I mentioned earlier that the Southern Baptist Convention is going to take up the problem of sexual abuse in the denomination at its meeting this week. Elizabeth Dias of The New York Times has an infuriating story about how one Baptist megachurch in suburban Dallas handled — and failed to handle — a case of alleged abuse by a youth pastor. The church is The Village Church, in Flower Mound. Excerpts:
Christi Bragg listened in disbelief. It was a Sunday in February, and her popular evangelical pastor, Matt Chandler, was preaching on the evil of leaders who sexually abuse those they are called to protect. But at the Village Church, he assured his listeners, victims of assault would be heard, and healed: “We see you.”
Ms. Bragg nearly vomited. She stood up and walked out.
Exactly one year before that day, on Feb. 17, 2018, Ms. Bragg and her husband, Matt, reported to the Village that their daughter, at about age 11, had been sexually abused at the church’s summer camp for children.
Since then, Matthew Tonne, who was the church’s associate children’s minister, had been investigated by the police, indicted and arrested on charges of sexually molesting Ms. Bragg’s daughter.
Ms. Bragg waited for church leaders to explain what had happened and to thoroughly inform other families in the congregation. She waited for the Village to take responsibility and apologize. She waited to have even one conversation with Mr. Chandler, a leader she had long admired.
But none of that ever came.
“You can’t even take care of the family you know,” she remembered thinking as she walked out of the large auditorium. “Don’t tell more victims to come to you, because you’re just going to cause more hurt.”
As Evangelical writer Jake Meador points out on Twitter, the Village Church did a few things right, but the timeline is horrible. The Braggs discovered what so many victims and their families have discovered around the country: when it comes to sex abuse, church leadership often protects itself first, second, and third. From the NYT:
Unable to wait any longer to hear from church leaders, Ms. Bragg asked for a meeting with them. The first opportunity, the church said, would be several weeks away, three months after the family had reported the incident.
At the meeting, none of the church’s top three pastors were present. Ms. Bragg and her husband brought a list of 15 questions, asking about church policies and the camp. They received no clear answers.
Ms. Bragg raised the possibility that the perpetrator could have been someone from the Village. That was impossible, she recalled being told by Doug Stanley, a senior director at the church, because leaders followed the church’s moral code, enshrined in the membership covenant.
She turned to her husband as they walked out. “Thank God” for the police detective assigned to the case, she said. “If we were relying on our church to give us information, we’d be leaving empty-handed.”
Reading on in the story, about how Matt Chandler deceived the congregation about Tonne — again, all to protect the church’s leadership and reputation — is outrageous. There might have been other victims of Tonne in the congregation — not just kids who went to that camp — but Chandler kept Tonne’s name from the people of the church, even for months after Tonne had been indicted, and his name was in the public record.
Chandler’s September 2018 statement to the congregation was lawyerly:
“We want to clearly state that there are no persons of interest in this investigation that have access to children at the Village Church,” he said. “We would not let someone who is under investigation for a crime like this be near any of our children at T.V.C.”
Well, no — they had fired Tonne in June. Tonne didn’t have access any more — but he had access for six months after the alleged molestation occurred. Why didn’t the church’s leadership move heaven and earth to see if there were any more victims?
There’s more detailed information about this case at Watch Keep, a victims’ advocacy site. Note the timeline. They have screenshots of a 2018 social media posts from Tonne’s wife saying that her husband attempted suicide in May 2018. The NYT reports only that the Braggs shared Tonne’s name with the church’s leadership “by the beginning of June.”
Village Church’s pastor Matt Chandler announced to the congregation on June 15 that Tonne had been permanently removed because of alcohol abuse. Not the child sex abuse allegation, which the church’s leadership knew about and kept private, but alcohol abuse.
Was alcohol abuse a provable offense that the church could use to fire Tonne? Remember, Tonne has always denied, and continues to deny, the molestation allegation. They might have sought a reason to get him off the staff without setting themselves up for a wrongful dismissal lawsuit if the allegation turned out to be false. I can appreciate how difficult this was legally for the church prior to the indictment. They handled it badly in most ways, but it really is a difficult matter when a pastor has only been accused, and not in criminal or civil court.
But Tonne was indicted in November, and arrested on January 9, 2019. The church didn’t release his name to its congregation until January 20. I find it impossible to believe that the church’s leadership didn’t learn of Tonne’s indictment until he was arrested. The New York Times says that no one from the church would agree to an interview, so I guess we won’t know.
The whole thing is so, so familiar from the Catholic scandal: the institution tries to put forth a public face, especially to alleged victims and their families, of caring, while deep down it’s working to protect itself. And the culture within the church, according to the Times story, is one in which people used theological arguments to urge the Braggs not to go to the authorities or get a lawyer. Look at this:
The Village, like many other evangelical churches, uses a written membership agreement containing legal clauses that protect the institution. The Village’s agreement prohibits members from suing the church and instead requires mediation and then binding arbitration, legal processes that often happen in secret.
After writing about sexual abuse in churches for 18 years, I will repeat the lesson I learned from the first abuse story I wrote (Summer 2001, for the New York Post): in sex abuse cases involving a church, always get a lawyer.
And making the Bragg family wait like that to get the attention of the pastoral staff — especially the senior pastor — is unconscionable. If you’re too busy to meet for months with a family whose daughter says she was molested by a member of your staff, then brother, you are too damn busy building your megachurch empire, and you need to think about why you went into the ministry in the first place.
