Monday, the New York Times ran an article titled “Her evangelical megachurch was her world. Then her daughter said she was molested by a minister.”
The story talks about the Village Church, a megachurch in Dallas, Texas and the home church of Matt Chandler, one of the most popular and dynamic pastors in the contemporary Evangelical movement.
The story chronicles a former church member named Christi Bragg whose daughter was sexually assaulted at a church sponsored retreat in 2012. The New York Times piece gives accounts of how the Village Church responded to the allegations.
The article gives the impression that the church did very little to help the family and glossed over a crime while only carrying about protecting their own interests as a church.
It’s easy to believe that narrative, because we’ve seen it before. Scandals within churches are not new. It’s a tragic reality. Earlier this year, the Houston Chronicle ran a piece outlining hundreds of examples of sexual abuse allegations within the Southern Baptist Convention (the same denomination of the Village Church) since 1998. Other ministry leaders have recently been brought down by issues of sexual misconduct, such as Bill Hybels and Andy Savage. The Catholic Church has been rocked by a wave of scandals both internally and within the United States. Other popular ministries, such as Sovereign Grace have been embroiled sex abuse scandals.
All of these are tragic and terrible.
And because of all of these scandals, it made it easy to read about the Village and think “more of the same.”
Online, detractors are having a field day, pointing to the Village allegations as another example of hypocrisy in the church, another example of churches caring more about numbers than about people, etc, etc.
Some common ground
It’s terrible that a child was abused at a church camp event. It’s heartbreaking that this would happen with those given charge of the spiritual care of these kids. It’s terrible that a family was so destructively harmed by these actions.
More background information
Matt Tonne, a former children’s minister at the Village, was charged with the crime in January of this year.
While the alleged incident occurred in 2012, the victim did not come forward until February of 2018. (I’m not blaming her for waiting, I’m just establishing a timeline).
According to the Times, when this young woman originally came forward about her abuse, she did not name a suspect. Her mother promptly filed a police report and also contacted the church (who also reported the incident the day this was brought to their attention).
It was after a few weeks (June 2018) that Matt Tonne was named as a suspect.
There are other areas where the bias of the Times article comes through. They say “To this day, the Village denies he (Tonne) was fired because of a sexual abuse allegation.” But the church has also publicly acknowledge his name in conjunction with the allegation. And he wasn’t fired because of the allegation. He was fired for something he did before it was known to the church that he was suspected in a sexual assault.
Sifting through the stories
My point isn’t to weigh in on the allegations of sexual misconduct. The legal system is working through that matter.
But there are two sides to every story. And as I’ve researched this, I’ve tried to get a fuller context of the fallout of these allegations and how they were handled by the Village and reported in the New York Times.
There are some points that I think should be made.
The Times points out that Tonne was dismissed from the church for alcohol abuse issues. In the article, this gets painted as the church trying to bury the real reason that Tonne was being dismissed.
But the church had decided to dismiss Tonne for alcohol abuse on May 15, 2018, which was before he had been named as the suspect in the sexual assault. This date is according to an email from the Village Church to its members in response to the Times story.
The Times article states:
By the beginning of June, the Braggs had shared with the Village Mr. Tonne’s name as the man they believed had molested their daughter, but thousands of church members still did not know an assault had even been alleged.
By this point, Tonne was already removed from a position of leadership. He was not initially named by the church because the case was still being investigated by law enforcement.
Many act as though the church tried to hide and cover up the story. That is simply untrue. They were public about what happened.
By the end of last summer, prosectors prepared to file a case. With the suspects name a matter of public record, the church made an official statement, which they posted on their Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as on the front page of their website on September 16, 2018.
From their statement, the Village said:
The Dallas County District Attorney filed charges in this case against a former employee of The Village Church, Matt Tonne, who was indicted by the Dallas County Grand Jury and is being prosecuted by the District Attorney’s office.
Matt Chandler also referenced the allegations and investigation from the pulpit on September 16, 2018. Although he did not name Tonne specifically in his remarks (but it was the same day that the church released an official statement). Chandler did state:
The investigation is regarding information that has come to light about the 2012 Mount Lebanon Kids Camp that The Village Church attended. The Cedar Hill Police department, under the direction of Detective Michael Hernandez, is investigating a report of sexual assault by an adult against a minor at that camp. Earlier this year, the minor came to a place where it was possible to verbalize the memory of what happened for the first time through ongoing therapy. Detective Hernandez has been investigating the case since that time.
On that same day, Chandler referenced a meeting with parents of kids who attended the same youth retreat where from which the sexual assault allegation arose. The church had a special meeting with parents of kids from the 2012 camp and the detective to inform them about what had occurred.
The Times article depicts the church as being bureaucratic and not making time to meet with the family of the victim. The story claims that it took church leaders three months to meet with the family. If that’s true, that’s certainly an issue and something the church cannot allow to happen.
But again, there are two sides to every story. The article implies the family wasn’t cared for, but they continued going to the church during this time. The church was clearly aware of the investigation. They were paying for counseling sessions (which the article mentions).
The Village Church claims that Matt Chandler emailed the family on multiple occasions and that another lead pastor was also directly involved in caring for this family.
When the Village released their 2018 statement where they acknowledge the assault, it included a statement from the family which said in part, “We ask for continued prayer for our church leaders who desire to serve us all so well. We clearly see they are just as heartbroken and angered over this as we are. They deeply care about our church body and desire justice and truth.”
At the time, they were still going to the Village. In the Times piece, it was an incident that happened this year that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Ms. Bragg. Addressing sexual assault victims, Chandler said “we see you.” The article says that Bragg “nearly vomited” and walked out of the sanctuary.
If they felt unseen during this ordeal, that’s very unfortunate. I’m not saying every aspect of this situation was perfectly handled by the leadership for the Village Church. I do believe that certain leaders in the church could have done more to connect with this family. Why that didn’t happen is still something I question. But I also don’t know the interactions of the church staff and the family. Perhaps they thought the actions they had taken as a church were helpful to the family.
Let’s keep the facts straight. The church contacted law enforcement when this issue was brought to their attention. The church did publicly name Tonne in connection with sexual assault. The church worked to get as many families who had students attending the 2012 camp together in an effort gather information and inform parents about the allegations. The church publicly acknowledged the investigation 8 and a half months before the New York Times reported on this story. The church took actions to care for the family, provided counseling, and assistance. The family issued a statement taking the church for their help.
Where’s the scandal? Where’s the cover up? Where’s the apathy to a sexual assault victim? From the beginning, it appears that the Village took these claims very seriously.
To act like nothing was done or like this scandal was brushed aside is absurd.
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Josh Benner has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has served churches in Minnesota and Illinois. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in St. Louis.