Pastor Matt Chandler of The Village Church in Texas is standing by his church’s response to recent allegations from former members that the church mishandled the sexual abuse of their underage daughter by one of the church’s former pastors nearly seven years ago.
“We are an imperfect church with imperfect people,” Chandler said in a video clip shared with The Christian Post from the Baptist 21 luncheon held during a break in the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Birmingham, Alabama, Tuesday.
“I make mistakes. I am painfully aware of my limitations, of the weaknesses of the Village Church, of our failures. They are numerous. I don’t think I’m naïve to that. But when it comes to reporting as soon as we had heard, taking our cues from the detective and family, I’m not sure what we could have done different,” he added.
Chandler and his church could soon be facing a lawsuit after former Village Church members Christi Braggs and her husband, Matt, alleged in a report in The New York Times that fired Village Church children’s minister Matthew Tonne sexually abused their daughter when she was about 11 at a church camp in 2012.
The couple argue that The Village Church, which is a member of the SBC, responded to their concerns in a spiritually abusive manner and appeared more concerned about the reputation of the megachurch instead of their daughter.
The New York Times had reached out to Chandler about the allegations prior to the publication of the report but did not hear from the pastor.
During the luncheon on Tuesday, Chandler revealed that he decided to break a sabbatical to respond to the growing controversy partly because he did not want the efforts of the SBC to deal with its internal sexual abuse crisis to “lose momentum.”
“More than I want to interact with The New York Times article, I mean I’m here because I don’t want what we’re trying to do to lose momentum … 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,” he said.
Braggs told The New York Times that she was getting ready for a family weekend at a lake with friends in February 2018 when her daughter, who is now an adult, asked to talk to her alone.
Her daughter then recounted how six years earlier, while she was at the church camp she woke up in the girls’ room to some of her undergarments pulled down. A man, whom she did not name, was sitting on her bed, touching her. He left when a light went on in the bathroom.
Braggs, who revealed she is a sexual assault survivor, wasted no time in filing a police report and contacting The Village Church. Her daughter later identified Tonne as the man from her memories.
Chandler recounted how as soon as they were told about the situation in 2018, they got the police involved and held a meeting with all the parents of the children at the camp that they were able to locate.
“I was dealing with it not just as a pastor, but as a dad,” Chandler said. “My oldest daughter was a cabin away from where this incident, alleged incident took place.”
He said that how the church proceeded with revealing details regarding the incident was guided by the advice of the police investigating the case at the time.
He noted that a statement he shared with the church about the abuse allegations last September was also approved by the Bragg family.
“The statement that I read that morning was actually edited by the family. The family added several sentences about how they felt, loved and supported and cared for. This was not an incident that the media broke. This was an incident that we broke,” he explained.
“We took our cues from the detective and the family throughout the entire process. Even when it became clear they were dialing in on a former employee of The Village Church as the primary suspect, the detective asked us not to mention his name for fear it might obstruct the investigation,” he continued.
“I’ve seen some of the criticism of how we’ve operated here, the primary criticism seems to be that we should’ve released the name, but I’m not quite sure how that conversation was supposed to go,” Chandler added.
He further explained that while the church is still learning how to navigate how to deal with sensitive and complex issues like sexual abuse, he firmly believes “we just did the best we could.”
“I’m not here to save face. I’m here because I don’t want you to think we don’t need to be serious about these things. We should be courageous about these things,” Chandler said. “We’re not navigating it perfectly, but we’re doing the best we know how.”
Chandler also confirmed that the accused former children’s minister was fired for alcohol abuse months before he was indicted for sexual abuse “because you can’t be an associate children’s minister who continues to get drunk.”
While he did not say if Tonne’s firing had anything to do with the sexual abuse allegations, he said the members of his church were told of the firing on a need-to-know basis.
“The people that knew that we fired Matt Tonne for drunkenness were the men and women who volunteered at The Village Church in our kids ministry. He was beloved, he worked there for 13 years. Gosh, I’ve got a 1-hour audio clip of Matt Tonne talking with my daughter before her baptism. Drawing out of her her belief in Christ,” he said, appearing emotional at times.
“He was a beloved man and so I wanted to meet with those volunteers and say here’s what’s happened,” he said.
He explained that as soon as they were made aware Tonne was indicted for sexual abuse, however, they made that information public.
When asked if there is anything he would have done differently he said he was still introspecting and he wasn’t sure because, until recently, the Braggs had been communicating with church staff that they were doing a good job with providing care.