“We are engaging a qualified, independent, third party organization to do a full audit of our church processes and Andy’s ministry.”
While watching the news last evening, my ears perked up during the coverage of Pope Francis’ trip to Chile. According to the report, one of the purposes of his visit was to apologize to Chilean sex abuse victims for the “irreparable damage” they suffered at the hands of priests. To a survivor named Juan Carlos Cruz, the Pope’s apology rings hollow. While being interviewed by Carol Off of CBCRadio (Canada), Carlos remarked:
“They never come with concrete actions, which is what we would expect. I’m not a vengeful person. I tend to forgive everybody. But the pain is so big that he continues to allow to be inflicted on survivors.”
Here in the United States, Larry Nassar – the former USA Olympic gymnastics team doctor who pleaded guilty last November to sexually assaulting seven girls – has been facing an onslaught of victims in a Michigan courtroom. These brave young women have been sharing through tears and angered voices how Nassar robbed them of their childhoods and scarred them for life. Four-time Olympic Gold medalist Simone Biles has come forward revealing that she, too, is “one of the many survivors that was sexually abused by Larry Nassar”.
As more and more sex abuse victims courageously come forward, others who have remained silent in the wake of sexual assault are finally finding their voices. Jules Woodson is a survivor of clergy sex abuse. Perhaps you have read what happened to her here and here. In case you’re not familiar with her story, when she was just 17 year old she was sexually assaulted by her 22 year old Youth Pastor, Andy Savage. That was 20 years ago.
After suffering in silence for far too long, Jules has finally come forward to reveal what happened during her formative years. The church leader who should have been encouraging her spiritually betrayed her, and the long-term repercussions have been extremely detrimental.
Savage has confessed that he and Jules had an inappropriate sexual experience but claims it was mutual. Obviously, we are siding with Jules, whom we believe was groomed and then sexually abused by the Youth Pastor she admired and trusted.
So where do things stand now? A Memphis news station filed this report last week:
Last Thursday Chris Conlee, lead pastor at HighPoint Church, announced that Andy Savage would be taking a leave of absence and that the church would be hiring a third party organization to conduct an audit of church operations as well as Savage’s ministry (see screen shot below).
The next day Conlee revealed who would be conducting the audit – the attorneys from MinistrySafe (see screen shot below).
According to its website, the principals of MinistrySafe are two attorneys, Gregory Love and Kimberlee Norris. Here is what they do.
Hopefully, HighPoint Church already has a system in place to keep kids safe. We wonder how they will assess Andy Savage’s position at the church.
While hiring a third party organization to conduct an audit sounds commendable, here are some things to consider:
- Who hired this organization to do the audit?
- Who will be privy to MinistrySafe’s findings?
- Who will oversee MinistrySafe’s compensation?
Right off the bat Dee and I have seen some red flags regarding this auditing firm. It seems to us that an organization such as MinistrySafe is beholden to the church leaders who hire them. Is it possible for them to conduct an impartial audit, given who is paying their fee? Just how independent can they really be? This is a big concern to us.
A few years ago Boz Tchividjuan wrote an article concerning “independent investigations”, which was entitled:
He began the article as follows:
In the past years, we have heard many faith-based institutions announce the launching of independent investigations to address issues of past sexual abuse that have publicly surfaced. Whether it’s academic institutions, mission organizations, churches, or denominations, the term “independent investigation” has become almost fashionable.
When an organization is confronted with public allegations of child sexual abuse within their ranks, it finds itself under a bright spotlight as the watching world waits to see how it will respond. All too often, the overriding institutional concern has very little to do with caring for the victims, but everything to do with protecting its reputation by doing everything it can to shut off the spotlight. This is often accomplished by announcing that the institution will launch an “independent” investigation. The organization proceeds to hire a private investigative group or law firm to investigate the matter with the hope that this process will calm everyone down and eventually turn off the spotlight. Because the motivation for this process can be based upon institutional self-preservation, many investigations labeled as “independent” are nothing more than “internal” investigations in disguise. An internal investigation allows the institution being investigated to stay in the driver’s seat, while an independent investigation requires that they get into the backseat with everyone else.
Boz goes on to explain that it’s important to understand who’s in the driver’s seat regarding the ‘independent investigation’. In other words, who is in control of the process, the findings, and the final report?
