The Village Church, a large Southern Baptist church in Texas pastored by Matt Chandler, has announced it reached a settlement with a woman who had reported one of the church’s pastors sexually assaulted her when she was 11 years old.
But the conflict isn’t over. The church statement said, “We maintain and firmly believe that we committed no wrong,” and noted that the woman couldn’t positively identify that it was the church employee who abused her.
The woman’s family protested, saying in a statement that the church’s statement was “not fully truthful, transparent, or caring for the traumatized.” The family has left the church over the handling of the case.
“The attempt to communicate care in one sentence followed by language that invalidates and dismisses the merits of the victim’s claims is not the way to express care, compassion, and truth,” the family said. “And then we wonder why so many victims of trauma are leaving the church.”
The settlement comes in the context of Southern Baptist churches wrestling with how to respond to a report documenting extensive abuse in the denomination.
The civil lawsuit against The Village Church was filed under the name Jane Doe, but the mother, Christi Bragg, recounted the details of what happened to her daughter on the record to The New York Times in 2019. The girl reported to her mother the year before that back in 2012, a pastor at a church summer camp, Matthew Tonne, had touched her in her bed with her undergarments pulled down. The mother immediately filed a police report and reported the incident to the church. The church said it also immediately filed a police report. Tonne maintained his innocence.
The church fired the pastor shortly after the family’s report in 2018, but told the congregation it was over alcohol abuse. The church didn’t share publicly that Tonne, a children’s pastor, had been accused of sexual abuse until prosecutors indicted him over the incident in January 2019.
The family accused the church of negligence in its response, and sought $1 million in a lawsuit. It said the church had not helped the child process her abuse but paid for Tonne’s alcohol abuse treatment.
Chandler, who also leads the Acts 29 network of churches, addressed the case in an interview with Baptist 21 in June 2019 after the Times article came out. He insisted that the church had reported immediately and deferred to the family and detectives on everything, including not publicly naming Tonne as an abuse suspect. He said he dealt with the report as a father whose daughter was in a cabin nearby when the alleged abuse took place. But he also mentioned that Tonne, the accused, was “beloved” and had spent time ministering to his daughter.
“The Village Church and the name Matt Chandler in 200 years won’t mean jack squat,” said Chandler. “Yet what you and I can do in this moment of history that can be talked about in 200 years—that you and I would be serious about the protection of the most vulnerable…about not defending our institutions but doing convictional courageous leadership, doing what’s right even if it hurts.”
The church has used MinistrySafe as an outside organization to handle its abuse prevention policies and responses, but the Times reported that the Bragg family learned as the case developed that one of the leaders of MinistrySafe, Kimberlee Norris, was also a lawyer for the church. That meant a lawyer defending the church was also overseeing its accountability measures.
In 2020, Dallas County prosecutors dismissed criminal charges against Tonne, saying “the complainant cannot and has not positively identified [Tonne] as the person who committed this offense.” Tonne’s record was also expunged.
When prosecutors announced that decision, the victim’s attorney expressed shock, telling Star Local Media in Frisco, Texas that the woman was “ready to identify The Village Church children’s pastor Matthew Tonne—the same pastor who pleaded his 5th Amendment rights in his deposition given in our lawsuit—as her assailant.”
In its August statement announcing the settlement, the church brought up the prosecutors’ decision to drop charges, quoting prosecutors saying the woman couldn’t positively identify the pastor as the offender.
“Our client’s testimony regarding the assault and who committed it has never wavered,” Boz Tchividjian, one of the attorneys representing the woman, told CT. “It’s tragic that TVC never really seemed to grasp that. We are so grateful to our client for taking the profoundly difficult and brave step forward to bring darkness to light in this egregious matter.”
The church did not immediately respond to a request for comment to the family’s statement.
“We are an imperfect church,” Chandler said in 2019. “But when it comes to reporting as soon as we heard, taking our cues from the detective and the family, I’m not sure what we could have done different.”