Sexual Harassment In The Church: Apology 'Has Never Been Enough' In light of sexual assault allegations against a pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tenn., NPR's Michel Martin talks to Rev. Serene Jones about patterns of sexual abuse and harassment within the church.

Sexual Harassment In The Church: Apology 'Has Never Been Enough'

Sexual Harassment In The Church: Apology 'Has Never Been Enough'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

In light of sexual assault allegations against a pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tenn., NPR's Michel Martin talks to Rev. Serene Jones about patterns of sexual abuse and harassment within the church.


We are continuing to read and hear painful accounts of sexual abuse and harassment in all kinds of workplaces and situations, including religious institutions. And while the Catholic Church scandals have been well-reported, other denominations are also struggling to deal with misconduct by clergy. So we're going to turn now to a recent story in the news involving a woman named Jules Woodson, who says she was inspired by the Me Too movement to come out publicly about a sexual assault she says occurred 20 years ago. She said that Andy Savage, now a pastor at a megachurch in Memphis, Tenn., sexually assaulted her when she was 17 years old and he was a 22-year-old youth minister. And in a message to his Tennessee congregation last Sunday, Savage apologized for the, quote, "sexual incident" and said he regrets the pain he caused her. He asked for forgiveness, and he received a standing ovation that was livestreamed on the church's website.

On Thursday, the church suspended Pastor Savage while they conduct an investigation, saying in a statement that the church supports him as a leader of the church. As you can imagine, this has sparked reflection from people who think deeply about religion and religious institutions. Reverend Serene Jones is one of those people. She's president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. We reached her via Skype. Reverend Jones, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SERENE JONES: Yes, thank you for having me on today.

MARTIN: Now, I haven't heard recently from the woman who made her story public, but previously, she said the apology isn't enough. The church where Savage a pastor initially said it was enough for them, but they've now put out a statement saying, while they still believe in Pastor Savage, they're placing him on a leave of absence. What do you make of their reaction?

JONES: Well, I was glad to hear that today that the church did take action. That's entirely appropriate, and more churches should follow suit. It will be interesting to see what taking action means. It seems prefacing their position with the statement we believe him, I'm not sure what that means. But what is clear to me, and perhaps his congregation is seeing this as well, the mere act of confession, the mere act of standing in front of a group of people and saying I confess that I did something horrible has never in the history of churches or in the Christian tradition in and of itself been enough.

Confession, if harms have been perpetrated, needs to be followed immediately by a whole series of acts of repentance which attempt to address the harm that's been done in such a way that redress is sought. Last week, it appeared from Savage's statement that he had never even attempted to have a conversation with Jules prior to his surprise confession and that really, healing the harms done to her, the serious harms - time in which they were committed, the illegal acts that took place against her have never been directly addressed.

MARTIN: One of the things about this particular story that has caused a lot of attention is that it seems to have sparked quite a lot of reaction from other clergy and some very searing commentaries, and frankly, yours was one of them. And I was wondering what what made you feel you needed to write those words?

JONES: Well, as the Me Too movement grows and as we've once again seen, as we have several times in the past 30 years in this country, a move for women to come forward and speak about the sexual violence perpetrated against them, we are reminded that, in fact, underneath this long history of harm has stood a church that time and again has supported and protected clergy who have used their very sacred powers, the trust that's put in them by their congregations, as a cover for abuse. And we're seeing that once again in this instance. In the statement, I say, I hope that we don't just cover it over it and go on as we have but the church has a long history of doing so.

MARTIN: And forgive me for asking, but I read in your words that perhaps you have yourself had an experience of this?

JONES: Yes. I haven't experienced clergy sexual abuse, but I was raped in high school. And in college, I was sexually assaulted. And dealing with both of those, neither of which received any kind of redress at the time, has been an ongoing part of my own struggle to find voice and to come to grips with a church that has supported this kind of action.

MARTIN: And when you say that the church has supported this kind of action, what do you mean? Are you saying that you believe that the church has, in fact - what? - sided with the predators? Is that your view?

JONES: Yes. In fact, I think the church has not only sided with the predators, but oftentimes the theology that's taught in churches promotes the view that women should be submissive to men, meaning also that women, regardless of their age or their place, should be submissive to men's desires. And this all too often leads to abuse. And it's embedded in the theology.

MARTIN: That's the Reverend Serene Jones. She's president of Union Theological Seminary, that is in New York. We reached her via Skype. Reverend Jones, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JONES: Thank you.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.