There is about to be enormous change in the mainstream churches as they know it.
Spurred on by the public firing of Today show host, Matt Lauer, a woman emailed Memphis megachurch pastor, Andy Savage and asked him if he recalled sexually assaulting her when she was 17, and he was a youth pastor at their Houston, Texas church. After a month with no response, Jules Woodson wrote a blog post with her story that has now gone viral.
Woodson reported being driven home in 1998 by Savage after a youth meeting one night, only to have him turn down a deserted road, where he pulled over and asked her to perform oral sex on him. Woodson says, "I was scared and embarrassed but I did it." Savage further molested Woodson.
After 5 minutes, Woodson says Savage stopped and ran around to her side of the vehicle. He begged her forgiveness and said sorry multiple times. He asked her to 'take it to the grave with her'.
What followed is a textbook response to these cases in evangelical churches around the world.
Savage confessed to the Associate Pastor, Larry Cotton, who demanded the young woman's account. She explained what had happened on the evening and was met with shame by Cotton for 'participating.' Savage's life appeared to continue as usual, and he even held a True Love Waits weekend workshop a few days later.
Woodson, overcome by distress, worry and shame recounted some of the event to the girls at her youth group, and word got back to the leadership. While nothing happened in regards to the assault, Woodson said they were forced to do something and a going away party was organised for Savage, comprised mainly of people who loved him and wanted to wish him well.
The unspoken understanding amongst the congregation was that Woodson had caused him to leave, but because of an indiscretion such as kissing. It was she who was ostracised.
But in Texas there are laws that do not exist in Australia and other places.
Texas Penal Code Chapter 5. (22.011)
Title 5. Offenses against the person.
Chapter 22. Assaultive Offenses.
Sec. 22.011. Sexual assault.
(b) A sexual assault [...] is without the consent of the other person if: [...] 10) the actor is a clergyman who causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person’s emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual adviser …
Texas Penal Code 22.011(b)(9): “by exploiting [the patient or former patient's] . . . emotional dependency”; and (b)(10) “by exploiting the other person’s emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual advisor”
Australian law considers assault 'aggravated' if it is committed by someone in a powerful position such as a priest, but Texas nails it by identifying the lack of consent options available, due to the emotional dependency necessarily in place when the person is another's spiritual adviser.
Your guru, your priest, your pastor, whatever, cannot have sex with you in Texas through such exploitation that happens due to assumptions about that leader's 'professional character.'
If only, Australia.
But what is most significant here is the shift in how the act is now viewed.
When I was at Hills Christian Life Centre, the church that became Hillsong, one of our youth pastors married a girl from our youth group right after she left school in the late 80's. I was younger than she was, but I remember they had to wait until she finished exams and was 18. He was 27. My memory is all the other girls being excited about how beautiful she would look on her wedding day to this wonderful man of God. There was no talk of grooming or power imbalances then.
Young couples who were discovered or confessed to 'going too far' were separated. If the male were in some kind of leadership position, he was often suspended of that for a period of months, but always with an overview of 'restoration'. There was never any discussion of assault. Girls were expected to keep themselves pure, and not give in to temptation or permit boys to give in to it either.
The understanding was always that the male was sinful, but the female should have talked him out of that sin, not gone along with it. Men can't help these things, quite often. But women are the gatekeepers. If a man falls, it's often because she didn't say no. Young women in evangelical and fundamentalist churches often find themselves shouldering the blame for their own 'failures' as well as for the men who participated equally, or who often coerced, if not threatened, or exploited.
There was often talk of his being able to recover from such a relationship and hopefully find someone not so much like a harlot as that girl, and there were tearful prayers that the girl would be blessed enough to find an understanding future husband.
And if such unholy unions produced a baby, woe betide the woman whose belly is watched by a knowing congregation, with condolences offered to his family and to hers for very different reasons.
But times are changing swiftly.
People like Woodson through the #metoo and #churchtoo movements are renaming 'sin' as assault according to the law.
The shift is going to be like a tidal wave, because these assaults have been frequent and systematic, because the system of fundamentalist Christianity itself, and cults like Hillsong and its associated franchises under different names, is abusive itself. There is no other possible result.
The men and women in power have felt more untouchable than any Harvey Weinstein. After all, they have the backing of Almighty God, their huge congregations, and their swollen bank accounts. Savage and Cotton believed up until last week, that the matter had been 'handled in a biblical way.'
And in textbook form, when the publicity became unavoidable, Savage's held a meeting at his huge church in Memphis, where he confessed to engaging in 'a sexual incident with a high school senior', despite being clearly aware of Woodson's perspective.
While this jury was not privy to the email, or any other information, there were no questions asked, and no answers given about where this high school senior might be now, and what her feelings were.
Pastor Brian got a standing ovation when he told his congregation that his father, Pastor Frank, founder of the church that became Hillsong, had confessed to a 'serious moral failure.', when he actually meant 'child sex offences'.
The language used by these organisations is deliberately vague and ambiguous. It is open to interpretation, and you are expected to presume the best of the leaders, and the worst of those who do not adhere to presuming the best of their leaders.
The standing ovation is supposed to be a spontaneous reaction of enthusiasm, such is at the theatre, although peer pressure and the price people pay for their seats have also been found to be factors in why everyone stands when others in the audience begin to do so.
The belief would be that Savage deserves forgiveness as his problems are between him and God, and that that is a personal matter. It is not for the congregation to question what someone in ministry especially for so long has gone through. It is for them to support him in his bravery in confessing his sins publicly and to pray for him and his family that they shouldn't have to suffer anymore.
Yes, not her. For him. If this sounds all a bit like Steubenville, it's because it is.
At this very time of writing, congregations give the perpetrator, and those who cover up for them standing ovations, but the shift is coming now.
It's not sin, when you don't consent and it's not sin when it's assault. And even if he's the mightiest man of God with an incredible calling on his life, it's still assault, in fact, even more so where exploitation of his mightiness is used.
The Guardian in London called the new British tendency to give a standing ovation 'a filthy American habit' in 2008.
There's another filthy American habit that's about to change. And it's how stories like Jules Woodson's end.
#churchtoo #timesup #hillsong #fundies #evangelicals