Predatory Pastors and the Monsters Who Make Them

There are days when the monsters make themselves so visible that you can’t avoid seeing them, as much as you’d like to.

On a recent Sunday morning, Pastor Andy Savage received a standing ovation from his Memphis megachurch congregation, when from the stage he admitted a “sexual incident” with a high school student in his care in 1998—saying that he had “sinned.”

Savage claimed that he had told church leaders at the time, that he believed the issue had been “dealt with” and that he did not realize he still had “unfinished business” with his victim.

Sexual incident? It’s sexual assault, pastor. It’s rape.
Sinned? You committed a crime. 
Dealt with? You covered it up with the help of powerful men around you and hoped it would remain concealed while you profited from your position.
Unfinished business? It’s called accountability, paying for your crimes, and admitting the irreparable damage you’ve done to a human life

This is why people despise Christians.
This is why they don’t trust the Church.
This is why organized Christianity is hemorrhaging.
This is why so many predators feel emboldened.

This is why so many survivors of sexual assault don’t step forward.
This is why Alabama Senate Candidate Roy Moore received 650,000 votes.

This is why we have the President we have.

We see the sheer scale of the moral sickness laid out in front of us in Savage’s story:
A reckless misuse of the trust of a young person he was charged with caring for.
A leveraging of his power and position in order to silence her after violating that trust.
A local faith community of professed Christian leaders, more concerned with self-preservation than protecting children from predators on the payroll.
A Bible Belt Christian community now willing to look the other way from the most horrific behavior in order not to see its own ugliness.

Andy Savage’s criminal manipulation of a teenager, his deception in the wake of it, church leadership’s concealing of it, and his congregation’s current adoration in the face of it all—is the kind of cancerous sickness I and others like me have been pushing back against. It’s the worst bastardization of the message of Jesus and a complete perversion of pastoral care.

As a twenty-year student pastor, I grieve it all fully.

Power and trust are the minister’s most valuable currencies, and they can either be treated with reverence, allowing us to nurture young people through the most turbulent of days—or manipulated in ways that do irreparable damage.

Student pastors are given sacred proximity to young people who look up to us, who look for evidence of Jesus in us, who make themselves vulnerable because they believe themselves safe in that vulnerability. If we fail these teenagers in the way Savage did, we don’t only betray that trust, we destroy their sense of security, we alter their sense of identity—and we pervert their image of God by making God a co-conspirator in the violence we perpetrate against them.

Andy Savage’s crimes against this young woman are beyond defense or explanation, but some things are equally reprehensible:
The code language he wielded when speaking publicly about it all; the way he attempted to minimize it with antiseptic words that belie the depth of the filth and the reality of the violence.
The using of the moment to somehow fashion himself as the hero; the flawed, repentant man of God confessing his sins and to a quickly forgiving multitude.
A community of supposed followers of Jesus so willing to applaud it all, so ready to give him a pass, so seemingly lacking any compassion for a young woman and young people like her, who are violated in the places they should feel most secure.

I shudder to think how many Andy Savages there are out there leveraging the trust and power that come with their position in order to satisfy their sickness.
My heart breaks at the number of young people who find themselves secretly carrying the guilt and shame heaped upon their shoulders by leaders who would victimize them a second time by silencing them.
My blood boils at professed spiritual leaders, whose ol’ Jesus Boy’s Club still protects predators and deviants and calls it religion.
I grieve the number of men and women filling churches across this country, who will gladly erase two decades of violence and deception by their leaders—in exchange for what amounts to little more than a self-serving, sanctified Sunday morning photo-op prior to passing a collection plate.

God help the predatory pastors, and the monsters who allow them to do monstrous things to young people.

______________

A note to survivors of pastoral violence:

To the young people reading this who’ve been violated by those claiming to represent Jesus: I am so very sorry you’ve had to walk this road—and I’m equally sorry for the Christians who’ve further victimized you by excusing, concealing, and applauding them. I’m sorry for those who minimized your trauma or failed to believe you or failed to protect you. This was not your fault. It was their fault.

I can’t fix the things they’ve broken or undo the damage they’ve done or erase the memories you live with. I can’t help you make sense of it all because honestly it doesn’t make any sense.

I can only tell you that I grieve the pain you’ve endured, the fear and the shame you’ve been unfairly forced to carry. You don’t deserve these things. I would take them from you if I could.

It may not help, but I want you to know that there are pastors, ministers, priests, and youth leaders who are horrified by it all too; men and women who exist to be that place of safety and rest for people, who treasure the trust of those in their care, who feel sick knowing that you’ve been injured in this way.

There are faith communities out there who are fully disgusted by what you’ve had to endure; who would stand with you, cry with you, grieve alongside you.

But this has happened to you, and your trust was betrayed, and you have had to walk through this hell because of professed Christians—and so I know that doesn’t really matter.

