by Sarah Elizabeth Smith 


“We all have lived too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men.  For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men, but their time is up.  Their time is up.” – Oprah Winfrey 2018 Golden Globe Awards

“Andy unzipped his jeans and pulled out his penis. He asked me to suck it.”

At the time, teenager, Jules Woodson, recounted the story of her church youth pastor Andy Savage taking her home from a church event at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church in Texas one evening.  She explains the details of this experience here and Andy’s current church employer’s response is here. Savage quietly left his church position in Texas after this incident but continues to serve in a leadership capacity in another church in Memphis. 

In an effort to expose the twisted logic of how the Church can condone his continued leadership I will center my reflection on the vantage point of the victim as is the model for restorative justice practices in judiciary spaces.  Therefore, instead of focusing on how this incident happened 20 years ago, like Savage’s current employer decries as adequate means for forgiveness, I will focus on what actually happened to Ms. Woodson which is what is quoted above and I will continuously quote throughout this piece so we do not forget what is at stake in compromising one’s power in this sort of relationship.

If a person abuses their power inherent to the role in which they are serving the world or community (e.g. pastor, doctor, lawyer, teacher, etc.) there are consequences.   

For example, if a doctor abuses his or her power in writing prescriptions they go before a medical board and will most likely get their license to practice medicine revoked.  If a lawyer abuses their power, likewise, they will go before a committee and their BAR license will be suspended and/or revoked.  And also, in most churches, if a pastor or priest abuses their power of providing pastoral counseling and care to individuals and/or communities in the church their ordination title and credentials can be stripped or what is called “defrocked.” 

From what we know from the articles I’ve included, Savage did not go before a board, the church did not report him to state authorities, he did not apologize to Ms. Woodson, he did not lose his job (rather he resigned and “moved on”), he did not lose his credentials to pastor in a church (did he have credentials/education/training to begin with?).  It seems to me that his “accepting full responsibility” for his actions didn’t amount to much consequence for his action.  He simply moved away from this embarrassing crime and left a community with a nice good-bye party and a young girl in shambles.

“Andy unzipped his jeans and pulled out his penis. He asked me to suck it.”

At first thought, what’s disturbing about this abuse of power is the negligence by Savage’s superiors, all of whom are male.  They changed the story and made it seem as though Ms. Woodman consented to this act of abuse of power and covered up the truth as they quietly let Andy go free on his own accord.  Again, they did not report this CRIME to state authorities.  HE SHOULD BE A REGISTERED SEX OFFENDER.  What is difficult here is there seemed to be no hierarchy of power or protocol in place of how to handle such issues.  But as we’ve seen in the Catholic Church, even if there is a strict hierarchy and loads of education and protocols there is still abuse being done by priests in positions of power over lay people.  Therefore, this isn’t necessarily an issue of hierarchy structure and proper protocol. 

What I see as a definitive and pervasive problem in churches that have sexual abuse scandals is this – THERE ARE NO WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP POSITIONS.

This is the biggest problem, in my opinion.  This is not the first time or the last time a group of men in leadership have covered up and mitigated damages for their fellow brother with little to no regard for the victim (woman/girl).  There is no way if there was a woman in a leadership position AND she was respected as an equal to the male leaders that she would allow this egregious abuse to continue.  This is because most women have either been through this exact same experience or they know someone intimately that has been through this experience.  The church even asked Ms. Woodman’s parents if they would be comfortable with hiring Andy back on staff and they of course said “NO.”  So why on earth would any other church community be so quick to hire someone like Savage? 

“Andy unzipped his jeans and pulled out his penis. He asked me to suck it.”

Forgiveness.  Forgiveness from whom, though?  Ms. Woodman did not get that courtesy call.  Clearly, the church didn’t need her or her family’s forgiveness to consider hiring this criminal again.  It should not have been a question to hire him at all.  I don’t disagree that he should be able to join a church community again.  Church should be for everyone and a place where people can go to heal and make amends but not everyone can be in a position of leadership, especially people who have committed acts so clearly in violation to the inherent work of said leadership AND broken the law.

In a restorative justice process, the focus is on the victim.  The victim and their family and the church leadership and the perpetrator should come together to have a mediated conversation.  The consequences should be decided by the victim and their supporters then agreed to by the perpetrator.  If this doesn’t work then I would suggest going to actual criminal court which I am assured will be much more vicious in its verdict.  The restorative justice model seems to be a sort of “biblical” model to actually repair and forgive a damaged relationship.  I’m not sure Andy’s version of his “biblical” reparations where anything less of cowardly which I guess you could say could be compared to King David’s killing of Bathsheba’s husband so he could have his way with her.  And after all David was a man after God’s own heart so we should excuse his behavior as well, right?   

I’m for forgiveness but not for forgetting.  The fact that Andy’s current congregation is ok with him being a pastor in a leadership position is beyond my comprehension.  We would never let that happen to a doctor or lawyer who abused their power.  I’m not saying Andy shouldn’t be able to gain employment but I am saying NOT IN THE CHURCH. 

“Andy unzipped his jeans and pulled out his penis. He asked me to suck it.”

If the Church is going to actually be a place that is safe and edifying for women we MUST have women in roles of leadership and respect them as such.  Their voices MUST be valued and be heard.  They MUST have equal say in policies and procedures and decisions in the church.  Otherwise, we just don’t care about women and their well being because men cannot relate and be trusted with our well being.  It’s not possible.  Their time is up.