A pastor in Tennessee drew a loud round of applause and a standing ovation from his congregation when he delivered a prepared speech about what he described as a “sexual incident” with a minor in 1998 — an incident that the minor in question claims was assault.
CBS News reports that Andy Savage, a Teaching Pastor at HighPoint Church in Memphis, made a statement before his congregation this past Sunday, addressing a two-decades-old encounter with a 17-year-old girl who was a member of a church where he worked.
Savage’s admission came after his alleged victim, Jules Woodson, published a detailed blog post about their encounter. In the account published on the Christian blog Watch Keep on January 5, Woodson claims that Savage offered her a ride home from a church event in 1998 and on the way pulled over to a remote area. He then allegedly exposed his penis to her and told her to perform oral sex on him.
Woodson says she complied, and went along again when he took off her bra and touched her, but said she “was scared and embarrassed.”
After a few minutes in the car, Woodson says Savage got out and came over to the passenger side and fell to his knees, and said:
“Oh my God, oh my God. What have I done? Oh my God, I’m so sorry. You can’t tell anyone Jules, please. You have to take this to the grave with you.”
Woodson says she told church leaders about the incident shortly afterwards and was told to keep quiet about it. She told the New York Times that she was inspired by the #MeToo movement to address the traumatic encounter, which she says caused her shame and fear.
In the blog post, Woodson did indicate that she was enthusiastic about Savage’s attention but that she was not prepared for how the encounter played out.
In his speech before the congregation, Savage did not get into specifics, but admitted to a “sexual incident” with the then-high school student when he was in college and was on staff as some type of minister at a Texas Baptist church.
Savage said that the incident was addressed openly within the church, and that he had apologized to Woodson and her family at the time. He also said that the congregation was made aware of the incident, and that as a result he left his position and moved back to Tennessee.
He added that he told his now-wife about the incident before they became engaged, and that his employers at HighPoint Church were also aware of it before he was hired.
“I was and remain deeply remorseful for the incident and any pain I caused her and her family,” Savage said.
“I never sought to cover this up.”
The pastor reiterated that he believed the incident had been “dealt with in Texas years ago,” and noted that “in recent days it has been brought to a wider audience.”
He said that he continued to ask for Woodson’s forgiveness and would pray for her healing, as well as anyone else who was hurt.
The church’s lead pastor Chris Conlee was on stage with Savage during his admission, and spoke after Savage finished his speech, getting a standing ovation from the congregation.
“When you are supporting Andy in that way you are also supporting Miss Woodson,” Conlee said.
“It saddens us that Miss Woodson has not been on the same road to healing.”
A video of the entire service was uploaded to the church’s YouTube channel.
The New York Times spoke to Woodson after she had seen the video.
“It’s disgusting,” she told the newspaper, and argued that the incident had not in fact been “dealt with” as Savage said, because law enforcement never became involved, even though Woodson claims she reported it to the local sheriff department.
The Christian publisher Bethany House told the New York Times it was canceling the upcoming publication of Savage’s self-help book The Ridiculously Good Marriage, initially scheduled to publish in July.
[Feature image: YouTube screenshot/Andy Savage]