Big coverage of Memphis pastor and woman he assaulted provides perfect #ChurchToo hook

Although the #ChurchToo hashtag was invented two months ago, it got a huge boost this week with the revelations of the saga of an errant minister at a Southern Baptist church in Memphis. And with the same deliciousness that reporters pounced upon the Roy Moore imbroglio, they’re covering this scandal in excruciating detail.

Why shouldn’t they? I'd venture that #ChurchToo is evangelical Protestants having the same existential crisis about their congregations as Catholics did after revelations of their priestly sex abuse crisis hit the fan in 2002. 

About this latest drama, we start with the latest news in the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, the hometown of the erring pastor.

A canceled book deal is the latest repercussion for Memphis pastor Andy Savage as the ripples continue to spread from his admitted sexual encounter with a 17-year-old high school senior in Texas 20 years ago.
Also, a petition calling on him to resign his position at Highpoint Church is gaining momentum online, with 836 signatures out of a 1,000-signature goal Tuesday evening.
The victim, Jules Woodson, says, meanwhile, that she is "disgusted" by Savage's public apology and doesn't agree that the matter was "dealt with" at the time as Savage suggested. Woodson has come forward with her story in the vein of others in the #metoo movement.

The story is unbelievably rich in irony, including the fact that the pastor regularly did premarital counseling with couples he encouraged to live sexually pure lives.

Bethany House, a Christian publisher, announced Monday afternoon that it is canceling the scheduled July publication of Savage's book, "The Ridiculously Good Marriage." … On amazon.com, where the book still shows available for pre-order as of Tuesday afternoon, the description calls Savage a "pastor and relationship coach" who "has been in the trenches of marital hardship."
The cancellation came on the heels of an Austin, Texas, church announcing it was placing on leave a pastor who had been on staff with Savage at a Houston, Texas, suburban church in the late 1990's when the sexual assault occurred.
Larry Cotton, who is now on staff at The Austin Stone Community Church, was on staff with Savage at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church. It was while there that Savage drove Woodson to a deserted back road and had her perform oral sex. …

Woodson’s account is horrifying. This could have happened to any teen-aged girl who trusted her youth pastor. I grew up in an era when young women regularly met alone with male pastors and thought nothing of it. That woman could have been me.

Woodson told her story in a blog post detailing the assault. Savage admitted to the encounter in a post on the Highpoint website, and addressed the congregation this past Sunday.
While not offering as much detail as Woodson, who said she thought Savage was taking her for ice cream after church on the way home, Savage admitted in the post and to church members that he "had a sexual incident with a female high school senior" while he was at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church in a Houston suburb. 
"I resigned from ministry and moved back home to Memphis," Savage said in the written statement that he read to church members, who gave him a standing ovation after his remarks. "I accepted full responsibility for my actions. I was and remain very remorseful for the incident and deeply regret the pain I caused her and her family, as well as the pain I caused the church and God's Kingdom."

As you can imagine, other Memphis media are following this story as well. When you’ve got a church as large as Highpoint, there’s bound to be lots of leaks.

Other media that have weighed in include the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Houston Chronicle, the latter because the original crime occurred near that city. The Chron’s story quoted voluminously from the original blog that broke the story, then got the name of the blog wrong.

The right name is The Wartburg Watch. I’ve been following that blog for years and they usually don't break news on it.

The two founders supported my 2009 book on an Episcopal priest who was defrocked after it was learned he had pursued and slept with male counselees. Those were the days when I couldn’t find a Christian publisher to take the book on because it was deemed too negative. Well, everyone’s talking about the negatives these days and believe me, many American churches need purging.

Journalists: The Wartburg Watch is a must-read for anyone tracking insider church stuff no one else wishes to talk about. This entry in particular has some delicious stuff about media reactions (every major outlet noted the standing ovation Savage got from his church) and other material -- some from folks who were there -- about the atmosphere of last Sunday's service.

I don’t find fault with most of the coverage and I also don’t believe that Savage will be able to keep his job. The most recent news is he's going on a leave of absence. Still, the fact that members of Highpoint gave Savage that standing ovation after his sermon last Sunday boggles the mind. (The video atop this post shows the service, starting at around the 12th minute).

Savage’s statement begins at moment 16 (The standing ovation was at minute 20) and it contradicts Woodson’s account by quite a bit. Savage claims he sought forgiveness from Woodson and a bevy of folks around the church but according to her, the whole thing was quietly hushed up and Savage was hustled out of town.

This Patheos column, whose writer did a lot more research than many of the journalists following this saga, also explains why Savage’s contention that he “took every step to respond in a biblical way” doesn’t wash. It also told me that Savage was a student at Union University, a Southern Baptist institution about 80 miles east of Memphis, before all this happened in the late 1990s. (I taught at Union not long ago).

In the tape, after the ovation, lead pastor Chris Conlee says that in giving such an ovation, they were supporting Woodson as well. No wonder the victim told media that she found the whole dog-and-pony show “disgusting.” 

Fortunately, Ed Stetzer, writing for Christianity Today, found the standing ovation repulsive as well.

Small wonder Highpoint Church simply wants to get Savage out of sight for awhile, hoping things die down. In a recent radio interview, he said Woodson wasn't telling the entire story and that the sex acts were consensual. (The age of consent in Texas is 17). That doesn't sound like the same guy who asked for forgiveness in front of his church a few days before.

There's a lot of stories here, not just the one bubbling away in Memphis but amongst other religious bodies where doubtless more stories are waiting to be told. Back in another era, journalistically, reporters never reported sexual assault allegations unless one of the parties had filed a lawsuit. Now all they need do is appear on a blog. 

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