Tony Jones and Why the Documents Shouldn’t Have Been Needed

The following is a guest post by Shaney Lee.

Yesterday, R.L. Stollar released images of multiple documents that corroborate the story of Julie McMahon against her ex-husband, Emergent church leader Tony Jones. The documents corroborated, among other things, that Tony tried to gaslight Julie into believing she was mentally ill, that he physically injured her, and that the children’s version of the events backed up Julie’s side, not Tony’s. In a world where spiritual leaders all too often get away with their version of events simply because of their status as leaders, I’m glad to see an abusive leader getting called out clearly and with a sense of finality.

Since the documents have been released, many who have either sided with Tony or been “neutral” have since decided that they support Julie. And while I’m glad that Tony’s base of support is getting smaller and smaller, I’m also very frustrated. To put it bluntly: there should have never been a need to release the documents.

Here’s why:

1. Our default should be to believe the victims

This is something that was emphasized in the Twitter teach-in #NotMyProgressiveSanctuary. To put it simply, the first thing anyone can do to support victims of abuse is to simply believe them. Not after seeing evidence. Not after doing your own “investigation.” Not until someone you trust does their investigation—but right from the moment you hear the accusations.

There is no such thing as “neutrality” when allegations of abuse happen. You get two choices: You can support the alleged abuser (whether actively or passively), or you can support the alleged victim. You may think you are being neutral, but really what you are doing is supporting the status quo, where the abuser has the power and the victim does not. A reaction of non-support tells the victim, “I do not believe you,” even if that’s not what you’re actually trying to say.

Put another way: Either you get to say the alleged abuser is innocent until proven guilty, or you get to say the alleged victim is innocent until proven guilty. There is no third way here.

If you choose to always believe victims, you will be right over 90% of the time (number differ depending on type of abuse, but all hover around only 2-8% of allegations being false). False allegations are very rare. And if it turns out you did believe false allegations? You did the right thing by the many victims you know. Every response to abuse allegations sends a message to all the other victims watching you. One choice says you’re on the side of power and the status quo. The other says you’re willing to take a stand against evil.

The choice is not hard. Believing victims should always be the default.

2. Abusive patterns are easy to recognize

If you’re completely new to learning about abuse dynamics, the patterns will not be apparent at first, so I don’t mean to shame anyone who doesn’t yet recognize them. However, for anyone who has either experienced abuse or worked with victims, the patterns of an abuser/victim relationship are clear and easy to recognize. Gaslighting, deflecting, signs of trauma, imbalanced power dynamics, etc., continue to be present in case after case after case.

In this case, there were many abuse survivors and advocates who noticed the patterns long before the documents came out. They spoke up. They were not listened to. They should have been heard, especially by those who have little to no practical experience with abuse dynamics.

3. Most victims don’t have concrete evidence

There is this myth that a “true victim” should be able to prove their allegations. Julie McMahon was lucky in this particular case. Most victims will not have the same documentation of their abuse. In fact, most victims will have little to no documentation. This is often deliberate on the part of abusers. They isolate their victims from their friends and from professionals who could help, they control where their victims go and when, they read their e-mail and check their bank accounts.

Even if they could get help, many victims live in fear of their abusers and don’t seek out help in order to avoid making things worse for themselves.

If we only believe those victims that have evidence that proves their allegations, we will never believe the vast majority of victims. 

As a side note: Even if their is evidence, most people will either misinterpret it or refuse to believe it anyway. A great example of this is people who use documented mental disorders to discredit victims, even though mental trauma is actually a sign of abuse (and even if the mental issues aren’t related to trauma, people with disabilities experience higher rates of abuse.)

4. Asking for evidence is about you, not about the victim

One of the things that frustrates me about the current state of our society is we focus more on bringing justice to abusers, rather than focusing on the well-being of abuse survivors. While those two things do not have to be in conflict, they often are. Asking to see documentation is one such area.

While the desire of the outsider to the situation may be to want to know the facts so they can hold an abuser accountable, asking for a victim to provide evidence can often be re-traumatizing. Victims may wish for privacy, and instead have all the details about their life laid out for the public to nitpick. When the patterns of an abusive relationship are already present, pushing for more evidence just goes to show that we give more benefit of the doubt to those in power, rather than being willing to stand up for the marginalized.

To learn more about abuse dynamics and how to be a safe person for the survivors your know, check out A Cry for Justice and Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. Both are conservative Christian organizations, but they do some of the best work I’ve seen in practically explaining abuse dynamics, and really nail the intersection of church and the needs of survivors. You can also send me an e-mail at or tweet @ShaneyIrene. I’m always willing to discuss these issues.

Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

24 thoughts on “Tony Jones and Why the Documents Shouldn’t Have Been Needed

  1. I find this a very helpful post — thank you for writing it, Shaney, and for hosting it, Ryan.

    Back in 2009-2010, it wasn’t just Julie who wasn’t being heard … there were also other abuse survivor bloggers who got it about the patterns of abuse, who questioned the people in power, who poked around the “winners’ narrative” that was dominating the storying space. I am not saying that their rejection was at all on the same level as Julie experienced. Just making the point that, in order to shut up Julie as the primary person involved, the secondary people who believed her and tried to provide her with advocacy and support also had to be shut down.

    And now, some of the secondary “pyramid of proxy” people to those who held the position of power are realizing how they got used to silence Julie directly and/or indirectly. Now how will they seek to make things right for what happened in the past? And how will they revamp their paradigm and practices for going forward in a healthier way for the Kingdom?

  2. Shaney, thanks for putting into words what many of us are feeling. Having been very intimately involved in several situations where intensely person documents had to be disclosed online before anyone would give credibility to the victims, I wholeheartedly believe that it’s agonizing for all and shouldn’t be necessary. But it will always end up being necessary until those with authority–and those who trust authority implicitly because they are either followers are peers–grasp that ALL victims should be given a safe space to tell their stories, that silencing always does more harm than good to everyone involved, and that victims must be given the benefit of the doubt and a fair chance at justice. What happened in this case was entirely the opposite and it revealed a lot of ugly truths about a lot of very public Christian thought-leaders because of it. If one alleged victim is treated poorly, all victims are treated poorly. There are no special-treatment cases. No “well, I was only talking about *her* and not YOU.” No. To victims, they are all deeply related. It’s just the reality here and the sooner people listen and recognize that, the better off the church will be.

  3. Oh, my god. Thank you for writing this, Shaney. You concisely encapsulate the pertinent information regarding this issue, and you also provide a handy reference for the mind-boggling number of arguments I’ve had with people over the last several months. Ever since Julie first told her story on David Hayward’s blog this past September, I have had the same discussion on a nearly constant loop concerning the exact dynamics you describe. I will be sending people to this post in future. It’s a great service to victims everywhere.

  4. As someone whose family suffered dearly as a direct result of allegations of false abuse, I would ask you to reconsider #1. I think the default posture should absolutely be to listen (which includes providing the space conversation), to show compassion, and to show empathy where it exists.

    False allegations can make victims out of falsely accused people and families, which while not your intent, will be an inevitable outcome of your approach.

    1. Absolutely. Even if 90% of victims are right, it is absolutely unfair to destroy the lives of the falsely accused. Too many of the accused have lost jobs, families, and futures even though they have ultimately been vindicated. If one side is innocent until proven guilty then so is the other. The only honest approach is to keep an open mind and carefully gather the evidence. Without a rush to judgement and with a true examination of ALL the evidence, 99% of cases can be judged with a very high degree of certainty even though much of the evidence is circumstantial. The errors creep in because one side or the other is willing to overlook evidence or confirming indicators that do not bolster their case.

    2. anonymous, my heart goes out to all those who have suffered under false allegations of abuse. It is a genuine tragedy.

      But in a world where 92% to 98% of abuse allegations are genuine, it is a reasonable “default” (that is, an initial reaction) to believe the survivor’s allegations. Particularly in a world that tends to react to allegations of abuse by silencing the alleged survivor.

      Personally, I wouldn’t advise anyone to accept abuse allegations uncritically, or to suspend judgement. We shouldn’t victimise innocent alleged abusers by condemning them unquestioningly. But we also need to be careful to not re-victimise survivors by demanding they “prove” their interactions with the alleged abuser.

      This calls for maturity, grace, and discernment, as well as the analysis of those familiar with abusive patterns.

    3. anon, It is always pertinent to look at the power dynamics in these situations. Those with power (especially public figures) always get the benefit of the doubt no matter which why the allegations go.

      Tony made false allegations, too. And he was believed by many in the Progressive/Emergent movement. Especially the leaders.

  5. This is a terrible post. All allegations MUST be supported by at least some evidence before destroying the life of the accused. I have personally known several people whose lives were destroyed by false allegations and trumped up charges. That 2-8% number is pure hogwash. As a nation founded on law & order, the innocence of both parties MUST be assumed. But innocence is not the same as trust. Just because someone claims something doesn’t mean we trust them. That’s stupid to say otherwise.

