Sexual abuse: Church has great responsibility here

By Carrie Brown McWhorter
The Alabama Baptist

Andy Savage, who served on the senior leadership team as teaching pastor at Memphis’ Highpoint Church, has stepped down following public acknowledgment that he sexually assaulted a teen 20 years ago while serving as her youth minister at a Texas church.

Highpoint Church, a megachurch which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, was widely criticized in January when Savage was given a standing ovation after apologizing for a “sexual incident” in 1998 involving Jules Woodson, a 17-year-old high school senior in his youth group at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church in suburban Houston.

Woodson remained silent for two decades until the #MeToo movement exposing sexual abuse by powerful men prompted her to share the story on two Christian blogs.

In a New York Times video published in early March, Woodson said she looked up to Savage and trusted him before the 1998 encounter. Afterward, she said, church leaders didn’t handle it properly.

“What happened was a crime,” Woodson said. “This is not something the church should handle internally. … We as a church, of all places, should be getting this right.”

The allegations against Savage came at the height of the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movement that saw many female Christian teachers, including Kay Warren and Beth Moore, and thousands of Christian women acknowledge past sexual abuse and call out the church’s silence on the issue.

Warren, an author and co-founder of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, and wife of pastor and author Rick Warren, said “a pedophile molested me when I was a little girl. It’s taken decades to heal. #MeToo.”

Moore tweeted that “a well-meaning mentor told me at 25 that people couldn’t handle hearing about sexual abuse and it would sink my ministry. It didn’t. #MeToo.”

#SilenceIsNotSpiritual

Moore and more than 150 other women added their names to #SilenceIsNotSpiritual, an online statement calling on churches, particularly evangelical churches, “to end the silence and stop all participation in violence against women.”

“There is no institution with greater capacity to create protected spaces for healing and restoration for survivors, as well as confession, repentance and rehabilitation for perpetrators,” the statement reads.

The need for restoration is great, according to statistics published by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Every 98 seconds someone is sexually assaulted in the U.S., according to the DOJ. Data suggests 1 in 5 women and 1 in 15 men in the United States have experienced rape or attempted rape. Most victims first experienced sexual violence before age 25, according to the CDC.

The DOJ says the most likely place for the sexual assault to happen is at home. Almost half (48 percent) of survivors of sexual assault report they were sleeping or performing another activity at home at the time of their assault.

Twenty-nine percent were traveling to and from work or school or running errands.

Statistics likely underestimate the problem because many victims do not tell the police, family or friends about what has happened to them, the CDC says.

The church has to be prepared to take action, says Rob Hurtgen, a pastor and blogger at LifeWay Pastors. Pastors have a responsibility to both protect congregation members and to speak out against sexual assault.

“If abuse happens, contact the authorities,” he writes. “If the abuse is alleged of a ministry leader, remove them until the authorities can investigate the allegations. You have been entrusted by God and elevated by the church to care for the whole congregation. Your shepherding includes all matters theological, ethical and legal. Act.”

Lasting effects

For those who have been victims of sexual abuse, there are devastating and lasting effects that the church needs to understand and address, Moore said in January during a service focused on healing with Kay and Rick Warren at Saddleback Church.

“What may take an abuser five minutes is costing that (individual) … for the rest of their lives if they don’t know how to come to that kind of healing in Jesus,” she said.

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