The Church Needs a Masterclass in How to Apologize for Sexual Assault
In the past few weeks, two new stories in the vein of the Harvey Weinstein news, #MeToo, and #ChurchToo have emerged: those of Jules Woodson and Megan Ganz. Woodson was sexually assaulted by her youth pastor when she was 17; he was 22. Her predator, Andy Savage, has been a pastor for the past 19 years, only recently placed on leave from his current pastoral position when the assault accusations became public. Ganz was harassed for years by Dan Harmon, creator of the television show Community, on which Ganz was a writer.
While the traumas inflicted on Woodson and Ganz are different in myriad ways, they share a common factor: men in power preying upon women (or, in the case of Woodson, girls) who are subservient to that power in some way. Woodson was a student in Savage’s youth group, trained to see him as a spiritual and moral authority. Ganz was employed by Harmon: he decided whether or not her scripts were used and he signed her paychecks. Woodson and Ganz, by virtue of attending youth group and showing up for work, found themselves at the mercy of powerful men who used their power mercilessly.
In the American Evangelical context, it’s difficult to think of a higher ranking position than Savage’s: a megachurch pastor in the South. Megachurch pastors are commonly adored by their communities, too often rising in esteem to the strangely convoluted position of men who can seemingly do no wrong—but who are also praised when they confess sin. Everything from the biblical heritage of the Israelites clamoring for a king to the Evangelical persecution complex plays into this dynamic, turning many megachurch congregations into cults of personality where any accusation of a leader’s wrongdoing is labeled a malicious throwing of stones.How can it be that a man who claims no allegiance to Christ has a stronger grasp on true repentance than a man who built a life on “making sense of God”?
Dan Harmon, on the other hand, is a talented white man in Hollywood, which is to say, the sky’s the limit for his career. Harmon is funny and moderately successful within the scope of the entertainment industry. As the former showrunner of Community and a creator of Rick & Morty, he holds massive employment power in addition to the social power of Hollywood connectedness that is his to share or withhold by virtue of his position.
Power, of course, is not inherently bad. As a white, employed, educated pastor’s wife in Texas, I’d be foolish to point fingers at power holders without acknowledging my own power in certain spheres of influence. Simultaneously, as a woman, I’d be foolish not to acknowledge both the ways that I am physically vulnerable to men who would abuse their physical power as well as the fact that I hold less positional power than most men in my life. Furthermore, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge moments in my life when men, including a former youth pastor and a former boss, said things to me that they never would have said to boys or men. They spoke those words because their power over me allowed them to do so.
The Christian’s goal of assessing power should not be to condemn it, but rather, to consider its potential for good and bad and then steward it accordingly. We need to evaluate, silly as it sounds, the power of power, and consider what it looks like to rightly wield any power we may hold while also imploring those who hold the same amount or more to wield their power in such a way that benefits the powerless.
Savage and Harmon did not steward their power; they abused it. Savage ignored his authoritative responsibility to Woodson and chose an inner-narrative of mutual feelings between two equal parties. Harmon admits that he knew full well the power dynamics at play but didn’t care: he wanted Ganz and he was going to do whatever he could (short of physical assault) to have her.
And really, that’s it right there. Both of these realities — Savage’s choice to tell himself a story that rendered him innocent and Harmon’s assessment of the situation that led him to determine he could get away with it — are products of a culture in which the powerful have abundantly more opportunity to live according to their own desires, commodify the people in their paths, and reasonably conclude that they’ll escape retribution.
After Jules Woodson publicly told her story, Andy Savage took to his pulpit to address the accusations. He referred to his assault of Woodson as a consensual “sexual incident” rather than assault. While apologizing to Woodson for her continued pain, Savage said he wanted to “cooperate” with her, a word that sounds neutral or even good on the surface, but in the apology’s context seemed only to reinforce Savage’s belief that he doesn’t bear any more responsibility in the situation than Woodson does. Savage also stated that he believed the situation had been handled in a “biblical way” since he left the church where the “incident” occurred.
After Megan Ganz publicly told her story, Dan Harmon took to Twitter and his podcast to address the accusations. He referred to his harassment of Ganz as “creepy,” “cruel,” and “abusing his position.” He apologized to Ganz and said he wanted her to “call the shots” and determine what was “just.” Harmon stated that “I lied to myself the entire time about it, and I lost my job. I ruined my show. I betrayed the audience. I destroyed everything, and I damaged her internal compass.”
It is here, in these statements, that the similarities between Savage and Harmon come to an end. When faced with the evil realities of how they’d abused their power, these two men responded entirely differently — and received very different responses. Savage’s message to his church was met with a standing ovation from his congregation and shocked tears from his victim. Harmon’s apology on his podcast was met with a statement of public forgiveness from his victim, who told her Twitter audience, “Please listen to it… it is a masterclass in How to Apologize.”
How can it be that a man who claims no allegiance to Christ has a stronger grasp on true repentance than a man who built a life on, as his website claims, “making sense of God”? The biblical word for repentance means “to change one’s mind for the better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins.” It represents a true turning from sin, which requires knowing what the sin was in the first place and labeling it as such.
I can’t help but find Harmon’s confession and apology far more in line with the concept of “abhorrence of one’s past sins” than Savage’s. How could each of them arrive at the apologies that they did?
