Andy Savage, a pastor at a Memphis megachurch, received a standing ovation after apologizing to a woman who said he assaulted her when she was a teenager. “It’s disgusting,” the woman said.CreditHighpoint Church, via YouTube

Memphis Pastor Admits ‘Sexual Incident’ With High School Student 20 Years Ago

A Memphis megachurch pastor received a standing ovation during a church service on Sunday after he admitted that he had engaged in a “sexual incident” with a high school student 20 years ago in Texas.

The admission by the pastor, Andy Savage, came several days after a woman accused him of sexually assaulting her in 1998 when she was 17 and he was the youth minister at a suburban Houston church. One night, Mr. Savage offered to drive her home from church but first took her to a wooded area off a dirt road and had her perform oral sex on him, the woman, Jules Woodson, wrote in a blog post detailing her story.

On Sunday, Mr. Savage did not tell the congregation at Highpoint Church what took place in 1998, but he said that he had sinned, taken responsibility for it and never kept it a secret from church leaders. He said that before Ms. Woodson took her story public, he believed that the episode had been “dealt with in Texas.”

“Until now, I did not know there was unfinished business with Jules,” Mr. Savage, 42, said during the service, which was streamed live online. “Jules, I am deeply sorry for my actions 20 years ago. I remain committed to cooperate with you toward forgiveness and healing.”

After he finished addressing the congregation, church members stood and applauded him for about 20 seconds. The lead pastor at Highpoint, Chris Conlee, told the congregation that he supported Mr. Savage, who he said was one of the people “hurt by the ripple effect of the consequences of that sin.”

In a phone interview on Monday night, Ms. Woodson said she was in disbelief watching the video, which was posted on the church’s YouTube page.

“It’s disgusting,” Ms. Woodson said through tears.

She said that the episode had not been “dealt with” because it had never been reported to law enforcement authorities. On Monday, she said she reported it that day, speaking with a detective in the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department, which is just north of Houston. A sheriff’s department spokesman did not return a phone call and an email seeking comment on Monday.

It is not clear whether the case could be investigated. In Texas, most sexual assault crimes have a statute of limitations that would have expired by now.

“I just hope that by me coming forward that I would give courage to one other person,” Ms. Woodson said. “It doesn’t matter if I was his only victim. What matters is that this was a big problem and continues to go on.”

Ms. Woodson said she decided to come forward with her story after glancing at the front page of USA Today in December. On the cover of the newspaper was an article about the dismissal of Matt Lauer, the anchor of NBC’s “Today” who was fired after a former colleague accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior.

Later the same day, she said, she sent an email to Mr. Savage at his church. “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?” she said she wrote to him.

Ms. Woodson thought he would respond. She thought he might apologize. More than a month later, when there was still no reply, she decided to go public with her story. Writing on a website about cases of sexual abuse, Ms. Woodson recounted that night in 1998 and how, she said, he asked her to unbutton her shirt so he could touch her chest.

Ms. Woodson wrote that after five minutes together in the parked truck, Mr. Savage ran out of the truck to the other side, got on his knees and begged her not to tell anyone about what had happened. “You have to take this to the grave with you,” she said he told her.

She said that Larry Cotton, an associate pastor of the church, The Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church, urged her to stay quiet when she told him what had happened. Instead of telling her to inform the authorities, he told her that the church would address the episode internally.

Mr. Cotton later left that church and became a director at a church in Austin, Tex. On Tuesday, the Austin Stone Community Church said that it placed Mr. Cotton on leave last Friday while it investigates “his qualification for his current role of leadership.” Mr. Cotton could not be reached for comment on Tuesday afternoon.

After Ms. Woodson told Mr. Cotton about her story in 1998, she said the church sent Mr. Savage to apologize to her mother. But he never told her mother explicitly what had happened, leaving the impression that they had only kissed. In Sunday’s service, Mr. Savage said that at the time he handled the situation in a “biblical way” and resigned from the church and returned to his hometown, Memphis.

Mr. Savage did not return a call seeking comment on Monday evening. On Monday afternoon, the Christian publishing company Bethany House said it had canceled the July publication of his book “The Ridiculously Good Marriage.”

Doris Burke contributed research.

SOURCE: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2018/01/09/us/memphis-megachurch-sex-assault.html