Andy Savage, the embattled Memphis megachurch pastor accused of sexually assaulting a teenager 20 years ago, said Thursday the “physical moment” was consensual and that he is taking a leave of absence while an independent third party audits his ministry.
In a radio interview Thursday with conservative talk radio host Ben Ferguson, Savage gave his version of what happened with Jules Woodson in a truck parked in a wooded area on a dirt road in 1998.
He was her youth pastor at a suburban Houston church at the time. She was 17.
“The atmosphere was very flirtatious,” Savage said, according to LocalMemphis.com. “That flirtatious environment continued to move forward, which led to us making out, some heavy petting.
“It was a very mutual, spontaneous, physical moment and our hormones were obviously very much in that moment and she performed oral sex.”
In a blog post last week Woodson said Savage, who is now teaching pastor at Highpoint Church, had her perform oral sex on him and touched her breasts that night, after which he apologized and begged her not to tell anyone.
She said she took her accusations to the church’s leaders, but police were never called.
Savage told Ferguson that the day after the incident he made a “partial confession” to Woodlands Park Baptist Church Associate Pastor Larry Cotton, telling him only that he had kissed Woodson.
Earlier this week Cotton’s current church in Austin placed him on a leave of absence while a third party examines his role in what happened.
Though he felt out of bounds in terms of his personal standards of sexual purity, Savage said he does not believe he broke the law. He said Woodson was of legal age at the time under Texas law.
The current age of consent in Texas is 17 but it’s unclear what it was in 1998, reported the Commercial Appeal in Memphis.
Woodson filed a report with authorities in Texas this week. The Montgomery County Precinct 3 Constable’s office said the statue of limitations has passed and no charges will be filed against Savage.
“Using the current statute, we would have some possible options, but we are limited to the law as it was at the time of the offense in 1998,” Capt. Dan Zientek said in a statement this week, according to KTRK in Houston.
“As a result, we are unable to investigate and seek justice to the full extent of what would we normally would in such a case.”
Woodson’s spokesperson, Amy Smith, told Local Memphis that what she heard from Savage during Thursday’s radio interview was victim-blaming.
“I heard snickering and laughing and that made me sick, listening to him,” Smith said.
“That entire radio show was a total re-victimization, pointing the blame on a then teenage girl who he said was a willing participant. He was an adult and he was a pastor and he was in a place of trust.”
Woodson graphically shared her story last week with The Wartburg Watch, a site started by two Christian women who pursued their faith but saw “disturbing trends within Christendom.”
After that, Savage went on social media to say he “had a sexual incident with a female high school senior” when he was a college student working for a Texas Baptist church now known as StoneBridge.
Savage said he responded in a “biblical way.” He said he had apologized to Woodson immediately and asked for her forgiveness, Fox 13 in Memphis reported.
During his remarks to his church on Sunday, Savage said he had sinned and had not kept the incident a secret from Highpoint’s leaders. He also said he believed the episode had been “dealt with in Texas.”
“Until now, I did not know there was unfinished business with Jules,” he said. “Jules, I am deeply sorry for my actions 20 years ago. I remain committed to cooperate with you toward forgiveness and healing.”
Church members applauded his remarks and gave him a standing ovation.
Savage told Ferguson on Thursday that he was “honest and transparent” with Highpoint’s leaders when he took the job there. He said he offered his resignation on Sunday before addressing the congregation.
The church’s leadership are standing with him.
“Please know that we support Andy as a leader of our church, but we also understand this has been a difficult season not only for Andy and his family, but for our congregation as well,” Highpoint lead pastor Chris Conlee said in a statement Thursday night.
“We want to maintain trust in both Andy and our church leadership that we are not only doing things right, but we are doing right things. To that end, we are engaging a qualified, independent, third party organization to do a full audit of our church processes and Andy's ministry.
“Further, it has been mutually agreed upon that Andy will take a leave of absence effective immediately. While this audit is being completed, we will continue to support Andy and his family. Please continue to pray for all involved.”
Fallout from the case has come quickly. Earlier this week Christian publishing company Bethany House canceled the July publication of Savage’s book “The Ridiculously Good Marriage.”