Hong Kong Protestant leaders accused of sexual harassment

Call for establishment of abuse training programs and an independent investigation team
Hong Kong Protestant leaders accused of sexual harassment

Jessica Tso Hiu-tung (left) of the Hong Kong Christian Council and (right) Linda Wong Sau-yung of RainLily attended a press conference on June 24 to release the first survey report on sexual harassment within the Protestant Churches. (ucanews.com photo)

More than half of alleged sexual offenders identified in a survey of Hong Kong Protestant churches were leaders or pastoral staff.

The survey, conducted between August and April by the Hong Kong Christian Council, followed the public airing of sexual misconduct claims against a pastor of the Brotherly Love Swatow Baptist Church.

Of 55 responses considered to have validity, 35 related to personal experiences while the remainder involved respondents who cited abuse against other church members.

Jessica Tso Hiu-tung, assistant executive secretary of the Christian Council who was in charge of the survey, at a June 24 media conference declined to name the churches involved.

However, she said they had congregations ranging from a hundred to about one thousand.

Asked if she would condemn the churches involved in the survey, Tso replied that a report containing the survey results "strongly condemns all churches."

The overwhelming majority of the cases examined involved females who said they were sexually harassed or abused by males, but in some cases the victim and alleged perpetrator were of the same sex.

The survey found that 51 per cent of alleged harassers and abusers were church leaders or staff, but there were also accusations against church members.

While a substantial number of cases were said to have occurred in the past several years, other claims relate to incidents that allegedly occurred more than two decades ago.

Sexual misconduct ranged from forced sexual activity (17 per cent) to touching, grasping, or deliberately rubbing against victims' bodies (33 per cent) and sexually suggestive comments, jokes, or questions (5 percent).

More than 50 per cent of respondents stated that they turned to church members, friends, social welfare agencies or police for help.

Some of those who did not complain said they had not been sure whether the treatment they were subjected to amounted to harassment and others said they had been either afraid to report abuses or did not know how to do so.

Some victims questioned their self-worth or felt isolated and anxious.

More than half of those who said they were abused moved to other churches or no longer participate in the church gatherings.

Among the respondents, five were willing to conduct in-depth interviews.

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An alleged victim identified as 'Miss C' said that a male teacher in her church forcibly kissed her and she believed that he intended to rape her. She escaped but said he continued to behave indecently.

Another person interviewed, referred to as 'Mr. E', who worked in a Christian institution, said he was indecently assaulted by a male superior. The superior had later invited him to travel and share the same room. He described dismissive treatment when he filed a complaint with police as a "secondary injury."

Tso noted that sexual harassment in churches has a lot to do with hierarchy and power as many offenders had a higher status than the victims.

In the cases of pastors who were respected by their congregations, there was a tendency for the accounts of victims not to be believed.

Hierarchies were often most concerned about damage to an offender's family and reputation as well as to the Church itself.

Fear that public revelations of abuses would cause people to become averse to the gospel was another factor that inhibited cases from being referred to police.

The survey report said the church and Christian institutions should face up to a "crisis" of sexual misconduct by formulating policies to combat it, including training on the conduct of activities such as summer camps and travel abroad.

Linda Wong Sau-yung, executive director of RainLily, an advocacy and support group for sexual violence victims, says only 50 reported cases of harassment or sexual assault, out of 3,500 in the past 17 years, were related to the church. However, she believed this was only the tip of an iceberg.

Wong said internal investigations were inadequate and called on Protestant Churches to collaborate in the establishment of an independent investigation team.

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