    For example, recently a race car driver, in a messy divorce, claimed that his wife is a trained assassin. Are we really going to believe his claims or shouldn’t we ask for some proof?

    And I say all this as someone who despises Tony Jones and largely believes Julie’s allegations.

    1. My apologies, I quoted that statistic without enough context, and without a reference – it was specifically in the context of false accusations of rape or sexual assault:

      “An analysis of research on false rape claims by Lisak, San Diego police Sgt. Joanne Archambault and Kimberly Lonesway at the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women put the figure somewhere between 2 and 8 percent.”

  6. Speaking to the issue of evidence (and to the main thrust of your piece), I read something interesting recently in Slavoj Zizek’s book “Less Than Zero” about the accounts given by people who have suffered from violence. Often, their testimony is fragmented, inconsistent and even contradictory, which often leads people not to believe them. But Zizek argues this actually counts as evidence in their favor because this is exactly the sort of testimony we should expect from someone who has suffered extreme emotional trauma.

  7. “For example, recently a race car driver, in a messy divorce, claimed that his wife is a trained assassin. Are we really going to believe his claims or shouldn’t we ask for some proof”

    Are you mapping that to the claim that Tony was telling people his wife was crazy and enlisted ministry cronies to help him get her committed? Are you saying that is a wild claim like the above? If so, you might want to reread the nakedpastor thread where people she has never met apologized for believing tony about her years ago.

    Tony has been a busy bee with his meme for years.

    You do realize there is often NO proof for accusations like pedophilia. There are no witnesses, either. So what do you do with such things? In fact, pedophiles are usually caught, if caught, after many victims because they reported it. A pattern has to emerge.

    I suggest you look at patterns and imbalance of power, here, too. NPD’s deal in chaos, boldness and make themselves appear as victims. I say look at long term patterns. Tony held all the power, the platform and the money yet he was the victim.

    1. Lydia, please re-read my WHOLE comment. I was talking about accusations in general, not Julie’s. Tony’s actions would be considered evidence that makes him look pretty guilty. I am talking about other situations where there is no evidence and it’s just hearsay. That’s where this article falls apart completely.

      1. Conversely, I’d encourage you to consider point #3 of this post.

  8. “Lydia, please re-read my WHOLE comment. I was talking about accusations in general, not Julie’s.”

    Sorry Darius. What a strange venue to discuss “general” accusations that have nothing to do with Tony or Julie.

    1. Well, considering the article was written about all abuse accusations and only briefly mentioned Julie’s, it doesn’t seem so strange to address the article, does it?

      1. “Well, considering the article was written about all abuse accusations and only briefly mentioned Julie’s, it doesn’t seem so strange to address the article, does it?”

        Darius, Here is the title of the post:

        “Tony Jones and Why the Documents Shouldn’t Have Been Needed”

      2. Sigh… (sarcasm) I’m sooo sorry I tried to look at the bigger picture, which was clearly in the view of the author. Next time, I will remember to focus on just an individual tree, and ignore the forest.

  9. To those who would be inclined to victim shame me back into silence, I say this. My children are well aware that their mother is an abuse survivor and a survivor of present day narcissistic abuse and targeting. I am open and an advocate to others. My children have learned about healthy boundaries and tools to cope. I encourage them to have their own separate relationship with their father and they get to define (independent of me) what that looks like. Healthy people and healthy relationships always have a mechanism for repair. A refusal to reconcile is the litmus test of an unhealthy system and an unhealthy person. They know their mother has tried without ceasing to make peace for them. They understand it takes two.

    “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

    ― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

  10. “Sigh… (sarcasm) I’m sooo sorry I tried to look at the bigger picture, which was clearly in the view of the author. Next time, I will remember to focus on just an individual tree, and ignore the forest”

    Something else that might help is to look at the best stats you can find about false accusations. Often they make the media so seem to be more prevelant than they are. What you won’t see are all the abuses that are never reported. But models have been created by various means for us to know that they are significant and something to be very concerned about.

    In fact, the way the victims/abused are dealt with publicly is one reason so many never come forward. I always have that in mind when discussing these things. When I was on the board of a Spouse Abuse Center, it always shocked me to find a woman who had endured years and years of emotiobnal, financial and physical abuse before finally reporting it. Why? Inappropriate touching of children is often not reported until there are tons of victims and they do the homework with patterns of behavior.

    False accusations are often trotted out as a way to scare people off reporting abuses…even spiriutal abuses. Don’t worry, convictions only come through a court system. And rarely.

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