News Top Stories

Survey shows more pastors preach about abuse in #MeToo age

An Air Force senior airman prays at the base chapel in Mildenhall, England, on April 10, 2012. The airman is a rape survivor and said she is devoted to helping other sexual assault victims. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Kevin Wallace/Creative Commons)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (RNS) — Half of Protestant pastors say they preach to their churches about domestic and sexual violence, an increase from four years ago, when only a third said they raised the issue, a new survey shows.

LifeWay Research took a detailed look at Protestant clergy’s attitudes toward abuse and harassment and what they’ve done about it, surveying 1,000 pastors by phone during the summer of 2018 as the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements dominated the news.

The research results were announced during the annual conference of the Religion News Association and released Tuesday (Sept. 18) by We Will Speak Out U.S., a partnership including the social justice organization Sojourners and IMA World Health, an interfaith health agency, both of which co-sponsored the research.

Surveyed in June and July, 51 percent of Protestant pastors said they speak to their congregation about the issues at least several times a year, compared with 34 percent in 2014. Almost two-thirds of the pastors surveyed this year and four years ago said that domestic or sexual violence occurs in the lives of their congregants.

Jenna Barnett, coordinator of Sojourners’ Women and Girls Campaign, said the survey — coming as some Protestant and Catholic clergy “fall necessarily from glory” amid abuse and harassment allegations — is part of an effort to ascertain the level of understanding of pastors about these issues and any progress that has been made in recent years.

Jenna Barnett, center, particpates in a panel discussion at the Religion News Association annual conference on Sept. 13, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio. Matt Hackworth, left, and Scott McConnell joined Barnett on the panel. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

“We saw an uptick from 2014 to 2018 in both how many pastors report experiencing domestic and sexual violence themselves and how many report knowing a loved one who has experienced this violence,” she said.

Eight in 10 said they know someone who has experienced domestic or sexual violence, an increase from 74 percent in 2014. A fifth of clergy said they had experienced domestic or sexual violence themselves, including sexual assault, rape or child sexual abuse — an increase from 11 percent in 2014.

Barnett believes the increases could be caused at least in part by a decrease in the taboo of declaring oneself a survivor and an increase in literacy about abuse and harassment.

“Either way, when you see the impact of this type of violence firsthand or secondhand, it becomes harder and harder to remain silent and do nothing,” she said.

Of pastors who had heard of the #MeToo movement, 4 in 10 said they were more inclined to preach about sexual and domestic violence. A similar percentage said they understood more about the topics because of the movement.

Almost half who said they speak less than once a year about these topics said the reason was “It is not a problem in our congregation.”

Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, said in an interview about the survey that clergy would be wise to realize that if something is prevalent in the wider culture, it’s probably happening in their congregations too.

“Especially a topic like this — it’s hard to share you’ve been a victim, and so the natural tendency is not to share,” he said. “When you begin to speak about it, suddenly you’re giving people license to confide in you.”

Researchers found that more clergy are making referrals to a service agency or offering couples or marriage counseling, with 8 in 10 pastors saying they had made a referral and 7 in 10 saying they had provided counseling.

McConnell found it encouraging that pastors are making referrals.

“A lot of pastors may not want to speak on it because they’re not ready, they’re not trained,” he said. “But if you know the resources in your area — which most pastors said they did — just refer.”

Matt Hackworth, senior director of external relations for IMA World Health, noted that the National Domestic Violence Hotline does not recommend couples counseling when there is an abusive situation and said that advice “makes sense if one considers safety and security to be the priority.”


RELATED: Dallas evangelical seminary requires sex abuse awareness training


Experts involved in the survey said they hope to foster additional training in seminaries and by denominational leaders to build awareness and encourage appropriate action by clergy.