He then states:
One of the most disconcerting characteristics of an internal investigation is that the investigator often works alongside of the institution in drafting and authorizing the final report. This means that the very entity being investigated will ultimately determine what the content of the final report.
Not only does an internal investigation allow the institution to determine the content of the final report, but it also has the authority to decide who reads it. I know some abuse survivors who painstakingly participated in what they were told was an “independent” investigation, only to learn later that they were not allowed to read any of the final report. Other survivors have informed me that they were provided only portions of the final report that the institution alone determined they could read. Such limited access exacerbates the frustration and pain of survivors who have often waited years to learn the truth, the whole truth. Once again, these survivors were left feeling helpless and exploited by an institution that was all too comfortable sitting the driver’s seat.
An independent investigation requires the investigator to draft and authorize the final report separate from any institutional input or control. The investigator alone determines the content of the final report and who will receive it. In most independent investigations, a complete copy of the final report will be provided to the subject institution and to any of the abuse survivors who participated in what usually is a very painful process. Some independent investigators will actually require that the final report be posted publicly for all to read. Such transparency has a unique way of keeping the process accountable and credible. An investigation that is legitimately independent means that the institution being investigated is not in the driver’s seat when it comes to controlling the final report.
The independence of an investigation is not defined by the words or assurances of the institution being investigated. It is defined by a structure that requires the institution to get out of the driver’s seat and give up control. This can be a profound step forward for an organization who is genuinely focused on demonstrating love and repentance to those who have been hurt.
We hope the HighPoint congregation will be paying very close attention to how this audit is conducted.
Had Dee and I not been blogging for so long (almost 9 years!), we might have been big supporters of this step that HighPoint is taking in hiring a third-party organization to audit them.
Unfortunately, we have seen situations with other ministries where outside organizations and/or individuals were brought in to smooth things over. Some of our long-time readers will remember the Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) debacle and the hiring of Ambassadors of Reconciliation. We wrote about it way back in 2011. (see below)
C.J. Mahaney had come under fire for certain character flaws such as “pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy” and for allegedly not reporting sexual abuse that had occurred in the SGM ‘family of churches’. For 27 years Mahaney had served as senior pastor Covenant Life Church and at the time he was president of SGM.
When it was announced that Ambassadors of Reconciliation (AoR) was being hired to conduct an independent investigation, it was described as “a ministry that primarily serves Lutheran churches”. Once we began digging into AoR, we discovered that Ted Kober and Ed Keinath had strong ties to Peacemaker Ministries. Why is this significant? Because C.J Mahaney and the head of Peacemaker Ministries – Ken Sande – were good friends.
We did a follow-up post when report was released — AoR Report Released: Just How Unhealthy Is SGM?
Since SGM’s website has been taken down (they are now ‘Sovereign Grace Churches’), the report is gone… As I remember, there was quite a bit of criticism leveled at church members who dared to complain about how things had been handled.
Several years later an article was published in The Washingtonian which summed up what had been occurring at SGM’s flagship church, Covenant Life, quite well…
It’s an eye-opening article that we believe to be highly accurate.
Not only did SGM hire AoR as an ‘independent investigator’ to try and smooth things over, but the denomination had previously arranged for a panel of three theologians (who were supposed to be ‘objective’) to decide whether C.J. Mahaney was ‘fit for ministry’.
It was only after the panel’s report was released, affirming that Mahaney was indeed fit for ministry, that we discovered the identities of the three men who comprised the panel — Kevin DeYoung, Ray Ortlund, and Carl Trueman. Their names were kept secret while they were conducting the investigation. Turns out they ALL had connections to Mahaney, and we wrote about those ties here. So much for their purported ‘impartiality’.
So using SGM as an example, the leaders chose the third-party organization (AoR), and it was obvious that the report was written in such a way as to keep the current leadership in charge. No doubt the sum that AoR charged was substantial, and the bottom line is that the members of the congregation paid for it (although they had no control whatsoever over the process).
Getting back to Highpoint Church and their selection of a third-party organization, we believe those at MinistrySafe who will be conducting the investigation will be aligned with the pastors. Once everything is smoothed over, it will be ‘business as usual’ at Highpoint Church.
As far as Andy Savage is concerned, he is the co-founder of Highpoint Church. It would be extremely difficult for him to be untanged from this business venture, so in all likelihood he should be back in the saddle soon…