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Megachurch pastor receives standing ovation for admitting to ‘sexual incident’ with teen girl
The survivor, crying, called the display ‘disgusting.’
A Memphis woman says she is devastated after a megachurch pastor who molested her as a teen was applauded by his congregation for apologizing for the “incident.”
Earlier this month, Jules Woodson said pastor Andy Savage sexually assaulted her while driving her home from their Houston church in 1998. Woodson, who was 17 years old at the time, claimed Savage pulled her aside and began molesting her, then begged her not to tell anyone.
But this November, after Matt Lauer was fired from NBC for alleged sexual misconduct, Woodson was inspired to confront Savage over email, asking him if he remembered sexually assaulting her. After Savage refused to reply, Woodson decided to go public with the allegations.
Since then, Savage has admitted to the incident. And this past Sunday, he told his congregation at Highpoint Church, a megachurch in Memphis, that he “regretfully” had a “sexual incident” with Woodson. This, he said, made him feel guilty and led him to “accept full responsibility” for his behavior.
In response, Savage received a standing ovation from the congregation, with Highpoint’s lead pastor Chris Conlee stressing that his audience does not have to “choose a side” between Woodson and Savage.
“Our responsibility is that we must take God’s side,” Conlee said to his congregation. “Now what is God’s side? Does God want us to criticize people? Does he want us to criticize Andy and discount what confession, forgiveness, and repentance is all about, and about the fruit that is in keeping with that?”
Savage believed the alleged sexual assault was “dealt with” in the past. But even in his apology, it’s clear he isn’t being completely forthcoming. He calls the alleged assault a “sexual incident,” never once detailing how he specifically harmed Woodson. And while Savage stresses that he asked for forgiveness from both Woodson, her family, and Savage’s church in Texas, Woodson instead alleges that Savage never explicitly confessed to the assault to Woodson’s mother. And she says the church encouraged her to remain silent so pastors could deal with the problem within the church.
In an interview with the New York Times, Woodson cried and called the standing ovation, of which there is video posted on the church’s YouTube page, “disgusting.” She said that she has since reported the molestation to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department, even though Texas’ statute of limitations may prevent the situation from ever being resolved.
“I just hope that by me coming forward that I would give courage to one other person,” Woodson explained to the Times. “It doesn’t matter if I was his only victim. What matters is that this was a big problem and continues to go on.”
Ana Valens is an LGBTQ reporter and essayist for the Daily Dot. Her work has previously appeared in Bitch, the Establishment, Vice's Waypoint, Rolling Stone's Glixel, and the Toast. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.