In his podcast apology, Harmon stated that many people told him not to address Ganz’s accusations publicly. But Harmon decided to forego their advice, instead asking a few trusted women in his life to offer their insight into his next steps. Their advice guided him toward a public, full apology.
In a radio interview conducted by a friend of Savage’s (the only interview Savage agreed to), Savage stated that in the days following the “incident” with Woodson, he “was very trusting of the leadership… willing to do whatever was asked… wanting to make this right.” Ignoring any female (and therefore less powerful) perspective, much less that of Woodson, Savage chose to go only to his pastoral leadership who protected his story, worked with him to reduce the account to one of “kissing,” and crafted a face-saving church exit for Savage that led to his continued career as a pastor in other churches.
Women in Hollywood, an industry many Christians condemn, advised a man to repent and, as fellow Christ and Pop Culture contributor Matt Poppe put it, “give up all of it [because] what happened and the consequences of it are no longer yours to control.”
Conversely, men in church leadership positions advised a fellow pastor to minimize his story, ostensibly to protect Savage and their church’s image. By reinforcing the idea that Savage’s gross moral failure was not at odds with his continued possession of power as a church authority, they encouraged their brother away from a life that bears fruit in keeping with repentance.
These men did not show love to Savage. They certainly did not show love to Woodson, who one pastor blamed for consenting to Savage’s sexual instructions to her and whose parents were never told the full story. Rather, they steered both of them with a guiding hand of fear, leading Savage, while still ultimately responsible, to falsely believe that he’d handled the situation properly, and leaving Woodson alone, afraid, and ashamed.
Abuse of power, refusal to admit sin in its fullness, and grasping authority with clenched fists have no place in God’s kingdom. His is an economy of intertwined justice and grace, one that looks sin in the face and is repelled by it, not minimizing its grotesque nature but covering it with true grace. True grace does not thinly veil gross moral failure and allow those who commit it to continue wielding power, but offers discipline, discipleship, care, wise counsel, and friendship as means of walking with a person who has fallen.
As Christians navigating a culture that has long repressed the stories of the abused, our primary motivation must be to “proclaim liberty to the captives” by bearing witness to their stories and holding space for their healing processes. These processes may or may not include the opportunity or ability to forgive as Ganz forgave Harmon. Additionally, our goal cannot be a restoration to picture-perfect tranquility or power. The idea that restoration means putting a sexual predator back in the pulpit is a notion of the empire, which tells us that power is the highest good and, in order to be whole, we must regain any power we’ve lost. This is not the way of God’s kingdom.
By removing unfaithful people and those who seek to protect their power, we not only demonstrate true love and compassion for their victims, but for the perpetrators themselves. The most gracious thing that could be offered to abusers of spiritual authority is the opportunity to be loved, discipled, and part of a community in which they do not hold any positional power. The kingdom says that we restore to family, not position. We offer forgiveness, not by clapping for vague apologies, but by walking alongside the repentant. And we believe God’s grace is deep enough for the most tragic of failures, finding that it often manifests in a life quietly bearing fruit in keeping with repentance, no pulpits in sight.
Thank you for this wonderful analysis Abby. I have wondered this same thing. I will point out too, as someone who attended the next church Andy served in after the “incident,” that he knew the leadership in TX had steered him wrong – evidenced by the omission of that “incident” when he interviewed for a youth internship just months later. This is all so tragic for Jules and for the Church as we double down in an area where society is willing to actually make an accurate moral distinction between right and wrong. Thank you for your well-written and thoughtful response!
I agree. As someone who no longer attends HP East. Thank you
Thank you, Abby, for your honest and challenging analysis of the disturbing differences between the quality of “repentance” of Andy Savage and his advisors and Dan Harmon and his. As a man and a church elder, I’m grateful for your reminder that we who lead the Bride of Christ must do so with the same kind of righteousness and justice that Christ himself would display. I’m speaking of my own character, thoughts, and behavior, as well as my response to any others who might fail to represent the Lord appropriately. May God help all of us who shepherd his people to do so blamelessly.
Abby, I place an enormous amount of blame on Savage’s church at the time of his taking advantage of Woodson because of his youth pastor position. They could have developed a truly biblical plan to have Woodson receive healing and no shaming and eventually forgiveness for Savage. As for Savage he could have been led to proper repentance and possibly restoration after a significant period of time to work somewhere in the church where he would not be in contact with women alone.
The church and its leadership also bear a lot of responsibility for putting a 22 year old student in charge of teenage girls without adequate supervision and direction. Churches in general have done a poor job of preparing staff to handle boundry issues.
Often we judge ourselves by our intentions while judging others by their actions.
Often we extend that method of judgment to those in our family or tribal circle. I.e. our pastor, our boss, our political leaders.
When David Kaczynski realized his brother Ted was the unabomber he made the unenviable choice of turning him in to authorities.
I’m certain not one in the Kaczynski family stood up and applauded.
This conversation needs to be happening in all of our churches. Thank you for this comparison and for using your voice in this way.
We need to talk more about the churches and their sin in this as well. This is a story about abuse at the institutional level, not just Savage’s. That church in Texas immediately went into damage control mode rather than caring for the victim. Great article.
I took this on last week for anyone interested.
I wonder where you get this: “The kingdom says that we restore to family, not position.” If I understand John 21 correctly, and Peter’s subsequent role in the church, he was restored both to family and position.
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