Waiting for The Village Church to Take Responsibility and Apologize for Child Sexual Abuse, Mother of Victim Says, “None Ever Came”
HURST, Tex. — Christi Bragg listened in disbelief. It was a Sunday in February, and her popular evangelical pastor, Matt Chandler, was preaching on the evil of leaders who sexually abuse those they are called to protect. But at the Village Church, he assured his listeners, victims of assault would be heard, and healed: “We see you.”
Ms. Bragg nearly vomited. She stood up and walked out.
Exactly one year before that day, on Feb. 17, 2018, Ms. Bragg and her husband, Matt, reported to the Village that their daughter, at about age 11, had been sexually abused at the church’s summer camp for children.
Since then, Matthew Tonne, who was the church’s associate children’s minister, had been investigated by the police, indicted and arrested on charges of sexually molesting Ms. Bragg’s daughter.
Ms. Bragg waited for church leaders to explain what had happened and thoroughly inform other families in the congregation. She waited for the Village to take responsibility and apologize. She waited to have even one conversation with Mr. Chandler, a leader she had long admired.
But none of that ever came.
“You can’t even take care of the family you know,” she remembered thinking as she walked out of the large auditorium. “Don’t tell more victims to come to you, because you’re just going to cause more hurt.”
Evangelical churches have long distanced themselves from the sexual abuse crisis that has consumed the Catholic Church. Many Southern Baptists have dismissed sexual abuse as a problem caused by “corrupt Hollywood” or “liberal theology.” But a reckoning has arrived.
Nearly 400 Southern Baptist leaders, from youth pastors to top ministers, have pleaded guilty or were convicted of sex crimes against more than 700 victims since 1998, according to a recent investigation by The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News. Superstar pastors like Bill Hybels and Andy Savage have been forced to resign over allegations of misconduct.
After years of resisting reform, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, promised that it would address the problem this week at its annual gathering of thousands of pastors. The denomination’s new president, J.D. Greear, has called for repentance for “a culture that has made abuse, cover-ups and evading accountability far too easy.”
At the Village, one of the most prominent Southern Baptist churches in the country and a bedrock of Texas evangelical culture, Ms. Bragg said leaders offered prayer. And at times she was grateful, and tried to respect their decisions.
But as months passed, she came to believe their instinct to protect the institution outweighed their care for her daughter or their interest in investigating the truth.
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[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Elizabeth Dias and originally published at The New York Times. Title changed by P&P.]