MEMPHIS, Tenn. (USA Today) — A pastor accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl in Texas 20 years ago resigned Tuesday (March 20) from his ministerial post at a Memphis megachurch.
The resignation of Andy Savage, teaching pastor at Highpoint Church and part of the church’s senior leadership team, follows a leave of absence and lengthy investigation by Scott Fredricks, a Fort Worth lawyer whose specialties include assisting churches with child-abuse investigations.
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Savage’s fall culminates more than two months of accusations and soul-searching over a case that became symbolic of the #churchtoo offshoot of the #metoo movement.
While the investigation found no other instances of abuse, “the leadership team at Highpoint Church agrees that Andy’s resignation is appropriate,” officials at the nondenominational church with campuses in Memphis and suburban Collierville, Tenn., announced in a statement.
The church’s statement is the first time its leadership has termed the encounter involving Savage as “abuse.”
Jules Woodson, the woman who accused Savage, said she was “trying to process” the news Tuesday afternoon and would have a statement soon.
In addition to the letter from church leaders, Savage posted a personal letter on the church website Tuesday.
Your passionate opinions on this important matter have truly helped me to gain perspective that I simply could not have achieved on my own. I have come to understand Jules’ vantage point better, and to appreciate the courage it took for her to speak up.
While Jules cried out for justice, I carelessly turned the topic to my own story of moral change, as if getting my own life in order should help to make up for what she went through and continues to go through.
Savage did not offer specifics about what his next steps would be but said he would “step away from ministry in order to do everything I can to right the wrongs of the past.”
In its letter, church leadership said it had come to recognize “that it was defensive rather than empathetic in its initial reaction to Ms. Jules Woodson’s communication concerning the abuse she experienced.”
Church leadership and members received national criticism over a video that showed Savage getting a standing ovation from the congregation after discussing the case.
The church said it “humbly commits” to develop a deeper understanding of an appropriate and compassionate response to abuse victims. The statement also urged anyone with suspicions of child abuse to report them to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services or local law enforcement.
Woodson was a 17-year-old high school senior in 1998 at the time of the alleged assault involving Savage. He was her 22-year-old youth pastor at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church in Spring, Texas, a Houston suburb.
In January when the encounter came to light on the Wartburg Watch website, Woodson said Savage took her to a secluded area when he was supposed to be driving her home from church. She said he asked her to perform oral sex but then changed his mind and asked her not to say anything.
In a radio interview shortly after that, Savage said he remembered the moment as a spontaneous and consensual situation.
Another pastor at Woodlands Parkway who was involved in the incident resigned in February from his post at an Austin, Texas, church after an investigation similar to Savage’s.
Larry Cotton, the pastor Woodson told about the abuse, resigned from the Austin Stone Community Church in February. Cotton said in a letter to church members that he decided to step down from his ministry leadership position after coming to understand “the weight of my mistakes.”
“I now understand that I did not do enough to serve Jules and help her feel protected and cared for,” Cotton wrote in his letter. “I understand that I failed to report sexual abuse. I wish I had reported to the proper authorities.”
Savage left the Texas church quietly after the incident, returning home to Memphis, where he worked at Germantown Baptist Church and eventually took the post at Highpoint. Leaders at Highpoint were aware of the Texas incident when they hired Savage.
In a New York Times video published earlier this month, Woodson said she looked up to Savage and trusted him before the 1998 encounter. Afterward, she said, church leaders didn’t handle it properly.
“What happened was a crime,” Woodson said. “This is not something the church should handle internally. … We as a church, of all places, should be getting this right.”
Woodson contacted Texas authorities after the case was publicized in January, but they said the statute of limitations had expired. Texas law in effect at the time would have made charges difficult, anyway, they told her.
In addition to Fredricks’ investigation into Savage, Highpoint has retained MinistrySafe, also based in Fort Worth, to review the church’s child protection practices. MinistrySafe said its work would not begin until the Savage investigation concluded.