Bible teachings about sin and forgiveness do not give churches the right to pardon a crime, a woman who claims a Tennessee megachurch pastor sexually assaulted her 20 years ago says in new video published March 9 by the New York Times.
“What happened was a crime,” Jules Woodson said of her experience with Andy Savage, teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis who is on leave of absence since confessing to “a sexual incident” with the then-17-year-old high school senior. “This is not something that the church should handle internally.”
In her first public comments since she first spoke out in January, Woodson said Savage, then youth pastor at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church in The Woodlands, Texas, detoured while driving her home from church one night, took her to a remote area off the main road and told her to give him oral sex. The closest he came to an apology, she said, “was when he ran out of the truck screaming: ‘Oh my God, oh my God, what have I done? You have to take this to the grave with you.’”
Woodson said she did not attend the service in 1998 where Savage went before the Houston-area congregation, now known as Stonebridge Church, to say he made a mistake and had to move on — or the going away party they gave him afterward.
“People were celebrating him and showering him with love and telling him how much they will miss him, and here I am struggling,” she said. “Because nobody was saying the severity of what happened, I was being blamed. It was, in their eyes, a consensual sexual sin.”
Woodson remained silent for two decades until the growing #metoo movement exposing sexual abuse by powerful men prompted her to share the story on two Christian blogs. Pressured to respond, Savage went before HighPoint Church in January to apologize for a “sexual incident” in his distant past. He got a standing ovation, the video shows, and she was attacked on social media.
Woodson said she wants to change how churches handle sexual assault and sexual abuse when it involves members of their congregation. “It’s a crime, not just a sexual sin,” she said.
Like Rachael Denhollander — the former gymnast praised for testifying in secular court against disgraced doctor Larry Nassar and criticized for challenging an evangelical ministry accused in a civil lawsuit of shielding predators — Woodson said it is a poor witness when Christians put their own reputation ahead of victims.
“We as a church, of all places, should be getting this right,” Woodson said. “It is unfathomable to me that the secular world, Hollywood, are taking a stand. The church should have been the first group to stand up and say we will not allow this.”
HighPoint Church announced March 4 an investigation regarding Savage “is wrapping up and the initial findings give us assurance that we can begin the long process of moving forward as a church.”
“Just as the culture around us is waking up to the suffering expressed by the courageous voices of the #metoo movement, we are taking very seriously our commitment to fully understand how our church should minister to the needs of the people we impact,” the statement says.
Nearly 3,000 persons have signed an online petition supporting Savage, and more than 3,500 have signed a petition calling for him to resign. Larry Cotton, the pastor when Woodson reported what happened between her and Savage two decades ago, resigned from his current church in February.
“During my leave of absence, I have come to better understand the weight of my mistakes and my responsibilities as a church leader at that time,” Cotton said in his resignation letter to Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas.
“I wish I had known 20 years ago what I understand today,” he confessed. “I now understand that I did not do enough to serve Jules and help her feel protected and cared for — I wish I had done more. I understand that I failed to report the sexual abuse — I wish I had reported to the proper authorities. Even though it’s impossible, I wish I could go back in time and correct these mistakes.”
HighPoint Church, co-founded by Savage and lead pastor Chris Conlee, a graduate of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Cordova, Tenn., identifies as non-denominational but is in the church directory of the Mid-South Baptist Association.