Pastor admits to past 'sexual incident' with teen, gets standing ovation

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By Daniella Silva  with NBC News
Image: Andy Savage makes an apology during the Sunday, January 8th service,
Andy Savage makes an apology during the Sunday, January 8th service, 2018.   -   Copyright  Highpoint Church via YouTube

A pastor at a Tennessee megachurch received a standing ovation after admitting to a "sexual incident" with a high school student 20 years ago — days after a woman came forward to accuse him of sexual assault.

"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," Pastor Andy Savage told the congregation at Highpoint Church in Memphis on Sunday in a videostreamed online.

Savage's revelation came two days after Jules Woodsonwent public with her story in a blog postaccusing Savage of sexually assaulting her when she was 17 and he was a 22-year-old youth minister in Texas in 1998.

Woodson said in the post on a Christian blog that one night Savage offered to drive her home from church, but instead took her to a dirt road in an area surrounded by trees and had her perform oral sex on him.

"I was sexually assaulted by my youth minister when I was 17 years old," Woodsontold NBC affiliate WMC on Saturday. She said that she has struggled with the incident "all my life."

Woodson added she told church leaders about the incident, but that they did not contact authorities, did not tell her parents the extent of what happened, and allowed Savage to resign.

Image: Andy Savage makes an apology during the Sunday, January 8th service, 2018.
Andy Savage makes an apology during the Sunday, January 8th service, 2018. Highpoint Churchvia YouTube

Savage did not describe details of what happened during the service on Sunday, but said he had apologized to Woodson and "accepted full responsibility" for his actions.

"I apologized and sought forgiveness from her, her parents, her discipleship group, the church staff, and the church leadership, who informed the congregation," he said. Savage said he resigned from the ministry and moved back home to Memphis.

"I accepted full responsibility for my actions," he said. "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."

Savage added that "there has never been another situation remotely similar, before or after that occurrence."

"This incident was dealt with in Texas 20 years ago, but in the last few days it has been presented to a larger audience," he said. "I was wrong and I accepted responsibility for my actions."

Savage's admission was met with a standing ovation by the congregation.

Highpoint Church Administrative Pastor Jim Pritchard verified the statements from Savage and the church, as well as the video. He told NBC News that the church and Savage have no further comment but said the church will release a statement in the following days.

Woodson told WMC on Saturday that the pastor's apology was not enough. WMC reported that on Friday, Savage responded with the statement he read aloud in the church.

Image: Jules Woodson.
Jules Woodson. via WMC Action News 5

"His apology isn't enough because number one, he's lying about how he handled it," she said. "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."

Woodson said she was inspired to come forward by the global #MeToo movement against sexual harassment. In the blog post, Woodson is said to have emailed Savage on Dec. 1, asking him if remembered the night of the alleged sexual assault. Savage never replied, according to the blog post.

"It's very hard to tell your story. It's very hard to speak up, especially when you feel pressured by the church to be silent," she said.

"I want other victims of sexual abuse, especially within the church, to know that they're not alone and to know that they have a voice," she later added.

In the Sunday video, Highpoint Church lead pastor Chris Conlee prayed for Savage and Woodson and their families

Conlee said in a statement that the 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," he said in a statement posted to the church website. "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."

Christian publishing company Bethany House said in a tweetMonday afternoon that they had cancelled the publication of Savage's book, "The Ridiculously Good Marriage."

On Thursday night, Conlee said in a statement that Savage would take a leave of absence pending an audit.

The church was "engaging a qualified, independent, third party organization to do a full audit of our church processes and Andy's ministry," Conlee said.

"Further, it has been mutually agreed upon that Andy will take a leave of absence effective immediately," he said. "While this audit is being completed, we will continue to support Andy and his family."