Nearly 10 percent of churchgoers left church over sexual abuse mishandling, safety concerns: survey

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New research from LifeWay reveals that Protestant churchgoers have mixed feelings about their church's ability to handle sexual misconduct when it happens within their congregations.

The data also show that approximately 10% of churchgoers stopped going to church because they either felt sexual misconduct was not taken seriously or because they did not feel safe from sexual misconduct.

Released Tuesday, the 2019 Sexual Misconduct and Churchgoers Study was conducted by LifeWay Research and sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources. The research consisted of online questionnaires of 1,815 Americans starting in late February and concluding April 8. Respondents were screened to include adults whose religious preference is some kind of Protestant denomination — Southern Baptists were heavily sampled — and who attend services at least once per month. None were asked if they had personally experience child sexual abuse or sexual assault due to legal obligations surrounding such inquiries.

The study found that nearly one-third of Protestant churchgoers believe many more Protestant pastors have sexually abused children or teenagers than have already been exposed. 37 percent disagree with that conclusion; another 31 percent indicated that they did not know.

Similarly, 29 percent of respondents said that many more undiscovered instances of Protestant pastors sexually assaulting adults exist, whereas 41 percent disagreed and 30 percent said they did not know.

The 2019 results mirror those from surveys in previous years.

“Among people who are currently attending church, few said they stopped attending because of issues related to sexual misconduct,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, in a statement.

“This does not measure, however, any who left due to these problems and have returned to any church since.”

Just under half of all Protestant churchgoers surveyed said they were victims of unwanted sexual joking, unsolicited sexual messages, unwanted compliments, and inappropriate glances. Twelve percent of such respondents said they endured those unwanted things while at church.

A strong majority of churchgoers think their churches are equipped to handle sexual abuse issues and trust their congregations to respond appropriately if confronted with misconduct.

In sum, only a small percentage of respondents, 6%, said they believed the church would either ignore the person who shared their experience of sexual misconduct, see a victim as an attention-seeker, or see a victim as partly culpable.

"Around 7 in 10 churchgoers (72%) consider their congregation at least somewhat prepared to help someone who has experienced sexual assault, with 38% saying their church is very prepared. Fewer than 1 in 10 (8%) believe their church is at least somewhat unprepared. Twenty percent aren’t sure," LifeWay reported.

Julie Anne Smith, a victim's advocate and the founder of Spiritual Sounding Board, believes it's important to remember that when sexual misconduct occurs in the context of a church the trauma is compounded given where and how it occurred, particularly if the abuse was at the hands of someone in authority, like a pastor.

"It can take years for a survivor to uncover the dynamics of what happened to them," Smith said in an email to The Christian Post on Wednesday.

"Because the pastor was a spiritual leader and in a position of trust, it makes it difficult for the survivor to trust any other pastors. Some may have difficulty walking into a church again."

Victims have told her that the spiritual abuse is more difficult to overcome because spirituality is so deep and personal. Those who have been sexually abused by church leaders and are somehow able to move on from the harm done to them and continue in their faith are usually the ones who have been able to discuss what happened to them with a trusted friend, counselor, or family member, she added.

"Spiritual abuse is trauma. It's important to treat it as such. In fact, people are diagnosed with PTSD from trauma at church," Smith elaborated.

"This is why it is so important that the church proactively addresses abuse in the church. Not only are emotional lives at stake, but spiritual lives as well. If we dismiss abuse, we are missing the opportunity to walk alongside those who have been harmed, listen to them, and help them recover. Nothing brings me greater joy than to help someone see that the harm they experienced had nothing to do with God."

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