Southern Baptist megachurch denies liability in sex abuse lawsuit

Matt Chandler’s Village Church denied any wrongdoing in its response to a $1 million lawsuit stemming from the alleged sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl at a church camp in 2012.

An attorney representing the Southern Baptist Convention megachurch in Flower Mound, Texas, said Aug. 23 his client “generally denies each and every allegation” in the lawsuit filed July 26 in Dallas County and “demands strict proof by a preponderance of the credible evidence.”

The lawsuit, filed using a pseudonym, seeks to hold the multi-site congregation with an average weekly attendance of 10,000 and annual budget of $20 million liable for alleged acts by Matt Tonne, a former children’s minister at Village Church who was arrested in January and charged with felony indecency with a child.

Matt Chandler

The suit claims that Chandler, the lead pastor at Village Church, downplayed the situation by not telling the congregation the allegations involved a former staffer. It also alleges that Chandler misled church members to believe that Tonne had resigned for alcohol-related reasons, rather than because the 11-year employee was being investigated by the police.

Chandler, president of the Acts 29 church-planting network and a leader in the New Calvinism movement labeled “young, restless and Reformed,” broke a sabbatical in June to travel to Birmingham, Alabama, and tell his side of the story at a pastor’s luncheon at the SBC annual meeting after a damaging story about his church appeared in The New York Times.

In addition to the general denial, the Village Church says it is not liable “for the intentional criminal acts” of an employee who was acting “outside of the course and scope” of his job description.

The church claims that ordering it to pay exemplary or punitive damages would “amount to a deprivation of property without due process,” abridging protections of the Fifth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It claims further that such an award would be “an excessive fine” violating the Eighth Amendment, best known for its ban on “cruel and unusual punishments.”

The Village Church is represented by Dustin Gaines, a trial lawyer who attended the Liberty University School of Law and served as editor-in-chief of the Liberty University Law Review.

Jane Doe One has two lawyers. One of them is Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian, a law professor at Liberty University and founder of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). A former prosecutor, Tchividjian is the third eldest grandchild of the late evangelist Billy Graham.

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