“If 90 percent of pastors will encounter domestic or sexual violence situations, then why aren’t 100 percent of them trained on how to handle them?” asked Barnett, who noted that Sojourners will be launching a series of 100 sermons on domestic and sexual violence on Oct. 1 for Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Although the study focused most on abuse, researchers also addressed sexual harassment. Three-quarters of pastors said they knew of someone who had been sexually harassed, and 16 percent said someone on their church staff had experienced such harassment in a church setting.

Eight in 10 said they have a policy or procedure in case a staffer is accused of sexual harassment, and 12 percent said a church staff member had been found to have sexually harassed a congregant.

Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, who leads the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, said training and preaching are necessary to confront both abuse and harassment. But she said preaching also needs to address the earliest stages of a predator’s attempts to get to know a potential victim.

“Before it gets to full-blown abuse, there’s some grooming going on,” she said in an interview after speaking to journalists on a panel about #MeToo and religion. “So we can do some preaching and teaching about creating a climate so that grooming doesn’t happen.”

Other findings about Protestant pastors include:

  • 96 percent say they have a responsibility to ask church members about sexual or domestic violence when they see any signs of it.
  • 82 percent say they counsel someone experiencing domestic violence to seek support from experts in the community.
  • 73 percent believe individuals can leave abusive relationships if they wish.
  • 16 percent of Protestant pastors said they had heard of the #ChurchToo movement.
  • 12 percent said they would counsel someone experiencing domestic violence to work with their spouse to improve the relationship.

The survey, conducted between June 19 and July 2, has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

17 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Very much worth taking into consideration in this discussion: Christa Brown’s testimony published yesterday, “Advocating for Safety of Southern Baptist Church Kids.” As someone sexually abused as a teen in a Southern Baptist context, Brown has been a strong advocate for transparency and accountability in her own formative Southern Baptist religious context.

    She writes yesterday,

    Experts say evangelicals are likely worse than Catholics in responding to abuse, and the number of children being abused is likely greater. https://www.ethicsdaily.com/advocating-for-safety-of-southern-baptist-church-kids/

    Christa Brown’s testimony is valuable and deserves a hearing.

  • Starting to think that god might want to rip up his plan and start again. This one ain’t working.

  • “In response, SBC official Augie Boto wrote a brush-off letter saying that ‘continued discourse between us will not be positive or fruitful.'” probably resulted from the fact that she approached the SBC not as member, nor a former member, but as part of a contingent from SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).

    An assessment that discourse with SNAP is neither positive nor fruitful is probably quite accurate.

  • Thanks for posting that link. I did not know any actual stories from the Baptist abuse experience. It is important to note a couple of things that the Baptists did which are close to what the Catholics did:
    1) Brown says: “I had informed 18 Baptist officials in four states about the minister who sexually abused me when I was a kid, but everyone turned a deaf ear, allowing the man to continue in ministry.” We have heard the same thing from those who reported actual or suspected abuse to priests, bishops, school administrators – and later found the abuser still doing the job that gave him access to kids.
    2) Later she notes: “…eventually, pastor Wade Burleson made a motion for an SBC study on creating a clergy sex abuse database – a study that died in a seemingly predisposed committee without even an allocated budget.” She notes the issue was ‘local church autonomy.’ Oh, and how our bishops are still unaccountable because bishops have no one to whom they are accountable except the Pope.

    Silly me. I thought that other religious organizations would learn something from the Catholic experience and develop better oversight, greater awareness, and better cooperation within the organizations to prevent sex abuse. I thought they had probably done that because we didn’t hear much in the news about sex abuse in other Christian organizations. What this experience proves, however, is that SNAP was and is absolutely necessary to bring together victim/survivors so that they can make a big enough story to embarrass the institution into taking action.

  • What the article demonstrates is that NO ONE except lawyers looking to extract money from denominations listens to SNAP.

  • Can we please stop pretending you’re anything but a yellow running dog for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, the AFL-CIO, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State?

  • No. What it points out is that the churches will not act bring justice to victims and accountability to abusers until forced to do so by public pressure. The problem is in how much the organizations love themselves rather than the God they say they serve.

