Churches, like other American institutions, continue grappling with the risks of sexual abuse and the fallout for victims. According to a new study from LifeWay Research, most people in the pews feel safe at their own church but believe the abuse crisis isn’t over. Members also tend to believe that their own churches are now better prepared and equipped to protect children. And younger churchgoers indicate they’re less likely to tolerate sexual misconduct and more likely to leave a church because of it.
For its “2019 Sexual Misconduct and Churchgoers Study,” LifeWay surveyed 1,815 Protestant adults, including 457 Southern Baptists, asking about their experiences and perceptions of abuse. The sexual abuse advisory group established by Southern Baptist President J.D. Greear encouraged LifeWay to conduct the survey. Denominational leaders have been calling for change in light of an abuse scandal that has received extensive media coverage.
“Protecting people from abuse of any kind should be of utmost importance to churches,” says Brad Waggoner, acting CEO of study sponsor LifeWay Christian Resources. “It’s imperative churches are safe places for people to hear the gospel and grow in their walk with Jesus Christ.”
Perceptions Often Conflict With Reality
Most survey respondents are confident that their own churches are safe. Ninety-three percent say adults at their church are protected against sexual assault, and 94 percent say children and teens are protected there.
As a result, when abuse comes to light, churchgoers often struggle with their perceptions about the congregation as a safe haven. “Far too often,” says abuse survivor Joshua Pease, “this leads to minimization, victim blaming, and denial.”
Another key finding: One-third (32 percent) of Protestant churchgoers say they believe many more pastors have sexually abused children or teenagers than have been reported. And 29 percent say the same thing about sexual abuse toward adults.
“There is kind of that sense that there’s going to be a lot more stories coming out,” says Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “When almost a third of churchgoers sense there is an avalanche of abuse and assault cases coming, Protestant churches must address this head-on, even if few say they actually know someone whose abuse is still hidden.”
Because “perception is reality,” McConnell adds, churches must keep working to overcome “some negative perceptions, some negative branding, some negative connotations when it comes to sexual misconduct.”
Churches Are Better Equipped Now, Respondents Say
Sixty-nine percent of survey respondents say their own church is more prepared to protect children than it was 10 years ago. Churchgoers “are noticing progress in the prevention efforts at their own church,” says McConnell. “Additional steps need to be taken and clearly communicated, however, so that more than a simple majority…can say their congregation is very prepared to protect those who attend.”
When it comes to helping abuse victims, 72 percent of churchgoers say their congregation is at least somewhat prepared to offer assistance. And 89 percent say someone who had been abused as a child or teenager would find healing at their church. It’s essential for houses of God to offer such healing, McConnell says, because that “teaches truths about the identity and worth of every individual. More importantly, it answers the fundamental question of whether God cares.”
Only seven percent of survey respondents say they think their church leaders would try to cover up sexual abuse allegations. And 82 percent believe their congregation would take appropriate actions, no matter the cost in terms of finances and the church’s image.
Young Churchgoers Aren’t Tolerating Sexual Misconduct
While older generations of churchgoers were more likely to keep abuse secret, LifeWay’s study reveals that younger generations are speaking out—and leaving churches when abuse occurs. Ten percent of Protestant churchgoers under age 35 indicate they’ve left a congregation because sexual misconduct wasn’t taken seriously, and nine percent say they’ve stopped attending because they felt unsafe themselves.