Pastor Matt Chandler’s The Village Church in Texas was hit last Friday with a lawsuit by former congregants seeking more than $1 million in damages for the alleged sexual abuse of their daughter at a church camp by a former minister in 2012 when she was 11.
The lawsuit comes just over a month 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.
In the lawsuit cited by The New York Times, it is alleged that The Village Church was “willfully negligent” in its failure to protect a child in its care from being sexually assaulted. It further argues that the church is liable for the Tonne’s actions which has cause an ongoing struggle with depression for his alleged victim.
The couple argue that The Village Church, which is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention which has sought to address the issue of sexual abuse among its ranks in recent months, responded to their concerns in a spiritually abusive manner and appeared more concerned about the reputation of the megachurch instead of their daughter.
“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, whose daughter is now 18 said.
Boz Tchividjian, a lawyer for the Bragg’s daughter, told The Times that The Village Church has "not yet to date demonstrated a good faith desire to resolve this.”
"We have provided ample opportunity and ample time for that. We have hit a brick wall, and at that point in time we had to make the difficult but necessary decision to press forward to filing the lawsuit,” he said.
The suit notes that Tonne was able to access and abuse the Braggs’ daughter at the 2012 summer camp because her cabin was also the location for some adult staff meetings. Both male and female adults were present at these meetings, in violation of the church’s own policies about people of the opposite sex in children’s cabins, the suit notes.
Tonne allegedly met with other adults right outside the girls’ room, giving him the opportunity to enter her room and sexually violate his victim on the night of the alleged attack.
Kent Rabbalais, The Village Church’s executive director, did not immediately respond to a request for comment when contacted by The Christian Post on Monday.
Speaking at the Baptist 21 luncheon held during a break in the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Birmingham, Alabama, last month, Chandler argued that the church handled the allegations as best as they could as soon as they found out in 2018.
He said 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.
The Times noted that while a 1987 Texas law protects churches and other charitable organizations from damages in lawsuits by capping their maximum liability at $500,000, the limit does not apply to acts that are “intentional, willfully negligent, or done with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of others.”