    Where was accountability/justice until SNAP and lawyers got into it, until public embarrassment at the exposure of organizational connivance in sex abuse cover up became so acute that the organization finally did act? It was nowhere enough. We needed and, evidently still need, SNAP. The fact that this is just beginning to get dealt with in the SBC makes the point.

    I do think steps taken by the U.S. Catholic Church to make children safer were important steps and have made a difference. But they were not enough, Bob, because they did nothing to expose abusers and bring some kind of justice for the past victims. What is plaguing the Catholic Church now is the revelation of the past cover-ups in many countries and the absolute lack of justice/accountability of those who both committed sex abuse and those who covered it up.

    More, we do not know how extensive is the abuse and cover up by Catholic priests/bishops in many countries and if it is still going on. We rightly do not trust the structure of the Church to know or act if it is happening. The Church keeps being surprised or pretending to be. Can they continue to be so stupid?

  • “No. What it points out is that the churches will not act bring justice to victims and accountability to abusers until forced to do so by public pressure.”

    In the article being discussed my conclusion is supported while yours is not.

    SNAP, which routinely accepts financial kickbacks from attorneys in the form of “donations”, refers survivors as potential clients to attorneys, who then file lawsuits on behalf of the survivors against the Catholic Church.

    Yes, organizations respond to lawsuits.

    No, no one responds to SNAP anymore.

    I would take the rest of your comments more seriously if you had ever given over the long time I’ve read you an impression that you’re even mildly Catholic.

  • If there were no SNAP, there would be no revelations. How much longer do you think it would have taken for the revelations about the Catholic church or the SBC if there were not an organization that was prepared to help organize that effort? It is possible it would still be hidden, secrets held in silence that only lets abuse go on and on and on and on …..

    Of course lawyers are brought in – you can be very sure there are lawyers for the church organizations involved. There is this quote from the Christa Brown article: “For 11 years Baptist officials knew, but they ‘never shared’ the information, claiming they were ‘afraid of legal liabilities’. A denominational attorney explained his longstanding advice about giving only neutral job references.”

    Oh, and lawyers for the organizations get paid, too. If you have a problem with how much lawyers get paid, I agree with that. And with the difficulty faced by those who are not wealthy in having the same level of protection that the wealthy have – particularly when it comes to civil suits. We need to take a look at that as an issue all by itself.

  • You’re welcome, ATF. Because I was raised Southern Baptist and have two first cousins who are SBC ministers, I have a particular interest in these stories. And, yes, astonishing that so many other religious groups want to learn nothing at all from the horrendous Catholic experience — except to rush to a lawyer and take his/her advice rather than looking for the pastoral, healing thing to do. In that regard, the Catholic model is very influential.

  • The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report owed nothing to SNAP.

    Giving credit to SNAP is like claiming credit for gravity.

    The truth will out.

  • Perhaps in order to learn from the Catholic experience, it would helpful to know exactly WHAT the Catholic experience was:

    – toleration of zany theologies

    – breakdown in the teaching of sexual morality

    – construction of huge bureaucracies dedicated to their own growth and survival (e.g., the USCCB)

    – ordination of immature individuals with a variety of deviant personalities

    – breakdown in internal discipline (e.g., disregarding Canon Law)

    – substitution of psychology for theology, e.g., an abuser is “sick” rather than “depraved” and should receive “treatment” rather than “discipline”

    This is the recipe for disasters of one or more kinds.

    A sure sign that a denomination is going down this toilet is the issuance on a fairly regular basis of positions on immigration, gun control, or other hot button societal issues which rightly belong to the prudential judgment of practicing Christians rather than the denomination.

  • A plan written by men who, because of the time they lived in, were quite ignorant about the world and universe around them has little chance of working…..as history has and continues to show.

  • Bureaucracies and people with power and influence work to preserve those above all else. It matters little under which flag the bureaucracy sails, government, corporation, or church.

ADVERTISEMENTs