregants than with protecting the sanctity of their platforms.”
“However, with #churchtoo and the more recent campaign #SilenceIsNotSpiritual, l believe we are seeing a turning of the tide,” Paasch added. “A day of reckoning is here for the evangelical church, and queer folks and people of color are leading the way. The first shall become last and the last first and all that.”
Conversations about sexual abuse by men in power don't appear to be dying down. In fact, they are expanding, with more activists calling for a reckoning within working-class and minority communities. But with Christian conservatives holding high levels of influence everywhere from the pulpit to the White House, there probably will be an increase this year in calls for conservative Christians to reckon with sexual assault within their own congregations.