An Austin church placed one of its directors on leave in light of recent allegations that he attempted to conceal a 1998 sexual assault against a congregant.
Larry Cotton, director of Austin Stone Community Church (ASCC), was placed on leave after a blog post detailing pastor Andy Savage’s 1998 sexual assault against then 17-year-old Jules Woodson, according to Statesman. Woodson alleged in her account of the aftermath that Cotton, then associate pastor at Parkway Baptist Church, told her not to tell anyone about the assault after she reported it to him.
“In light of the seriousness of these accusations against Larry Cotton, we feel that due diligence is appropriate to ensure Larry’s qualification for his current role of leadership. In order to remove our potential bias from the situation, we have placed Larry on a leave of absence while an investigation by a third-party organization is undertaken. We will provide a full report to the church after its completion,” a statement from ASCC read.
Savage, according to his own admission and Woodson’s account, offered to drive Woodson home after a youth ministry event but instead drove her to a back road where he allegedly coerced her into performing oral sex. Savage was a youth minister for Parkway Baptist at the time and a college student, while Woodson was a high school senior. Savage begged Woodson to keep quiet about it and apologized profusely immediately after their sexual encounter, but Woodson said she summoned the courage to report the incident to church leadership.
The church’s head pastor was unavailable when Woodson went to report Savage’s actions, so she spoke to Cotton instead. She alleged that Cotton insinuated that she bore some of the blame for complying with Savage’s demand for oral sex by asking her “So you’re telling me you participated?”
Woodson also alleged that Cotton told her not to speak to anyone about the incident, and said the church would handle it. According to Woodson’s account, the church did nothing until she broke her silence and told her women’s discipleship group. The church then pulled Savage from ministry activities and announced to the congregation that he “made a poor decision and that it was time for him to move on from our church.”
Savage’s account of the aftermath, which he gave in response to the blog post that brought the incident into the public spotlight, differs from Woodson’s. Savage asserted that he “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. I resigned from ministry and moved back home to Memphis.”
“This incident was dealt with in Texas 20 years ago, but in the last few days has been presented to a wider audience. I was wrong and I accepted responsibility for my actions. I was sorry then and remain so today. Again, I sincerely ask for forgiveness from her and pray for God’s continued healing for everyone involved,” Savage added.
Savage, the co-founder of Highpoint Church, spoke about the incident to his church congregation on Jan. 7 with the aid of a written account that he prepared.
“I don’t want reading this to diminish anything. I’ve never wanted to diminish anything about what’s taken place,” Savage said before reading his account.
“I never sought to cover this up,” Savage added toward the end. “The counsel of those around me in leadership, and through resigning from my ministry, and me moving home seemed to provide appropriate space for each of us to heal among our respective families. 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.”
The congregation gave a standing ovation to Savage’s candid admission, his request for forgiveness, and his brief comments on sin, repentance, and God’s forgiveness.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, does not, however, share High Point congregation’s sentiments about Savage. Melanie Sakoda, a volunteer member of SNAP’s board of directors, said in a statement provided to The Daily Caller News Foundation that both Parkway Baptist and Highpoint’s respective responses to Woodson’s account are rife with red flags.
“But the church’s response is full of red flags that concern those of us who monitor the sexual abuse of minors in religious communities, and that should concern everyone who wants to see minors protected and perpetrators exposed and kept from harming other young people,” the statement read.
Skoda wrote that SNAP took issue with Parkway Baptist for not taking action regarding Savage until Woodson spoke to her women’s group, and lambasted Highpoint for choosing to stand by Savage despite the church leadership’s knowledge of his sexual incident with Woodson.
“To echo Oprah Winfrey in her recent Golden Globes speech, time is now up for this kind of behavior on the part of leaders of religious groups. Time is up on the refusal of church leaders to pay serious attention to those who report sexual abuse by church workers. Time is up on covering up that sexual abuse, and transferring abusive church leaders to new positions where they can harm young people all over again,” the statement added.
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