Responding to a recent report that one of their pastors had allegedly 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.
“This information is not new to me or to our leadership,” Chris Conlee, the lead pastor of Highpoint Church, said in a statement Friday. Earlier that day, The Wartburg Watch, a Christian blog, had published the account of a woman who’d accused Andy Savage, teaching pastor at Highpoint, of sexually abusing her in the late 1990s when she was a teenager.
“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.
Savage, an author and podcast host, acknowledged the “sexual incident” in a statement of his own.
Neither Savage nor Highpoint Church leaders immediately responded to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
In the Wartburg blog post, the woman, identified as Jules Woodson, said the incident with Savage occurred in the spring of 1998 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, Woodson said, but took a detour without her consent or knowledge to a deserted forested area.
Woodson said that she initially “assumed we were going to get ice cream.”
After parking the vehicle, Savage “unzipped his jeans and pulled out his penis,” Woodson said. “He asked me to suck it. I was scared and embarrassed, but I did it. I remember feeling that this must mean that Andy loved me. 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 ran over to her. He fell to his knees 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.
According to Woodson, Savage was not immediately punished for his behavior and the church’s leadership only took action after she told members of her all-women discipleship group some of what had transpired that night with the youth pastor.
Even then, however, the church never “came out with an official statement addressing what had happened and/or what was being done about it,” Woodson said. “Instead, they held a going-away reception for Andy at the church in which he was allowed to simply say that he had made a poor decision and that it was time for him to move on from our church.”
Inspired by the #MeToo anti-sexual harassment movement sweeping through Hollywood and elsewhere, Woodson said she decided to send an email to Savage last month with the subject line “Do you remember?”
“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? ... Well, I REMEMBER,” she wrote in the email, which she said went unanswered.
In the blog post, Woodson said she had chosen to go public with her story in the hopes of reaching other sexual assault survivors.
“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,” she said.
More on sexual assault accusations:
High-profile men accused of sexual harassment, assault and misconduct
High-profile men accused of sexual harassment, assault and misconduct
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Comedian Louis C.K. has been accused of forcing women to watch him masturbate, according to the New York Times.
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Director Bret Ratner has been accused of sexual harassment by several women, including actresses Olivia Munn and Natasha Henstridge.
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Actor Anthony Rapp accused Kevin Spacey of making a sexual advance towards him when he was 14 years old.
Roger Ailes, the former president of Fox News Channel, was accused of sexually harassing former anchor Gretchen Carlson and several other women from the network.
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Four women, including several that were also fellow Scientologists, have accused actor Danny Masterson of sexual assault, according to HuffPost.
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Roy Moore faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with underaged girls.
Bill Clinton faced numerous allegations of sexual assault and misconduct while he was president of the United States, with accusers including Juanita Broaddrick, who accused him of rape, Kathleen Willey who said he groped her and Paula Jones who said he exposed himself to her without consent.
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Actor Casey Affleck settled lawsuits out of court wth two women who accused him of sexual harassment.
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Bill O'Reilly has reportedly made numerous settlements with women who accused him of sexual harassment.
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Anthony Weiner, a former Democratic congressman was sentenced to 21 months in prison in September 2017 after pleading guilty to sexting a teenage girl.
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Veteran journalist Mark Halperin has been accused of sexually harassing women while he worked at ABC News.
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Former Fox Host Eric Bolling was accused of sending unsolicited lewd text messages to female colleagues.
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Former champion boxer Mike Tyson was convicted of raping a Miss Black America contestant in 1992.
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Dustin Hoffman was accused of sexually harassing a production assistant when he was 48 and she was a high school senior.
Jeremy Piven was accused by actress Ariane Bellamar of groping her on two separate occasions. Piven 'unequivocally' denied the allegations.
Ben Affleck apologized for acting 'inappropriately' towards Hilarie Burton during an appearance on MTV's "Total Request Live" in 2003.
Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct by a woman he went on a date with.
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Steve Wynn, Chairman and CEO of Wynn Resorts, has been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of peple. The Wall Street Journal the casino mogul regularly pressured employees to perform sex acts.
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In his statement, Savage acknowledged that “as a college student on staff at a church in Texas ... 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,” Savage said. “I resigned from ministry and moved back home to Memphis. I accepted full responsibility for my actions.”
Savage, a father of five, added that “there has never been another situation remotely similar in my life before or after that occurrence. The incident happened before [my wife] 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.”
Woodson told WMC News on Saturday 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, who said she’d recently filed a report with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children about the incident, added that it’d taken her two decades to come forward because she’d felt “pressured by the church to be silent.”
“It’s very hard to tell your story. It’s very hard to speak up,” she said.