The Story: A new survey explores the perceptions and experiences of sexual misconduct among Protestant churchgoers.
The Background: Lifeway Research recently released the results of a national survey of Protestants on their perception of sexual misconduct. Respondents were screened to include only adults whose religious preference is Protestant and who attend services once a month or more. The survey asked a variety of questions to gauge what sort of experience those who attend Protestant churches have with sexual abuse, harassment, safety, and accountability within their local churches.
Experience of abuse and harassment
The general report from churchgoers is that sexual harassment and abuse is not something that the majority has experienced—and fewer than one-in-five know of someone in their churches who has experienced sexual assault or rape.
Almost one in three (28 percent) said that as a child or teen they received compliments that implied the adult viewed them sexually or were subjected as adults to unwanted joking remarks of a sexual nature (33 percent). Even fewer (19 percent) say they have received unwanted sexual comments/pictures/sexual advances texted or direct messaged to them. About a third (34 percent) said someone had made unwanted compliments that implied the person speaking viewed them sexually.
Between 7 percent and 17 percent say that any of those behaviors was from someone they knew from church. When it comes to sexually inappropriate comments only 2 percent say church is a worse environment while two-thirds (75 percent) say church is better. A mere 4 percent say they have stopped attending or attended less frequently because of sexual advances from other attendees, while 5 percent say they have stopped attending a church because sexual misconduct was not taken seriously.
Similarly, relatively few say they know someone at their church who has experienced sexual assault (14 percent) or experienced rape/attempted rape as an adult (12 percent).
This report might also account for why the topic of sexual violence is not mentioned more often from the pulpit. About 80 percent of churchgoers say they have not heard a sermon in the last year addressing sexual assault or sexual violence.
Openness toward the abused
The perception of churchgoers is that churches are open to hearing from and helping those who have been abused.
More than two-thirds (80 percent) agree that someone attending their church can share that they have experienced sexual assault and be believed (only 6 percent disagree). Most also think someone sharing that they had experienced child sexual abuse or sexual assault would be treated by their church with respect (73 percent), sympathy (70 percent), privacy (63 percent), and protection (60 percent.) Only 2 percent think such a person would be ignored, considered partly to blame, or viewed as an attention seeker.
A vast majority agree that someone who experienced abuse as a child/teen (90 percent) or as an adult (89 percent) would find healing at their church, while fewer than 5 percent disagree.
Accountability within the church
If allegations of abuse are presented, the vast majority of churchgoers say their church will treat them seriously. If a pastor at their church was accused of sexual misconduct two-thirds (75 percent) would want a careful investigation, while fewer than one-in-six (15 percent) say they would want it dealt with quietly. Nearly all (87 percent) say their church is likely—68 percent say very likely—to report suspicions of abuse/neglect to the appropriate authorities.
Churchgoers are split on whether many more Protestant pastors have sexually abused children. About a third (33 percent) agree there are many more abusers, close to half (41 percent) disagree, and about one-third (31 percent) say they don’t know. A similar split is found on the question of whether many more Protestant pastors have sexually abused adults: 29 percent agree, 41 percent disagree, and 30 percent don’t know.
A total of 4 percent say they know of someone attending their church who has sexually assaulted an adult or abused a child but it has not come to light.
Safety and affirmation within the church
Almost all churchgoers consider their church to be a safe space for everyone. Only 3 percent do not think their church is a safe place where children, teens, and adults are protected from sexual abuse.
Similarly, the vast majority (83 percent) disagree that church leaders would try to cover it up if sexually inappropriate things happen at their church, and they agree their church is willing to correctly address sexual misconduct that may occur in church even if it is costly (82 percent).
Most consider their church to be either somewhat or very prepared to help someone who has experienced sexual assault (72 percent) or to protect children from sexual abuse in ministry programs (81 percent). A clear majority also believe their church is more prepared to protect children from sexual abuse than they were 10 years ago (69 percent).
Almost all (94 percent) agree that the leaders at their church communicate that women are valued, with more than two-thirds expressing strong agreement with that claim. A solid majority (67 percent) says their church teaches about sexuality by regularly affirming the value of every woman and man.
Lifeway Research also issued a second report that specifically highlights the results of Southern Baptists (SBC).
Why It Matters: Because this is quantitative research of subjective experiences, when reading these results we should keep in mind that they are dealing with perceptions of individual churchgoers. The experience of individuals varies not only between local churches but also within our own congregations. While such surveys cannot give us a complete overview of the problem of sexual misconduct, they may still be useful for gaining a better understanding of how the problem is perceived within our churches.
While the results of this survey are generally positive, some of the results are still concerning.
“Those in the pews are noticing progress in the prevention efforts at their own church,” said Scott McConnell, the executive director of LifeWay Research. “Additional steps need to be taken and clearly communicated, however, so that more can say their congregation is very prepared to protect those who attend from sexual assault and child sexual abuse.”
Commenting on the SBC report, Phillip Bethancourt, executive vice president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, notes that more needs to be done to change perceptions that churches will take appropriate action on sexual misconduct.
“Healthy churches should be trained and equipped to receive the stories of survivors in our midst,” Bethancourt says. “And churches need to examine the culture that causes a sizable minority of churchgoers who fear that a survivor’s testimony would not be met with respect, sympathy, and protection.”