Sexual harassment rife in Hong Kong churches, survey suggests

Religious group finds claims of 55 more incidents, half of them allegedly committed by pastors, after firing of church leader who admitted inappropriate behaviour

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2018, 11:08pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 5:25pm

A survey of Hong Kong Christians has thrown up at least another 55 sexual harassment cases in churches, half of them allegedly committed by pastors or church leaders.

The survey, released on Sunday by the Hong Kong Christian Council, came after pastor Ngai Lap-yin was accused of taking sexual advantage of women with whom he had built paternal relationships.

Ngai, who was fired two months ago from the Brotherly Love Swatow Baptist Church in Tsz Wan Shan, admitted on Friday that he behaved “inappropriately” and harmed women from the church.

Between August last year and April, the council received responses to its online survey – which did not ask which church respondents were from – from 55 local church-goers. Of those, 35 claimed to have fallen victim to sexual misdemeanours and 20 said their friends or fellow church members were the victims.

One in five of the reported cases involved rape or attempted rape. Others involved things like unwelcome touching, emails or messages with sexual implications, and unwelcome sexual gestures.

In 53 of the cases the culprit was a man. In 48 of them, the victim was a woman. In 16 cases, the victim never sought help from anyone.

“The survey shows an inconvenient fact: that sexual violence in churches has never stopped,” council assistant executive secretary Jessica Tso Hiu-tung said. “Churches are unique in their organised culture and group mentality, so enhanced education against sexual harassment is particularly important there.”

The survey shows an inconvenient fact: that sexual violence in churches has never stopped
Jessica Tso, Hong Kong Christian Council

The council conducted in-depth interviews with five respondents. In one case, the female victim was unexpectedly kissed by her mentor in his office, before struggling and managing to escape from the man, who attempted to rape her. She said the same man sexually harassed her many times afterwards.

In another case, a male victim working in a Christian organisation was harassed by his male supervisor, who offered him massages. The supervisor later invited the victim on a trip, suggesting they stay in the same room. The victim was the only of the five to take the case to the church, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the police.

Tso said many victims did not complain because churches operate like families, with a clear hierarchy. Victims, she said, are more willing to show vulnerability and thus more easily taken advantage of, and are less willing to complain due to the power imbalance.

Churches also often use Christian beliefs such as forgiveness, obedience and God’s plan in a “misleading” way to try to cover up anything that might affect the Christian image, she added.

Linda Wong Sau-yung, executive director of RainLily, an advocacy and support group for sexual violence victims, said very few victims of sexual violence in churches the group got in touch with reported their cases to the police, and even fewer saw a positive outcome from any police investigation.

Protests at church over ‘mismanagement’ and fire safety at its school

“That’s because they almost always went to the church first, and the church often tried to cover things up,” Wong said. “When they got so angry and frustrated that they called the police, a long time had passed, making the investigations more difficult.”

Tso urged churches to set up anti-sexual-harassment policies and report systems, and conduct related training for pastors, church leaders and members.

In a statement on Sunday, the Brotherly Love Swatow Baptist Church said it was looking into how to stop “similar incidents” to Ngai’s harassment from happening in future. The church had already talked to the complainants, it said.

“The church has explained to the complainants that the police need the assistance of the complainants. They can report to the force any time they wish,” the church said. “If they choose to report to the police, the church can accompany them to the police stations and offer support any time.”

The church added it was “deeply sad” about the incidents.