Here’s Jake Meador’s first comment:
Let’s say it again: If the American church is dying it’s because we bloody well deserve it. https://t.co/iWj19V1lVH
— Jake Meador (@jake_meador) June 10, 2019
UPDATE: Meador is somewhat less scandalized this morning:
I take his point, and yes, this case wasn’t nearly as bad as others that have made news in recent years. Matt Chandler and his team are light years away from Cardinal Law and his Archdiocese of Boston. Still, after all we have learned about this stuff since 2002, the idea that a family alleging child sexual abuse by a member of the pastoral staff has to fight for information, and gets shunted aside by a super-busy pastor who doesn’t have time to meet with them — it is wrong, wrong, wrong.
UPDATE.2: A reader writes:
Rod, I think that it behooves us all to be much more careful when we do not know the whole story. Full disclosure: I work at a large church in Dallas (not the Village), but have no particular ties to or fondness for Chandler or The Village Church. The New York Times article from yesterday, your TAC post this morning, and the church’s public online statement comprise the extent of my knowledge.
I primarily wish to point out that, if one reads between the lines of the NYT, parts of the story could be restated with a different slant to make TVC come out looking a lot better than the article would lead us to believe. First, reading the NYT article closely for a timeline (and it is difficult to draw out the timeline from the article), the church seems to have acted very quickly. Thus, when the Braggs family learned in February 2018 that their daughter was molested in 2012, and filed a police report immediately, so did the church. Neither the Braggs nor the church had made the connection with Tonne at that point. The Braggs family told TVC in June that they thought that Tonne was the man who had molested their daughter, and TVC put Tonne on administrative leave immediately and subsequently fired him (stated reason being for alcohol abuse) within two weeks – at the latest by June 15th, the date of Chandler’s email to the congregation, according to the NYT. This seems very fast. Even the NYT article states “Mr. Tonne’s defense lawyer, Sheridan Lewis, said recently that she had concerns about how the church had handled the case and that she was examining what appeared to be ‘a calculated decision’ by church leaders to remove him after a ‘less than cursory investigation.’”
Yes, it seems that the church leadership failed to make time for the family immediately and appropriately. If that was the case, that was absolute failure, and wholly inexcusable. However, right now we have only one side of the story. Proverbs 18:17 – “He who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”
You write “how Matt Chandler deceived the congregation about Tonne — again, all to protect the church’s leadership and reputation — is outrageous.” I assume you refer to Chandler not making public the abuse accusations against Tonne subsequent to his firing, but before his indictment. Your statement, Rod, does cannot take into account all the facts, because we do not know them, and I believe you should retract it. We don’t even know all of Chandler’s actions, let alone his motives. Perhaps Chandler was more concerned for actual justice – for all, including Tonne – when he did not make the allegations known until Tonne was indicted. Again, we can’t know unless Chandler speaks.
Perhaps there are reasons for not responding to interview requests that we do not know about either – and perhaps he is letting his name and reputation suffer, and that of TVC, (and it is undoubtedly the case that their reputations are suffering!, deservedly or not) not to protect church leadership, but for some other reason that we don’t know about. Again, Proverbs 18:17. It seems very unlikely that TVC or Chandler would remain entirely silent throughout the rest of the process, however long it will be (I don’t know when Tonne will go to trial) – but until we know more, we should refrain from condemnation.
Given that Tonne was indicted, we know that 12 jurors who heard the evidence against him concluded that there was probable cause to believe the he is guilty. The NYT wants to convince us that TVC and Chandler are also guilty. We on the outside do not have all the facts, especially about TVC and Chandler, and there’s probably no way of knowing them until the trial. It does no one any good, and potentially many people much harm, to rush to conclusions.
Thanks for this. Good stuff there. But I would repeat that the Village Church declined to answer detailed written questions put to them by the Times, and Chandler refused multiple interview requests. I can understand that there may be some things that the Church, and Chandler, cannot say legally. I see no good reason (there may be one, but I can’t see it) not to answer written questions, in writing. They could have lawyered them if they were worried. This is just Crisis Media Management 101. I advise everyone who is speaking to a journalist about controversial matters to either do it in writing, or record the interview and have a transcript ready to be published on the day the story appears, if you think you’ve been mistreated by the report.
What is just not acceptable is church authorities refusing to talk about it at all, and then complaining that the story wasn’t fair. I recently wrote in this space about how back in 2003 or so, a Dallas Morning News reporter contacted me in NYC to see if I could get Father Benedict Groeschel to return his calls. He was working on a story about the role Groeschel and his institution played in treating and releasing back into ministry priests accused of sex abuse. Groeschel ignored the reporter’s repeated attempts to contact him to get his side of the story. The reporter went above and beyond the call of journalistic responsibility to give Groeschel a chance to give his side. Eventually the News published the story. Groeschel responded with a completely dishonest statement accusing the reporter of anti-Catholic bias.
Chandler et alia haven’t done that, I want to be clear. But if you know that a big story is coming, and if a media outlet like the Times gives you the chance to offer your side of it, however hamstrung you might be by legal considerations, you need to do your best to respond. Protect yourself by doing it in writing, or recording the oral interview (make sure the reporter knows you are recording; if they are honest, they won’t mind), and releasing your own transcript in response to the interview, if you’ve been mistreated. Anything short of that is deeply problematic.
By the way, readers, don’t miss this excellent Terry Mattingly analysis of the Times piece, and the situation. He talks about the theological and ecclesiological roots of the Southern Baptist situation, as well as the legal and financial aspects of the case.