It is often said that with god, anything is possible.
In one Tennessee church, that would seem to include getting a standing ovation for admitting to sexual assault.
Pastor Andy Savage, 42, of Highpoint Church in Memphis did just that on Sunday, when he told his congregation he had been involved in “a sexual incident” 20 years ago that he regretted.
That “incident” can more aptly described as a sexual assault on then 17-year-old Jules Woodson. Amid the wave of recent allegations of sexual misconduct against influential men as part of the “me too” movement, Woodson sent Savage an email on Dec. 1:
In addition, Woodson provided an explicit account of the 1998 incident in which Savage, who was then her youth pastor at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church – now called Stonebridge Church – in Texas, drove her to a remote area instead of to her home as he said he would. There, Savage fondled her breasts and had her perform oral sex on him.
Shortly after the assault, Woodson went to Associate Pastor Larry Cotton to report it. According to Woodson’s account, Cotton accused her of having “participated,” and told her to keep quiet. This week, Cotton was put on leave by Stonebridge, with the pastor saying, “In hindsight, I see more could’ve been done for Jules. I’m truly sorry that more was not done.”
Under Texas law, the age of consent is 17. However, Woodson’s account makes clear she felt she was in no position to refuse Savage, a religious authority figure. Presumably that is why Texas has a law specifically criminalizing the sort of “sexual incident” Savage perpetrated against her:
Texas Penal Code Chapter 5. (22.011): Title 5. Offenses against the person. Chapter 22. Assaultive Offenses.
Sec. 22.011. Sexual assault.
(b) A sexual assault […] is without the consent of the other person if: […] 10) the actor is a clergyman who causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person’s emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual adviser …
According to Woodson, not long after the assault, Savage “led a 2-day event at the church, known as True Love Waits, promoting sexual purity not only in abstinence from intercourse before marriage but also abstinence in any physical contact, actions and thoughts which might lead to sexual arousal.”
During Sunday’s service at Highpoint in Memphis, Savage did not go into the nature of the “sexual incident,” expressing regret and apologizing for his actions.
“I was and remain sorry for my sin,” said Savage. “I am sorry to Jules, to her family, to my family, to my church family – both then and now – and most of all to the Lord.”
That Savage said he is sorrier to god more than to his actual victim seemed a curious framing of his apology. Upon concluding his remarks, Savage received a 20-second standing ovation from the Highpoint congregation.
Lead pastor Chris Conlee then took the mic.
“I know when you’re supporting Andy in that way,” he said to the crowd, “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.”
Jules Woodson wasn’t interested in their prayers.
“It’s disgusting,” she said of the ovation to the New York Times.
For his part, Andy Savage hasn’t spoken with the media about the incident, preferring instead to address the assault within the friendly confines of his church.
On Monday a Christian publishing company called Bethany House said it was canceling the July publication of Savage’s book, The Ridiculously Good Marriage.
Next, read about the stalled rape case against the Church of Scientology despite compelling evidence. Then, read about the abuse victim denied compensation because she “consented” at age 14.