The Crusading Bloggers Exposing Abuse in Protestant Churches
During the fall of 2017, along with the rest of the country, Jules Woodson watched the Me Too movement play out in the media. As women came forward to expose the predatory behavior they’d survived, the Colorado Springs-based flight attendant reflected on a night in 1998, when Andy Savage, the youth pastor at her local church in her hometown of The Woodlands, Tex., offered her a ride home. At some point, Woodson says, Savage passed the turn to her home and drove down a dirt road, where he reached a dead end and switched off the headlights. He unzipped his jeans and asked Woodson, then 17, to perform oral sex. A few minutes later, she says, Savage jumped from the truck, fell to his knees and told Woodson she must take what happened to the grave.
The next day, terrified and traumatized, Woodson told the church’s assistant pastor what happened; she says he asked if she’d “participated.” While Savage continued as youth pastor — even leading a True Love Waits event encouraging youth to abstain from all physical contact, not just from sex — Woodson sank into shame and a deep depression. Although she retained her faith, she eventually left the church.
Twenty years later, Woodson found Savage’s email and sent him a note with the subject line: “Do you remember?” She asked if he recalled the night he was supposed to drive her home — “and instead drove me to a deserted back road and sexually assaulted me?” She signed off with “#metoo.”
When Woodson Googled his name, along with “sex abuse in church” and “youth pastor sex abuse,” she found a blog dedicated to Christian survivor stories called the Wartburg Watch; there, she read a post about an alleged abuse coverup at a church affiliated with Savage’s current church. About a month later, Woodson submitted her own first-person account about her abuse to the Wartburg Watch and a similar Christian survivor blog called Watch Keep. When the blogs simultaneously published her story, Woodson figured that maybe a hundred people would read it — but by that afternoon, the posts had spread enough that Savage responded with a statement. On the website of the Highpoint Church in Memphis — where he worked at the time — Savage described a regretful “sexual incident with a female high school senior” 20 years prior. For his mea culpa at church that Sunday, Savage’s congregation gave him a standing ovation. Within days, Savage responded to Woodson’s email, saying, in part: “I am genuinely sorry for the pain this has caused you and I ask for your forgiveness.”
Woodson soon found herself at the center of a media storm. The hashtag #JusticeForJules bubbled up on Twitter. On a CNN commentator’s radio show, Savage described the incident as an “organic sexual moment.” The New York Times ran a news story the next week and, two months later, a video piece in which Woodson detailed her story. Eleven days after the video came out, Savage resigned from Highpoint Church, acknowledging that his “relationship” with Woodson was “not only immoral, but meets the definition of abuse of power.” The same day, Savage emailed Woodson to again apologize and to say his initial in-church statement and the church’s respons...