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Survey: 1 in 3 Protestants think more stories of abuse by pastors yet to come

Photo illustration by Timothy Hale/Creative Commons

(RNS) — The past year has been filled with stories of alleged sexual misconduct and abuse by Protestant Christian pastors.

Bill Hybels retired early from the influential Chicago-area megachurch he founded, Willow Creek Community Church, after being accused of sexual harassment by several women connected to the church.

Andy Savage, a megachurch preacher in Memphis, Tenn., resigned after admitting to having an inappropriate sexual contact with a teenager when he was a youth pastor.

And a landmark investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News revealed that more than 250 people who worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes over the past 20 years.

Most Protestant churchgoers feel they and their children are safe from abuse or harassment at their churches. But many also seem unsure whether new cases of abuse are yet to be revealed.

“More sexual abuse revelations to come?” Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

A new survey found that 1 in 3 Protestant Christian churchgoers think there are many more stories of sexual abuse by pastors that have yet to come out.

The survey, released Tuesday (May 21) by LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, shows 32% of those churchgoers believe many more Protestant pastors have sexually abused children or teens than has already been reported. Twenty-nine percent believe there are many more unreported cases where adults were assaulted.

In both cases, a similar number say they disagree or don’t know if there are more unreported cases.

Meantime, 94% say teens and children are protected from abuse at their churches, according to the survey. Ninety-three percent say adults are protected.

“When they’re talking about their own church, the confidence level is really high,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “But still there’s this perception that there’s a wave (of reports about abuse) coming.”

That’s something churches need to address, McConnell said.

People need to know how churches are protecting the women and children in their congregations, he said. And they’re watching to see how churches will respond when cases of abuse are reported.

Scott McConnell in Nashville, Tenn., on Sept. 9, 2017. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

McConnell said he sees good news and bad news with the latest LifeWay survey, which asked wide-ranging questions about sexual misconduct and the church to 1,815 Protestants who attend church at least once a month in the United States.

For instance, 4% of churchgoers reported they know of someone attending their church who has sexually assaulted someone without it coming to light, according to the survey.

That number seems low, McConnell said. Still, when you consider there are 300,000 Protestant churches in America, he said, “even 4% means that we’re going to be hearing about this every day.”

More people (14%) reported knowing someone attending their church who has been sexually assaulted as an adult.

And McConnell said there may be many more people who have been victims of sexual assault who haven’t talked about it — perhaps because they don’t feel like their church is a safe place to share that trauma.

And churches don’t talk much about sexual assault or abuse, according to the survey.

“80% of churchgoers have not heard a sermon in the last year addressing sexual assault or sexual violence” Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

Eighty percent of churchgoers in the survey reported they have not heard a sermon in the last year at their churches addressing sexual assault or sexual violence, it said.

“From a pastor standpoint, with that many people in church, this has to be a topic that they’re addressing, and it has to be a topic that they’re addressing with compassion knowing that there are ears of people who have been through this in the room,” McConnell said.

Among other findings:

  • 89% of churchgoers said their churches would be good places for somebody who experienced sexual abuse as a child or teenager to find healing.
  • 90% agreed they were places somebody who experienced sexual assault as an adult could heal.
  • 6% of churchgoers reported they have attended church less frequently because sexual advances from another attendee made them feel uncomfortable.
  • 4% said they’ve stopped attending a church because they did not feel safe from sexual misconduct there.
  • 5% said they’d stopped attending a church because sexual misconduct was not taken seriously there.

Those numbers only include “those who have not given up on church” and don’t account for people who may have stopped attending any church altogether over their concerns, McConnell noted.

“Those are fairly low numbers, but, also knowing that, just one bad apple can ruin that fellowship of believers,” he said.

The survey was conducted Feb. 27 to April 8, according to LifeWay Research.

Respondents were invited to participate from a large national research panel, and the sample provides 95% confidence that sampling error does not exceed 2.9%, it said.

LifeWay could not ask if those respondents personally had been sexually abused or assaulted because of mandatory reporting laws, it said.

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