Addressing reports that one of their pastors, Andy Savage, had sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl while serving as a youth minister at his previous church, leaders of a megachurch in Memphis, Tennessee, said they’d long known about the incident but still support Savage even after he acknowledged the “sexual incident” in a statement of his own.
“This information is not new to me or to our leadership,” Chris Conlee, the lead pastor of Highpoint Church, said in a statement Friday, according to The Huffington Post.
Conlee was responding to a report in the Christian blog The Wartburg Watch, which detailed the account of a woman who’d accused Savage of sexually abusing her in the late 1990s when she was a teenager.
The woman, identified as Jules Woodson, said the incident with Savage occurred when she was a senior in high school. One night, Savage ― who was then the youth minister of her church, the Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church in Texas ― offered to drive her home after a church event, but took a detour without her consent or knowledge to a deserted forested area.
“I initially assumed we were going to get ice cream,” Woodson said.
After parking the vehicle, Savage “unzipped his jeans and pulled out his penis,” Woodson recalled. “He asked me to suck it. I was scared and embarrassed, but I did it. He then asked me to unbutton my shirt. I did. He started touching me over my bra and then lifted my bra up and began touching my breasts.”
After about five minutes, Woodson said Savage suddenly jumped out of the vehicle and begged her to not tell anyone about what had just happened. “‘You can’t tell anyone Jules, please. You have to take this to the grave with you,’” she quotes him as saying.
In the days that followed, Woodson said she was consumed by “fear, shame, anger and hurt.” She decided to tell church leaders about the alleged assault, but they engaged “in a cover-up to protect my abuser and the image of the church,” she alleged.
Pastor Savage recently admitted to the incident:
“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,” he said, HuffPost reports.
But church leaders say they are standing by the accused pastor:
“On behalf of the elders, pastors, staff, and Trustees of Highpoint, I want to affirm that we are 100% committed to Andy Savage and his continued ministry at Highpoint Church,” Conlee said, stressing his “total confidence in the redemptive process Andy went through” after the sexual encounter.
Neither Savage nor Highpoint Church leaders immediately responded to a request for comment.