By Bob Smietana
Larry Cotton, director of an internship program at The Austin Stone Community Church, an influential megachurch in Austin, Texas, has resigned for failing to report sexual abuse at a church he served in the past.
While associate pastor at The Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church (now known as Stonebridge Church) in the mid-1990s, Cotton learned that a youth pastor on staff had sexual contact with high school girl named Jules Woodson.
Cotton arranged for Andy Savage, the youth pastor, to leave the church quietly. He did not report the incident to police and allegedly advised the victim to keep her accusations to herself.
Savage later went on to become a megachurch pastor in Memphis. He admitted his misconduct after the victim revealed it in a blog post earlier this year.
Cotton was suspended in January. He stepped down last week, saying he failed to protect Woodson.
“I now understand that I did not do enough to serve Jules and help her feel protected and cared for —I wish I had done more,” he said in his resignation letter.
“I understand that I failed to report the sexual abuse—I wish I had reported to the proper authorities. Even though it’s impossible, I wish I could go back in time and correct these mistakes.”
In a letter to the congregation, Austin Stone elders accepted Cotton’s resignation and said the church is reviewing its child safety procedures. Any abuse, they said, should be reported to the authorities.
“We continue to remain committed to ensuring the safety of victims and advocacy for individuals who have suffered abuse,” they wrote in the letter to the congregation.
“We strongly urge you to report to Child Protective Services or appropriate criminal authorities if you suspect the sexual abuse of a minor.”
Boz Tchividjian, founder of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), says churches should report alleged abuse to the police or other authorities.
Church leaders, he argues, don’t have the training needed to investigate the allegations. And they can’t be objective, says Tchividjian, a former child abuse prosecutor. They are tempted to focus on protecting the church’s reputation rather than safeguarding victims.
“It’s amazing how many survivors I encounter who say, ‘You know, the abuse was horrific, but what impacted my life even more was the failed response of the church,’” he told Chuch Law & Tax in 2015.
- LifeWay has a background check program to use with staff and volunteers.
- Church Mutual Insurance Company has resources for churches to use to protect children and teenagers.
- Q&A at Church Law & Tax on how to respond to accusations of abuse
- The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide for Churches and Ministries by Boz Tchividjian and Shira Berkovits
- Healthy Ways to Help Sexual Abuse Survivors in Your Church
- Child Abuse No Longer Most Common Reason for a Church Lawsuit
- 10 Best Practices for a Safe Children’s Ministry
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.