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Tennessee pastor apologizes for 'sexual incident' with teen

The Memphis, Tennessee, congregants broke into 25 seconds of applause after the pastor confessed to a 1998 "sexual incident" with a teenager and asked for their forgiveness.

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Eliott C. McLaughlin
AnneClaire Stapleton (CNN)
(CNN) — The Memphis, Tennessee, congregants broke into 25 seconds of applause after the pastor confessed to a 1998 "sexual incident" with a teenager and asked for their forgiveness.

Now 42, pastor Andy Savage of Highpoint Church was 22 at the time and a youth minister at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church outside Houston, Texas, when the incident with Jules Woodson occurred.

"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," he said during Sunday's service. "I apologized and sought forgiveness from her, her parents, her discipleship group, the church staff, and the church leadership, who informed the congregation. ... I took every step to respond in a biblical way."

He said he "deeply regret(s)" the pain he caused the family.

The encounter, which he said happened before he was engaged to his wife, Amanda, was "dealt with in Texas 20 years ago," he said without elaborating, "but in the last few days it has been presented to a wider audience."

He added, "In hindsight, I see that more could have been done for Jules. I am truly sorry more was not done. Until now, I did not know there was unfinished business with Jules. So today, I say, 'Jules, I am deeply sorry for my actions 20 years ago. I remain committed to cooperate with you toward forgiveness and healing. And I mean that.'"

In a YouTube video of the sermon, several congregants on the front row can be seen standing up amid the applause. Lead pastor Chris Conlee then leads the church in prayer.

"Holy Spirit, would you take this prayer and right now as thousands of people are praying in agreement, in unison, would you touch Ms. Woodson's heart in a way that only you can and heal her of the pain that was caused from this sin 20 years ago?" Conlee said.

Asked her thoughts on Savage's apology, Woodson told CNN through victim advocate Amy Smith: "It was disgusting." Woodson declined to speak to CNN directly.

CNN does not normally name juveniles involved in sexual incidents, but Woodson identified herself in a blog post two days before Savage confessed to the congregation.

She went into far greater detail than the pastor.

'I was scared and embarrassed'

It was a spring evening in 1998 and Woodson, then a 17-year-old high school senior, was hanging out with Savage and other kids at the church in The Woodlands, Texas, she wrote.

After the other children left, it got dark and she found herself alone with Savage, who offered her a ride to her mother's house, she said.

"As he was driving me towards my home, he passed the turn he should have made to go to my house. I asked him where he was going. I don't remember his exact response," Woodson writes, but it was "something along the lines of 'you'll see,' or 'it's a surprise.'"

"I assumed we were going to get ice cream," she writes.

Savage turned down a dirt road and told her there were plans to build a church in the area, she wrote. At a dead end, he parked the truck, turned the headlights off, unzipped his jeans, exposed himself and requested oral sex, Woodson alleged.

"I was scared and embarrassed, but I did it. I remember feeling that this must mean that Andy loved me. He then asked me to unbutton my shirt. I did," she wrote, explaining that Savage began fondling her breasts.

After a few minutes, Savage stopped, got out of the truck and ran to her side of the vehicle, where he got on his knees and told her, "Oh my god, I'm so sorry. You can't tell anyone Jules, please. You have to take this to the grave with you," she wrote.

'You're telling me you participated?'

Angry, she nonetheless agreed to keep it a secret, she said, and he took her home.

"The secret quickly began to eat away at my soul. I couldn't concentrate at school," she said, and she decided she had no choice but to report Savage.

Woodson spoke to Larry Cotton, an associate pastor at the church, she said, and he replied, "So you're telling me you participated?"

"Every ounce of courage I had gathered, to walk in there and tell Larry the truth about what had happened to me, left in an instant," Woodson wrote.

Cotton told her not to tell anyone, she alleged, and over the next few days, she found herself frustrated to see Savage going about his church duties -- even leading a two-day event to promote abstinence -- as if nothing had happened. It drove her to share her story at a discipleship group, she said.

"I knew I had broken the rules of silence and that there would be consequences to my actions," she wrote.

Soon after, as rumors began to spread, the church held a going-away reception for Savage, "in which he was allowed to simply say that he had made a poor decision and that it was time for him to move on from our church," she wrote.

"I am a grown woman now and although it's been almost 20 years since everything happened, it still affects me to this day," she wrote. "There are triggers that take me back to that night, there are nightmares that haunt my dreams."

'It was wrong and unjust'

Woodson filed a report with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children last week, said Smith, her advocate.

On Tuesday, a case was opened and a detective from the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office interviewed Woodson, the department said in a statement.

The sheriff's office said it had worked with the local prosecutor, who researched the 1998 law and determined the statute of limitations had passed, based on the law at the time of the crime.

"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," said the statement released by Capt. Dan Zientek.

"As a result, we are unable to investigate and seek justice to the full extent of what we normally would in such a case," it said.

CNN could not immediately reach Cotton, who is now a pastor at Austin Stone Community Church in the Texas capital. The father of three has been placed on leave while a third party investigates, spokesman John Yeng said. Church leadership learned of the incident Saturday, Yeng said.

"We grieve for what happened to Jules Woodson," the Austin church said in a statement. "It was wrong and unjust; we cannot overly express our sadness for what this woman experienced in God's church. No person should ever be subject to sexual sin from any church leader."

Woodson said in her blog post that she spoke only to Cotton, but she believed that her account was relayed to Steve Bradley, another pastor at The Woodlands in 1998.

The Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church is now known as Stonebridge Church, where Bradley is a senior pastor. In a statement Wednesday to CNN affiliate KPRC, he said, in part:

"This happened twenty years ago and to suggest that I or anyone else on the staff at Stonebridge Church participated in a conspiracy to cover-up this sexual misconduct is simply not accurate. After Andy Savage confessed and asked for forgiveness from the victim, her parents, her discipleship group, and the Church staff, he was terminated. We were heartbroken twenty years ago when this happened and we remain heartbroken for Jules, her family and all those impacted."

Church stands by Savage

In a statement on Highpoint Church's website, Savage repeated much of what he told the congregation on Sunday and said that he told lead pastor Chris Conlee about the incident before joining the Highpoint staff.

Conlee issued a statement saying church leadership stood by Savage and that he had confidence in the "redemptive process Andy went through under his leadership in Texas."

"(F)or more than 16 years, I have watched Andy strive to live a godly life and proactively share what he has learned to help others," he wrote. "I want to affirm that we are 100% committed to Andy, Amanda, and their family and his continued ministry at Highpoint Church."

Responding to questions for Conlee, church administrator Jimmy Pritchard emailed CNN to say, "We have no further information. We do anticipate having something in the next day or so."

The Christian publishing house Bethany House was not as magnanimous, issuing a statement that said it had canceled publication of Savage's book, "The Ridiculously Good Marriage."

"It may remain on various retail web sites for a short time until those sites update," the publisher said.

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