Earlier this year, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, expelled a small church in Texas because its pastor was a known sex offender. This was the first action taken under the denomination’s new sex abuse protocols. But advocates say it isn’t enough to respond to the wave of complaints against evangelical pastors and churches in Texas and across the country.
Last year, in the midst of a host of complaints about sex abuse in the Catholic Church, one Evangelical family was saying “Us Too.” Christi Bragg and her family went to the New York Times seeking help after her daughter (now an adult) reported that a church associate children’s minister had sexually assaulted her at a church camp.
The Braggs attended one of the most popular Southern Baptist churches in the country, Village Church. While they were members, in 2012, the Braggs’ daughter, age 11 at the time, attended a summer camp hosted by the Village Church. She said she woke in her cabin to find her undergarments pulled down and youth minister Matthew Tonne sitting on her bed touching her. A light turned on in the bathroom nearby and the man left.
As a result of the abuse, the Braggs’ daughter suffered emotional trauma, nightmares, and depression. She had gone through hours of counseling and medical treatments. At one point she even considered suicide, but decided not to kill herself so her sisters would not find her dead.
The Braggs’ daughter first reported the incident to her mother in February 2018. She immediately filed a police report and alerted the church. However, neither the church nor the Southern Baptist denomination had clear rules for how to deal with sex abuse allegations. While the criminal investigation continued, Ms. Bragg fought to get the church to recognize what had happened to her daughter and their family, or even talk to her.
The Village Church and others within the Southern Baptist denomination, require their members to sign a Membership Covenant -- a contract promising to follow the rules of the church. The Membership Covenant the Braggs signed promised that they would “practice complete chastity” except within a heterosexual marriage, and “diligently strive for unity and peace within the church.” It also included a binding arbitration clause.
That clause said that members could not sue the church. Instead, they had to go through mediation and arbitration to resolve any disputes. But when the Braggs attempted to mediate their concerns, no pastors participated, and no resolution was reached. The Bragg daughter (now an adult) has filed a lawsuit despite the arbitration clause, but its outcome is uncertain.
In the meantime, the church had removed Mr. Tonne, not for sex abuse, but a claimed alcohol problem. According to the church, the problem had been resolved because Tonne was no longer an employee. He had been indicted and criminal charges were pending against him, but the church leaders did not even tell the congregation why.
The Braggs are far from alone in their struggle. In early 2019, the Houston Chronicle published an investigation naming 400 Southern Baptist leaders who had been accused of sexual misconduct or crimes against more than 700 victims since 1998. Still, sex abuse was seen as a Catholic problem. It was not until June 2019, at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, that the denomination finally addressed the problem in a concerted way.
With protestors and advocates picketing outside the venue, the denomination leaders passed two policy changes. They voted to create a centralized committee to evaluate allegations and amend their constitution to allow churches to be expelled if sex abuse allegations were substantiated (proven). The denomination’s president, J.D. Greear, called for the new committee to investigate 10 churches for how they had handled sex abuse allegations against them. Seven of those 10 churches were cleared within days.
But the policy was not entirely fruitless. In February 2020, one year after the Houston Chronicle report was published, church leaders voted to eject Ranchland Heights Baptist Church from the Souther Baptist Convention.
The church was removed after hiring pastor Phillip Rutledge. In 2003, before working for the church, Rutledge was convicted of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 11 and 12. As a result of that conviction, Rutledge is a lifelong registered sex offender. His status is publicly accessible on the Texas Department of Public Safety’s website. Local church officials had previously admitted that they knew of Rutledge’s conviction when they hired him. A church deacon said the leaders believed that God had forgiven him.
The church’s ejection was the first step in enforcing the Southern Baptist Convention’s new sex abuse policy. But victims’ advocates say it is not enough.
“I’m grateful to see this step being taken,” Rachael Denhollander, who advises the denomination in its sex abuse study group, said of Tuesday’s decision. “At the same time, this is only the smallest of first steps and the beginning of what is needed to make our churches places of safety and refuge.”
In fact, the denomination has taken the position it cannot even enforce employment standards against sex offenders. It says that because each member church is its own legal entity, the denomination does not hire or fire pastors. The denomination also refuses to disclose how many complaints the review committee has received, perpetuating the same culture of secrecy the Braggs fought against at the Village Church.
It is not enough for a single church to be removed because of a bad hiring decision. Church members turn to their pastors and their denominations for support during their darkest times. When those pastors are the ones committing the sex abuse against their church’s children, they and the denominations that support thm must be held accountable for their actions.
At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, we have a team of attorneys who know how to fight back against sex abuse and sexual harassment. Led by Attorney Adriana Alcalde, our sexual abuse attorneys will stand beside you, even against your church or denomination. We will work hard to help you navigate the courts, and any Membership Agreements, to make sure your family receives the justice you deserve. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.