More than anything, I just want you to know that you are far more than the terrible thing that was done to you; that you are beautiful and loved and deserving of good things in this life.

Please don’t carry your sadness in silence because it is too much for you to bear alone and you shouldn’t have to.

If you need a place to share the weight of this, please reach out here, or to the people below who are for you.

Be comforted and lifted and encouraged today.

RAINN
National Sexual Assault Hotline
EROC (End Rape on Campus)
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Safe Horizon
INCITE (For Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color)
On Eagle’s Wings Ministries
Human Rights Campaign (LGBTQ)
NCLR Nation Center for Lesbian Rights 
Not Alone
Safe Helpline (Victim support for members of Military)

 

Order John’s book, ‘A Bigger Table’ here.

 

 

 

 

64 thoughts on “Predatory Pastors and the Monsters Who Make Them

  1. My faith was stolen from me by my Episcopal minister scant weeks before I completed my studies for confirmation. While he did not rape me, the sick combination of physical and emotional contact – being molested while supposedly being prepared for my big entry into the adult world of my church – effectively put organized religion into a box which I never again opened. This man, who my mother thought of as a saint on earth, may well have been doing this with other young girls but at the time I was too disgusted and angry at the betrayal to worry about them. My mother (bipolar and hopelessly unreliable) would never have believed me, so I bore the rage and disappointment alone. No shame – I was prematurely self aware and forward thinking due to having to deal with the unpredictable and often immature behavior of my mother. However I raged at having my faith ripped from me, never to return. Still angry 50 years later.

  2. John, as a “me too” I want to thank you for this post. The pastor of a church I once went to was called out by a famous evangelical writer as a priest and poet and prophet….. and he was also a pedophile. All week I’ve been wondering about the story of Recy Taylor who was walking home from church when she was gang raped by six white men. One day she was able to say “ I could have been killed. The Lord was with me that night.” I haven’t felt that yet, but your reaching out with the kind of empathy and compassion and anger you have gives me great comfort. So I thank you again! Keep saying the important stuff.

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  4. I’m a survivor of multiple betrayals by spiritual leaders — those who assaulted me and those who refused to believe me. By my late 20’s I was so fed up I tried to “divorce” God. Dipped my toes into many religions, disciplines, practices. Finally realized the folly of trying to deal with “employees” and went straight to the “CEO” “Don’t bother with the help, talk to the owner” Now my spiritual life is rich and beautiful, growing more so every day. To other survivors — approach God one-on-one — trust God for your healing and remember that in the end those who hurt you will answer for their actions –directly to God. May you be blessed by God’s felt presence every moment from now on .

  5. It has taken me several days to leave this. This is so disturbing on so many levels it is hard to know where to begin. As someone who has served the church for most of my life, I am horrified and angry by these congregants who seem to make idols of the predator and make victims once again of the victim. As someone who has been victimized I am sad, so very sad that we are no farther along. I pray that people’s eyes and ears will be opened and they will change. Peace and Love

    • I think you’ve identified one of the big reasons why folks let their leaders (religious or otherwise) virtually get away with murder: idolization. Churches are particularly prone to idolatry because certain leaders tend to isolate their congregants and create a cult of personality. Even in small churches like mine I’m always reminding folks that it’s not about me, but about Jesus. I’m a tool; He’s the leader.

  6. John, Thank you for this very important message. Please be aware of the rapidly growing Protect LDS Children movement to call attention to the sexually explicit nature of Mormon “worthiness interviews.” Petition owner Sam Young and the victims of this awful practice tell their stories more effectively than I ever could. Please visit http://protectldschildren.org/ and support the effort.

  7. Just for fun it would be nice if the blog host occasionally posted something about a good Christian who is someone to emulate and not an object of hatred and disgust and an excuse to tar and feather all Christians.

    There are good Christians who respect and defend and care for all life from conception until natural death. Who live virtuous chaste lives. Who make great sacrifice for the sake of others.

    Does progressive christianity have to be such a hate-fest all the time?

  8. Sexual assault by any person, regardless of his/her religious affiliation, is a crime, as well as a sin. But I’m just curious: if this person had been an atheist, would you have said, “This is why people hate atheists”?

  9. Most definitely what he did was a terrible thing and should not go unsaid or unfinished fortunately we have to remember that he is human he is representing Jesus Is Not Jesus that doesn’t call for a person to lose their faith or trust in the church and it doesn’t call for other struggling pastors who have passed sexual offense or situations that they need to overcome to continue of come to my words of assurance and of comfort to all those who believe continue to believe and don’t give up and may God be with you

  10. Pastor, I don’t even believe in God, but I still like reading your blog posts. You care about people. I care about people. At the end of the day, I think that’s what matters most.

    Thank you for reaching out to those that truly need our love and compassion.

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