$1 Million Lawsuit Cites ‘Willful Negligence’ in Village Church Abuse Case

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In June, during the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Birmingham Alabama, Matt Chandler took a break from a scheduled sabbatical to address sexual abuse allegations against a former member of his staff at the Village Church in Texas. At the time, Chandler said, “We just did the best we could,” when the allegations came to the attention of his staff. Now, the young woman who says she was assaulted is suing the church for more than $1 million in damages for what she believes is the “willfully negligent” stance the church took.

“No one has ever apologized to her, ‘Hey we are so sorry we failed to protect you.’ That is what has stuck with me this entire time,” Christi Bragg, the young woman’s mother, told the New York Times.

Young Woman Says She Was Assaulted by a Village Church Staffer at Children’s Camp

The young woman is choosing not to use her name in the case and is referred to as “Jane Doe One” in the lawsuit. The young woman and her family were members of the Village Church when she says she was molested by a children’s minister at a camp in 2012. At the time of the alleged assault, the young woman was 11. She did not tell her parents about the assault for six years. The lawsuit says “Jane Doe One found herself afraid, confused, and deeply traumatized by the assault.” 

The lawsuit links the young woman’s struggle with “severe depression” to the sexual assault. It goes on to describe the symptoms the young woman suffered:

Jane Doe One’s parents saw their energetic, funny, caring child slowly become withdrawn and angry. In addition to developing an eating disorder, Jane Doe One began to cut herself and conceal her injuries. She also began suffering from depression, nightmares, and chronic insomnia along with enduring suicidal ideations. The trauma Jane Doe One has experienced and continues to experience all began after the evening of June 21, 2012.

After six years of “suffering in silence while attempting to cope with this reprehensible violation to her body and her spirit,” including being medicated for depression, receiving counseling, and being hospitalized for suicidal thoughts, the young woman told her parents what happened to her. That was February 16, 2018. The next day, the Braggs reported the assault to the police and to Josh Patterson, an executive elder at the Village Church. The lawsuit makes it clear the Braggs did not mention the name of the person who allegedly assaulted their daughter at this initial disclosure to Patterson. 

The Family Says the Village Church Failed Them

The Braggs were told by Patterson that campus pastor Rex Cole would be reaching out to them to discuss the allegations. According to the Braggs, Cole did not reach out. Neither did Doug Stanley, the Senior Director of the Village Church and who was the next person Patterson said would be in contact with the Braggs. When Stanley didn’t initiate a conversation, the Braggs requested a meeting. The lawsuit states that Stanley “never inquired as to the identity of the perpetrator, even though he was aware that the assault occurred at Camp by an adult staff member wearing a t-shirt that identified him as representing [the church].” When the Braggs suggested that a staff member of The Village Church committed the assault, Stanley said the perpetrator “could never be one of our employees,” since TVC subscribed to “covenant membership.”

In May, when the Braggs met with The Village Church elder and staff member Brian Walck and his wife, Dawn, they told the couple the name of the man they believe molested their daughter: Matthew Tonne, who was serving as the church’s associate children’s minister at the time. 

Shortly afterward, Tonne was hospitalized “for an unknown reason” and was also placed on a leave of absence from the church shortly thereafter. Then, on June 15, 2018, the church sent an email to its members informing them Tonne had been removed from the staff due to “an alcohol abuse problem.” The lawsuit makes it clear the church only cited the alcohol problem at the time of Tonne’s firing and did not inform members of the assault allegations against Tonne.

The lawsuit states:

It wasn’t until three months later on September 16, 2018 that TVC Senior Pastor Matt Chandler made the first public announcement regarding the child sexual abuse that had been reported by Jane Doe One. Chandler’s communication did not identify Tonne as being the reported perpetrator. In that statement, Chandler stated that the church wanted to support Jane Doe One in “any way possible.” To this day, Patterson and Chandler have never personally reached out to Jane Doe One or her family. Chandler also stated that there were “no persons of interest in this investigation that have access to children at TVC Church. We would not let someone who is under investigation for a crime like this be near any of our children at TVC.” Chandler knowingly failed to inform the congregation that Tonne had worked with and had access to children at TVC Church for eleven years. Chandler also knowingly failed to inform the body that Tonne was allowed to resign while blaming the resignation on alcohol and receiving a severance package. To date, TVC has undertaken no independent efforts to ascertain whether Tonne abused any other children under its care and supervision.

The Village Church’s Statements on the Allegations

In a statement, the Village Church said they did not mention Tonne by name at that point because a police detective had asked them not to. However, they did use Tonne’s name “when it became a matter of public record due to charges being filed and we were released to do so.” 

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Megan Briggs
Megan Briggs is a writer and editor for ChurchLeaders.com. Her experience in ministry, an extensive amount of which was garnered overseas, gives her a unique perspective on the global church. She has the longsuffering and altruistic nature of foreign friends and missionaries to humbly thank for this experience. Megan is passionate about seeking and proclaiming the truth. When she’s not writing, Megan likes to explore God’s magnificent creation.