Andy Savage, teaching pastor at the popular Highpoint Church Memphis in Tennessee, admitted Friday that he sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl while he was her youth pastor 20 years ago but he repented immediately.
Savage's admission comes after an online uproar over his past after his now grown-up victim, who goes by the name Jules Woodson, described in graphic detail to The Wartburg Watch how Savage coerced her into performing oral sex on him on a dark Texas dirt road when he should have taken her straight home to her mother's house.
"As a college student on staff at a church in Texas more than 20 years ago, 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 in a statement about the incident that took place while he served at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church, now known as StoneBridge Church.
"I resigned from ministry and moved back home to Memphis. I accepted full responsibility for my actions. 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.
Savage, who is now married and a father of five boys, said he shared his past with his wife Amanda before they were engaged and also disclosed the incident to Highpoint Church Memphis Lead Pastor Chris Conlee and other key leaders prior to joining the staff at the church.
"This incident was dealt with in Texas 20 years ago, but in the last few days has been presented to a wider audience. I was wrong and I accepted responsibility for my actions. I was sorry then and remain so today. Again, I sincerely ask for forgiveness from her and pray for God's continued healing for everyone involved," he said.
According to The Wartburg Watch, Jules was moved to reach out to Savage after seeing him tweet about Matt Lauer being fired for sexual misconduct allegations in late November. His tweets are no longer public. Jules reportedly then sent Savage an email on Dec. 1 accusing him of sexual assault.
"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 wrote, according to The Wartburg Watch. "Do you remember how you acted like you loved me and cared about me in order for me to cooperate in such acts, only to run out of the vehicle later and fall to your knees begging for forgiveness and for me not to tell anyone what had just happened?"
Savage did not reply until Jules came forward with graphic details of their encounter last week.
"He turned onto a dirt road and continued to drive. There were trees all around. I could not see the main road anymore, from which he turned. I asked what was back here. He told me they were building a church. I thought, maybe that's what this was about, maybe he has some secret to tell me, like perhaps he was moving to another church. We reached a dead end and he turned the truck around before putting it in park. We were stopped, and he turned the headlights off," Jules wrote. That was when he asked her to perform oral sex on him.
"I was scared and embarrassed, but I did it. I remember feeling that this must mean that Andy loved me," she continued. She was also asked to unbutton her shirt.
"After what I believe to have been about 5 minutes of this going on, he suddenly stopped, got out of the truck and ran around the back and to my side before falling to his knees. I quickly buttoned my shirt back up and got out of the truck. Now I was terrified and ashamed. I remember him pleading, while he was on his knees with his hands up on his head, 'Oh my god, oh my god. What have I done? Oh my god, I'm so sorry. You can't tell anyone Jules, please. You have to take this to the grave with you.' He said that several times."
The legal age of consent in Texas is 17. But Texas Law also identifies as assault an encounter that involves "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." There is no statute of limitation for prosecution of sexual assault under this circumstance.
Under Texas law, a sexual assault is typically a second degree felony. It carries a sentence of two to 20 years in a state prison and/or a fine of up to $10,000.
Jules, who has since filed an official police report, said she reported Savage to church leaders and they initially took no action against him. They also advised her not to speak with anyone about the encounter. When she realized that the church was taking no action against Savage, however, she broke down in a female discipleship group and revealed what had happened to her. This action forced the church to fire Savage. She argued, however, that the church did not fully disclose to congregants why they fired him.
"The church, however, never came out with an official statement addressing what had happened and/or what was being done about it. 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," Jules said.
"In 2016, several victims came forward and shared their abuse at Immanuel Baptist Church in the late 1990s, which was later called The Church at Schilling Farms. Prior to the publication of those stories, Savage (teaching pastor) went before his Highpoint Church congregation in Collierville to urge them to approve a merger** with The Church at Schilling Farms — going out of his way to say, 'there's nothing sinister going on here,'" the petition said.
"But the thing is, Savage knew about the allegations in October 2015 before he and lead pastor Chris Conlee rushed Highpoint into a merger deal with The Church at Schilling Farms. The effect of this was to ensure that the victims of abuse had no path to a civil cause of action against the church for damages. Justice was never served," the petition added.
Despite the call, Highpoint Church Memphis Lead Pastor Chris Conlee believes Savage has already repented of his sin and has been a model citizen since his assault on Jules.
"This information is not new to me or to our leadership. As one of my closest friends and partners in ministry, I can assure you that I have total confidence in the redemptive process Andy went through under his leadership in Texas. In addition, for more than 16 years, I have watched Andy strive to live a godly life and proactively share what he has learned to help others," Conlee said in a statement Friday.
"On behalf of the elders, pastors, staff, and Trustees of Highpoint, I want to affirm that we are 100% committed to Andy, Amanda, and their family and his continued ministry at Highpoint Church. We ask for your prayers and support for all involved," he added.