The leadership of a megachurch in Memphis, Tennessee has rallied around its pastor Andy Savage after he publicly admitted to sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl while serving as a youth minister at a previous church in Texas 20 years ago.
Savage received a standing ovation at church yesterday after making the admission and appealing for forgiveness.
Chris Conlee, the lead pastor of Highpoint Church, said in a statement after Savage admitted the incident which was outlined in a detailed blog post from the victim: 'This information is not new to me or to our leadership...On behalf of the elders, pastors, staff, and Trustees of Highpoint, I want to affirm that we are 100 per cent committed to Andy...and his continued ministry at Highpoint Church.'
The statement came after The Wartburg Watch on Friday published the account of a woman, named as Jules Woodson, who had accused Savage of abusing her in the late 1990s.
She recalls an evening in Spring 1998 when Savage offered her a lift home after a meeting at the Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church. According to the account, he drove past the turn-off for her house and instead carried on down a dirt road with a promise of a 'surprise'.
After arriving in a deserted area of woodland, she writes that he asked her to engage in sexual activity with him, which she reluctantly did. Then, after around five minutes, she said Savage suddenly jumped out of the vehicle and ran over to her, falling to his knees with his hands on his head and begging her not to tell anyone what had happened. 'You can't tell anyone Jules, please. You have to take this to the grave with you,' she quotes him as saying.
The victim then states that she approached the church's associate pastor to inform him of the incident and that the first thing the man said in response was: 'So you're telling me you participated?'
She writes: 'Not only did I suddenly feel this immense guilt for doing what Andy had asked me to do but I also started to feel that this was my fault somehow because I didn't stop him.'
She writes that the church sought to cover up the incident until she gained the courage to tell more people about it, and Savage subsequently left the church due to a 'poor decision' he had made, with no details being provided to the church's congregation.
'No one could imagine Andy doing anything bad or immoral, much less illegal, and so, it somehow became my fault that Andy was leaving,' the victim writes.
In his statement admitting to the incident, which he read out in church on Sunday, Savage said: 'As a college student on staff at a church in Texas more than 20 years ago, I regretfully had a sexual incident with a female high school senior in the church. I apologized and sought forgiveness from her, her parents, her discipleship group, the church staff, and the church leadership, who informed the congregation. In agreement with wise counsel, I took every step to respond in a biblical way.
'I resigned from ministry and moved back home to Memphis. I accepted full responsibility for my actions. I was and remain very remorseful for the incident and deeply regret the pain I caused her and her family, as well as the pain I caused the church and God's Kingdom.
'There has never been another situation remotely similar in my life before or after that occurrence. The incident happened before Amanda and I were engaged and I shared every aspect of this situation with her before I asked her to marry me. I further disclosed this incident to Chris Conlee before coming on staff at Highpoint and have shared with key leaders throughout my tenure.
'This incident was dealt with in Texas 20 years ago, but in the last few days has been presented to a wider audience. I was wrong and I accepted responsibility for my actions. I was sorry then and remain so today. Again, I sincerely ask for forgiveness from her and pray for God's continued healing for everyone involved.'
In his statement, Conlee said: 'This information is not new to me or to our leadership. As one of my closest friends and partners in ministry, I can assure you that I have total confidence in the redemptive process Andy went through under his leadership in Texas. In addition, for more than 16 years, I have watched Andy strive to live a godly life and proactively share what he has learned to help others.
'On behalf of the elders, pastors, staff, and Trustees of Highpoint, I want to affirm that we are 100 per cent committed to Andy, Amanda, and their family and his continued ministry at Highpoint Church. We ask for your prayers and support for all involved.'
Yesterday, in extraordinary scenes at Highpoint recorded by the website Makechurchsafe.com, Savage received a standing ovation after reading out his statement alongside Conlee, adding: 'Since then I have tried to live my life in keeping with that original act of repentance. For any painful memories or fresh memories this has created for anyone, I am sorry, and I humbly ask for your forgiveness. I love you all very much.'
Conlee, with his arm around Savage, said to the congregation: 'We are so grateful for your support. I know when you support Andy in that way, you are also supporting Ms Woodson. You are supporting her healing. You are supporting, and you are praying for her, and we are willing as individuals and as a church to do whatever we can within the scope of what it means to offer spiritual healing, to do that for Ms Woodson.'
Woodson said she had decided to send an email to Savage on December 1 with the subject line 'Do you remember?' after being inspired to act by victims of abuse coming forward in Hollywood and elsewhere.
In the email which she says went unanswered, Woodson wrote to Savage:
'Do you remember that night that you were supposed to drive me home from church and instead drove me to a deserted back road and sexually assaulted me?
'Do you remember how you acted like you loved me and cared about me in order for me to cooperate in such acts, only to run out of the vehicle later and fall to your knees begging for forgiveness and for me not to tell anyone what had just happened?
'Well, I REMEMBER.
In her blog, she adds: 'To anyone who has suffered from sexual abuse in the church and the subsequent cover up and pressure to remain silent, I want you to know that it is not your fault. Most importantly, I want you to know that you are not alone.'
On Saturday, Woodson told WMC News that Savage's apology was insufficient.
'His apology isn't enough because number one, he's lying about how he handled it. He never came to me, the church told him he couldn't talk to me and they told me I couldn't talk to him,' she said.
Woodson said that it had taken her two decades to come forward because she'd felt 'pressured by the church to be silent'. She added: 'It's very hard to tell your story. It's very hard to speak up.'