MEMPHIS, Tenn. (localmemphis.com) - Locally and across the country people are sounding off after megachurch pastor Andy Savage confessed to having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl while he was her youth pastor in Texas 20 years ago.
Savage, a teaching pastor at the popular Highpoint Church, admitted Friday that he "regretfully had a sexual incident with a female high school senior in the church."
On Sunday, he addressed members of the congregation. Taking to the stage, he could be seen in a Youtube video addressing the crowd, reading from a prepared statement.
"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.
Jules Woodson, the then-high school senior from the incident, described in detail to The Wartburg Watch, how Savage coerced her into performing oral sex on him while along a dirt road in Texas. She says he was supposed to have taken her straight home to her mother's house.
"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," wrote Woodson. "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."
That was when she says he asked her to perform oral sex on him. After about five minutes, she said Savage reacted in shock at the action.
"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," Woodson said.
Since Savage's admission to the congregation on Sunday, fallout has been swift.
His upcoming book, The Ridiculously Good Marriage, slated for release in July was pulled by its publisher.
In a statement on Twitter, the publisher said Tuesday, "Bethany House and Baker Publishing Group have cancelled publication of the Andy Savage book The Ridiculously Good Marriage. It may remain on various retail web sites for a short time until those sites update."
On Sunday, Highpoint Church Pastor Chris Conlee told the congregation he stands by Savage.
"I support him in great confidence," said Conlee.
Memphis activists say that move by the lead pastor is disheartening. Close to 1,000 people, including lawyer Betsy Weintraub, have signed an online petition calling for Savage's resignation.
"One of the consequences of sexually assaulting someone is that you can't be a pastor," said Betsy Weintraub. "Why would a church let him remain in that position? Bring him into the congregation, love him, forgive him, but don't put him in a position of authority in front of the church."
Local 24 reached out to Highpoint Church requesting an on-camera interview, asking if Savage would resign.
In a follow-up email, Administrative Pastor Jim Pritchard said, "Thank you for your request. There will be additional information from Andy and the church soon, but nothing more at this time."
A church sexual abuse survivor told Local 24 a number of people are watching how Highpoint Church responds in the coming days.
"The standard in our scriptures is a man of good character, and 20 years ago and Savage disqualified himself," said Kenny Stubblefield.
Stubblefield and others say they've signed the petition to send a message to church leaders.
"My prayer for Memphis is that people become more intellectually aware about who they put their trust in," said Stubblefield. "to see them stand up and applaud was sad to me, but it also confirmed in me how important this work is."
Stubblefield says he's committed to raising awareness about sexual assault and abuse in churches.