As the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) wrestles with its handling of sexual abuse claims and how to prevent future assaults, prominent evangelical pastor Matt Chandler is speaking out about a controversial case in his own congregation. Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in the Dallas area, stepped away from his sabbatical to speak at the denomination’s annual meeting this week in Birmingham, Alabama.
At the Baptist21 luncheon on Tuesday, Chandler admitted to being “an imperfect church with imperfect people” while adding, “I’m not sure what we could have done different.”
Background on The Village Church Controversy
The case Chandler referred to allegedly occurred at the church’s summer camp for children in 2012. Last year, Christi Bragg says her daughter recounted being molested there by Matthew Tonne, then the associate children’s minister at The Village. When Bragg shared that information with The Village Church, she says leaders offered prayer and free counseling but fell short in several other ways.
In an extensive interview with the New York Times, Bragg says the church stalled, withheld key information from the congregation, and seemed more concerned with protecting itself than with helping them or protecting other potential victims. Tonne, the alleged perpetrator, took a leave of absence for “personal” reasons, and then The Village Church let him go, saying it was because of “an alcohol abuse problem.”
Although Chandler eventually told the congregation an assault allegation had been raised, he didn’t mention Tonne by name, saying a police detective had asked him not to. “We did subsequently communicate the accused’s name when it became a matter of public record due to charges being filed and we were released to do so,” The Village said in a statement.
Tonne, who has denied the assault allegations, has been indicted on the charges. The church posted news of the indictment online but didn’t detail the charges against Tonne.
Victim’s Family Faults the Church’s Response
Bragg, who hadn’t been raised in a church, says The Village became a community for her family and was “our whole life.” Her “whole world” shattered, she says, when her daughter revealed what happened to her at camp. And then Bragg’s trust in the church shattered when leaders were “spiritually abusive” rather than supportive of her family.
When Bragg told The Village Church leaders about the abuse claim, one responded that it was impossible because employees had to follow The Village’s moral code. That code is part of a membership covenant that newcomers, including Bragg and her husband, sign when they join the congregation. Some people claim such a covenant serves mainly to protect a church legally.
New York Times reporter Elizabeth Dias also cites a potential conflict of interest regarding The Village’s use of MinistrySafe, an abuse prevention company. When Bragg sought help from MinistrySafe, she discovered that its leaders are also the church’s legal advisers. MinistrySafe founder Kimberlee Norris, a lawyer, says her job is “to prepare ministries,” not to work with individual victims.
Chandler Defends Response to “complex” Issue
Speaking at this week’s SBC meeting, Chandler says, is a way to ensure that the denomination’s efforts to address sexual abuse don’t “lose momentum.” He says, “My bloodline has sexual abuse in it. I’ve just seen the outright devastation, the generational devastation that that causes. And so because I have spoken so aggressively about this subject, I wanted to be able to come to talk about what we’ve learned and what happened.”
About the 2012 camp incident, Chandler says, “I was dealing with it not just as a pastor but as a dad. My oldest daughter was a cabin away from where this incident—this alleged incident—took place. We called a meeting with all the parents that we knew and could find.”
The pastor insists he showed up to the SBC event not “to save face” but because the issue of sexual abuse is serious and requires “courageous” actions. Calling the issue “far more complex than one would imagine,” Chandler says, “We just did the best we knew how to care for” the Braggs. “I’m still in introspective mode about what I might have done differently, about how we might have approached this differently,” he says, adding, “We just did the best we could.”