Texas megachurch pastor Matt Chandler stepped out of sabbatical Tuesday to speak at the annual Southern Baptist Convention in Alabama, where he responded to a report from The New York Times alleging his church mishandled a report of child sexual abuse.
While Chandler admitted he is imperfect, he argued The Village Church “did the best we could,” noting they were working hand-in-hand with local law enforcement. In retrospect, the pastor added, “I’m not sure what we could have done different.”
In a lengthy story published Monday, the Times detailed interviews with former Village members Christi Braggs and her husband, Matt, both of whom claim the church mishandled the firing of Matthew Tonne, whom they have accused of sexually abusing their daughter at a church camp in 2012, when she was 11 years old.
The Braggs’ daughter did not share any details of the encounter until last February.
Chandler didn’t disclose it was Tonne who was ultimately charged with sexual assault involving a minor in the church until this year. In an email sent to members Tuesday, the church claimed Chandler withheld the abuser’s name because “the lead police investigator (Detective Michael Hernandez) specifically asked us not to publicize the name because doing so would jeopardize the case.”
The senior pastor noted in September 2018, when he first acknowledged to the congregation the alleged abuse, that no “persons of interest” had access to children in the church at that time. It’s worth noting, however, that Tonne had, at the time of Chandler’s announcement, already been removed from his position.
Tonne was reportedly removed from leadership shortly after the Braggs revealed his name to church authorities. At the time, the church said he was dismissed due to an alcohol abuse problem.
“We fired him for alcohol abuse because you can’t be an associate children’s minister who continues to get drunk,” Chandler said Tuesday.
The Braggs family, who used to attend one of the Village’s several satellite campuses, explained to the Times they felt the church severely mishandled the entire ordeal.
“What we encountered … was a church that has made a conscious choice to protect itself rather than reflect the Jesus it claims to follow,” Braggs wrote in a letter to the pastor of the Southlake campus. “It’s a terribly sad joke. We followed the rules. We followed the bylaws. We have no clue where to go from here.”
Attorneys Boz Tchividjian and Mitch Little, who are now representing the Braggs’ daughter, told the Times their clients plan to move forward with litigation against the Dallas megachurch to hold the leaders “accountable for the sexual trauma inflicted upon her as a child by an adult employee.”
In his own statement Tuesday, Chandler rebuffed the criticisms of his church’s handling of the horrific episode. He said the church and the detective assigned to the case held a meeting with the parents of children who attended the 2012 camp where the alleged abuse took place.
“I was dealing with it not just as a pastor, but as a dad,” he revealed. “My oldest daughter was a cabin away from where this incident, alleged incident took place.”
The 44-year-old pastor said this week he is “desperate” for the Village to be a safe place for abuse victims.
“I’m not here to save face,” he said. “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. We’re not navigating it perfectly, but we’re doing the best we know how.”
This is not the first time the Village has faced criticism for its handling of sexual wrongdoing.
In 2015, the church made headlines when its leaders reportedly sought to discipline a wife for seeking to annul her marriage to a man who was found to have been viewing child pornography.
Jordan and Karen Root were actively involved in missionary work when the revelations about Jordan’s struggle with child pornogaphy first surfaced. Soon thereafter, he began what the church characterized as a “process of walking in repentance.”
Karen Root — now Karen Hinkley — resigned from her leadership role in the church at the time and took steps to have her marriage to Jordan annulled. The Village, though, has a strict membership policy regarding marriage.
Matt Younger, one of the church’s pastors, reportedly sent a letter to Hinkley, writing that her now-former husband’s sexual wrongdoing “must have inflicted a great wound upon you, one that we cannot fully understand,” adding, “We desire to care for you and lead you in a manner that is worthy of the gospel.”
The letter went on to ask for forgiveness for any way in which the church’s leaders might have fallen short in their care for her, but continued: “We have been perplexed by your decision to file for an annulment of your marriage without first abiding by your covenant obligations to submit to the care and direction of your elders. … This decision violates your covenant with us — and places you under discipline.”
Hinkley ultimately issued a statement of her own, accusing church leaders of failing to fully understand the seriousness of consuming child pornography.
“The treatment of Jordan as the victim and me as the perpetrator by the leadership of the church is an appalling reversal that evidences priorities that are not in line with the Word of God,” she stated.
While Chandler did not specifically apologize for the way the church failed in its handling of this particular situation, the Texas minister did ask the congregation for forgiveness in 2015 for the ways church leaders “sinned” in their “discipline” of covenant members.
All of this comes at a time when the Southern Baptist Convention, of which the Village is a part, is coming to terms with the sexual abuse that has taken place over the years within the Christian denomination.
On Monday night, a panel of religious leaders hosted by the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission gathered to discuss ways the church should address sexual impropriety and abuse moving forward.
Evangelist and author Beth Moore, one of the panelists, said the SBC “is sick” and in need of help.
“What I want to say to my own family of Southern Baptists: our family is sick. We need help,” Moore said. “This is not conjecture. This is a proven fact. It has come forward. It is before our very eyes. And what will just kill us will be denial. We will never get healthy if we cannot get honest.”
“We have a very serious problem because we have this built-in disesteem for women, and it’s got to change,” the teacher added. “We’ve got to get down to the root of it, where we understand that this is being perpetuated.”