An Evangelical Megachurch Is Sued for More Than $1 Million in Child Sexual Abuse Case

The New York Times/July 26, 2019

By Elizabeth Dias

A woman who said she was sexually abused as a child by a pastor at one of the country’s most prominent evangelical megachurches sued the church on Friday, alleging gross negligence and seeking more than $1 million in damages.

The case against the Village Church — which is based in Flower Mound, Tex., outside Dallas, and is led by Matt Chandler — is perhaps the most high-profile current lawsuit alleging child sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention. It comes as the largest Protestant denomination in the United States has vowed to address widespread sexual abuse in its congregations.

The suit alleges that the church was “willfully negligent” in its failure to protect a child in its care from being sexually assaulted. It also says the church is liable for the actions of the pastor, who was removed from the staff last year. The woman is seeking damages after she says the abuse caused emotional distress, including an ongoing struggle with depression.

“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,” said Christi Bragg, the young woman’s mother.

Matthew Tonne, the former children’s minister, was indicted by a grand jury in November and arrested in January on charges of sexually molesting Ms. Bragg’s daughter in 2012, when she was 11. Mr. Tonne, whose lawyer has said his client had been falsely accused, faces a forthcoming criminal trial.

The family said the Village has failed to provide them with sufficient answers and support since they told church leaders about the abuse in February 2018.

The Village has “not yet to date demonstrated a good faith desire to resolve this,” said Boz Tchividjian, a lawyer representing the young woman, who is now 18. “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.”

Mr. Chandler and a lawyer for the Village, Dustin Gaines, did not respond to requests for comment after the suit was filed.

The suit outlines an extensive timeline of events, first reported in an investigation by The New York Times last month.

Christi Bragg with her daughter, now 18, who alleges that she was sexually abused by the former children’s minister of the Village Church when she was 11.CreditAnnie Flanagan for The New York Times
The suit states the Mr. Tonne was able to access and abuse the plaintiff at a Village summer camp for children 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 says. On the night of the alleged assault, the suit says that Mr. Tonne met with other adults right outside the girls’ room, giving him the opportunity to enter her room and sexually violate her.

The suit also alleges that the church was not forthcoming to the young woman and the congregation about the reason Mr. Tonne was removed from its staff last year.

The Village has stated repeatedly that Mr. Tonne was removed for alcohol abuse, rather than because of the criminal investigation into whether he had sexually abused a child. When church officials decided to remove him, Mr. Chandler told congregants last month, “we had not been informed that he was the accused.”

But the lawsuit states that the Braggs had told a Village staff member by then that Mr. Tonne was a suspect.

The suit alleges that the church has not taken “independent efforts to ascertain whether Tonne abused any other children under its care and supervision.” The Village has not stated publicly if it has conducted an independent investigation.

When the Southern Baptist Convention met in Alabama last month, the denomination created a committee to evaluate allegations against churches accused of mishandling abuse. Roger S. Oldham, a spokesman for the convention’s executive leadership, said that the committee’s first order of business was to elect a leader, which it did on Monday, and that it is “formulating a plan of action.”

Mr. Chandler briefly interrupted his summer sabbatical to address the Braggs’ allegations at the convention, and then at the Village in a sermon the following Sunday. He disputed that the church had mishandled the case, and stated that he had met with the Bragg family, which Ms. Bragg said was “simply not true.”

Since coming forward last month, the Bragg family said they have lost close friendships and that their daughter has been bullied. The day Mr. Chandler disputed their experience at the convention was “a day of trauma for us as a whole family,” Ms. Bragg said.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s top leaders, who promised last month to fix the way churches address sexual abuse, have not commented on the Braggs’ case.

The State of Texas protects churches and other charitable organizations from damages in lawsuits by capping their maximum liability at $500,000, according to a 1987 law. But 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.”

The lawsuit alleges that the damage cap does not apply because the church was “willfully negligent” in its failure to protect a child in its care from being sexually assaulted.

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