A Southern Baptist megachurch in Texas is facing a $1 million lawsuit from a woman who claims she was sexually abused as an 11-year-old while attending a church camp in 2012.
The woman, identified by the pseudonym Jane Doe One, accuses The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, of gross negligence in her alleged sexual assault by Matthew Tonne, a children’s pastor at the church for 11 years currently under arrest and charged with indecency with a child by contact.
The lawsuit says Tonne sexually assaulted the child on June 21, 2012, inside a cabin at the Mt. Lebanon Baptist Camp and Conference Center in Cedar Hill, Texas.
The girl did not immediately tell her parents and kept the secret for six years, all the while slipping into depression and thoughts of suicide. A trip to the emergency room after a rock-climbing fall in 2016 revealed cuts on her abdomen and thighs that had been self-inflicted.
While in psychiatric treatment for severe depression and anorexia, she made her first outcry statement about her sexual assault to her parents in February 2018. The following day they called the police and also reported to an executive pastor at The Village Church their daughter was sexually assaulted at a camp hosted by the church.
The lawsuit says the Doe family first disclosed to a Village staff member that Tonne was the alleged perpetrator on May 6, 2018. In a follow-up meeting May 9, another staff member expressed doubt that the perpetrator could be a church employee, because the church subscribes to “covenant membership.”
Three days after Doe’s mother inadvertently copied a church administrator on an email exchange discussing Tonne with a police detective, Tonne was hospitalized for an unknown reason. Church members were notified by email Tonne was on leave of absence, but church leaders didn’t say he was subject of a police investigation.
On June 15, 2018, The Village Church issued an email informing church members that Tonne had been removed for alcohol-related reasons. Even though they knew about the abuse allegations and pending criminal investigation, the lawsuit claims, church leadership “made the conscious decision not to share that with the church body, but instead communicated his removal solely for alcohol-related reasons.”
Three months later The Village Church’s senior pastor, Matt Chandler, made the first public announcement that police were investigating whether abuse occurred at the church camp six years earlier. Without identifying Tonne as the suspect, Chandler assured church members there were “no persons of interest in this investigation that have access to children” at The Village Church and “we would not let someone who is under investigation for a crime like this be near any of our children.”
The state of Texas indicted Tonne for sexual assault on Nov. 12, and he was arrested on Jan. 9.
“We anticipate and understand questions about why Matt Tonne left staff and whether this case had anything to do with his transition,” The Village Church said in a statement Jan. 17. “We removed Matt from The Village Church staff in June of 2018 for other reasons, and we communicated those specific issues to our staff, as well as to members and volunteers in his ministry department at that time.”
In June the New York Times ran a story about the incident, quoting the girl’s mother on the record by name. Christi Bragg told the reporter Elizabeth Dias that church leaders refused to accept responsibility or apologize for her daughter’s attack and seemed more interested in protecting the institution than seeking the truth.
Chandler, who declined to be interviewed for the New York Times report, interrupted a sabbatical to appear at a pastor’s luncheon during the June 11-12 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, and defend the church’s handling of the abuse allegations.
The Village Church has not commented publicly about the lawsuit, and an email to a church staff member July 30 seeking comment was not immediately acknowledged.
Tonne, 35, is reportedly out of jail on a $25,000 bond, and his lawyer says he is innocent.