In what is perhaps the most high-profile current lawsuit alleging child sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, a woman (who we will refer to as Jane Doe) alleges that she was sexually abused as a child by a pastor of the Village Church based in Flower Mound, Texas, and is currently suing the church for more than $1 million in damages. Her suit also alleging gross negligence on the part of the SBC.
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 states that the church is liable for the actions of the pastor, who was removed from the staff last year. Ms. Doe is seeking damages after she says the abuse caused emotional distress, including an ongoing struggle with depression.
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 only 11 years old. Mr. Tonne, whose lawyer has said his client had been falsely accused, faces a forthcoming criminal trial.
The family of Jane Doe has 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 Ms. Doe, 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.”
The suit states 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 states. On the night of the alleged assault, the suit states that Mr. Tonne met with other adults right outside Ms. Doe’s room, giving him the opportunity to enter her room and sexually violate her. The suit also alleges that the church was not forthcoming to Ms. Doe 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.” However, 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. 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.
Since 1987, the State of Texas protects churches and other charitable organizations from damages in lawsuits by capping their maximum liability at $500,000. However, 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.
If you or someone you know has experienced abuse from a member of the clergy, please reach out to the experienced attorneys at Forester Haynie.