It was spring 1998 when young high school senior Jules Woodson was sexually assaulted by her youth pastor, Andy Savage, inside his truck on a lonely dirt road.
Prior to the assault, Woodson had confided in Savage, trusting him as her pastor, with some of her burdens. What Savage now describes as a ‘sexual incident’ was coerced oral sex from a minor while he was in a position of leadership at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church; this was a serious abuse of his power.
“I remember feeling that this must mean that Andy loved me,” Woodson recalls. Savage stopped in a panic, dropped to his knees and pleaded for her to never tell anyone. She at once felt used and manipulated.
Savage dropped her off at home, but still Woodson carried the hurt, fear, anger and shame his molestation caused that consumed her every thought.
Woodson found the courage to tell the church leaders the story she was too afraid to share with even her parents. Unable to meet with the head pastor, she told the associate pastor, Larry Cotton.
“So, you’re telling me you participated?” the pastor responded.
The very people she thought she could trust not only abused her, but victimized her, silenced her and covered up for her abuser, protecting him and the image of the church.
For almost 20 years, Woodson kept this “dirty” secret to herself. While Savage left that Houston church not long after the assault, Woodson continued to see the young pastor rise in influence within the American evangelical church. He often speaks on matters of sexual purity, even using his Twitter account to address the ramifications of the #MeToo movement.
“It’s beginning to seem that sex on our own terms isn’t working. Go figure,” Savage captioned a Dec. 1 article on a report of Matt Lauer’s firing from NBC after several allegations of sexual harassment. Woodson saw this and took to writing a short 82-word email to her abuser.
The subject line read, “Do you remember?” and in it she asked just two questions:
“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.”
She closed the email with “#me-too.” Savage never responded, and on Friday, Jan. 5, Woodson published her account through the blog Watch Keep, a website for survivors of sexual abuse. Her story, now public, finally meant that her abuser had to address the assault.
And Savage did, to his congregation at HighPoint Church in Memphis, in the first morning service on Sunday, Jan. 7. What he said minimized the assault, making no mention of the abuse, and changed the story. He was met with over 20 seconds of standing ovation from his congregation.
Woodson, through tears, described his apology as “disgusting” in an interview with the New York Times, saying it wasn’t enough. “He’s lying about how he handled it,” she said.
So let’s set the record straight:
The language he used continues to frame the assault as something that was mutual in nature; the “sin” committed was not of Woodson’s doing, but of Savage’s. The incident was sexual abuse, and that it happened almost 20 years ago does not diminish its significance.
Woodson still deals with that trauma to this day. “There are triggers that take me back to that night,” she says. “There are nightmares that haunt my dreams.”
The assault was never dealt with; Savage took no responsibility for his abuse, suffered no legal consequences and he never apologized to Woodson or her family.
For HighPoint Church to support Savage, the abuser, as he deals with the consequences of his actions is not the same as to support Woodson, the victim of his abuse.
This is also not the first time HighPoint Church has protected or employed abusers or sex offenders, but this problem stems far beyond just one congregation.
The sexual assault of Jules Woodson by Andy Savage is not an issue of sexual purity, a “sin” that any victim has to be forgiven for; the conflation of the two only further protects the abuser.
There is a disproportionate value placed on a woman’s virginity which presents a serious problem. This “purity” culture teaches girls that their worth is in their crotch, not in their heart or their mind. Our society fetishizes virginity, and abstinence-only sex-ed teaches that it is a “gift” to be given to husbands.
This issue extends beyond just assault on women; men who are abused by male clergy are similarly stifled due to religious homophobia and the stigma it bears.
This creates a harmful stigma that stifles survivors of sexual abuse in the church, discouraging them from speaking out.
Women are not pieces of gum, that once chewed become unwanted or undesirable and dehumanized. Victims need to be supported, not shamed for the violation of their body.
No body is a temple so holy that it should ever be valued more than the person to whom it belongs.
Australian poet Beau Taplin articulates this point best: “Listen to me, your body is not a temple. Temples can be destroyed and desecrated. Your body is a forest — thick canopies of maple trees and sweet scented wildflowers sprouting in the underwood. You will grow back, over and over, no matter how badly you are devastated.”
Troyer is a sophomore political science and journalism major from Lake Wales, Florida.