Christian leaders vow action on predatory pastors, as sexual misconduct claims pile up
Local churches criticised for responses to allegations, with one clergyman under police investigation and 55 other reports unearthed
Two prominent Christian leaders on Monday vowed to clamp down on sexual harassment in Hong Kong’s churches, as claims mounted of preachers making improper advances on parishioners.
That came as other high-ranking clergy accused churches of handling harassment reports poorly, avoiding independent investigations with a view to sweeping things under the carpet and protecting their image.
Reverend Lo Lung-kwong, incoming secretary general of the Hong Kong Christian Council, an umbrella body for 21 churches including Anglican and Methodist ones, said putting an end to sexual impropriety by pastors would be one of his “top priorities” once he takes office.
“We need to express sympathy and support the victims, encourage churches to formulate preventive measures and complaint mechanisms … and step up our training of [pastors],” said the veteran Methodist pastor, who will take on his role on Sunday.
Reverend Peter Koon Ho-ming, provincial secretary general of the city’s Anglican church, which has up to 40,000 followers, warned: “Regardless of who you are or the size of your church, sexual harassment or abuse should never be tolerated or appeased.”
Lo led the Hong Kong Methodist church – which has one of the biggest memberships among the city’s 500,000-strong Christian community – from 2006 to 2012.
He said during his term the church received several allegations of sexual harassment but they could not be proved.
Koon said the Anglican church had told members they could call its office any time if they had complaints about inappropriate behaviour.
“A disciplinary hearing can lead to the sacking of an employee of the church. If the victim wanted to follow up, we would also recommend him or her to make a police report … But we will consider if these mechanisms need to be improved,” he said.
Last Friday, a pastor turned himself in to police and confessed he had behaved inappropriately, after a church-goer accused him of establishing himself as a father figure and then making sexual overtures to women. The church, Swatow Baptist Church in Tsz Wan Shan, said it had fired Ngai Lap-yin two months ago.
On Sunday, the council’s gender justice group released findings from its online questionnaire for local church-goers. At least 55 respondents said they had either fallen victim to sexual misdemeanours or knew friends or fellow church members who had been targets.
One in five of the respondents said the cases they were referring to involved rape or attempted rape.
Police have urged victims to make reports so they can take action.
Reverend Eric So Shing-yit, general secretary of the Church of Christ in China, a Protestant body, said he would consider the gender justice group’s recommendation for churches to establish policies to prevent sexual harassment. So is also the Christian Council’s chairman.
In the case of Ngai, a police insider said officers had taken a statement from the female victim, who revealed details of the harassment on Friday on her Facebook page. Ngai had gone to Wong Tai Sin police station with his lawyer. But the source said he remained silent during the entire interview.
“We will seek legal advice from the Department of Justice and decide on the follow-up action,” the source added.
On a radio programme on Monday, other pastors and concern groups said Hong Kong churches face a twofold problem when it comes to sexual harassment: the victims are afraid to come forward because the culprits are often church leaders, while the churches themselves often play down the accusations to protect their own reputations.
Pastor Wu Chi-wai, general secretary of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, said: “The churches do not want to expose their flaws to the public but want to protect their name.”
For example, he added, the church should have got an independent party to look into the complaints against Ngai instead of “closing the file by sacking the pastor”.
Pastor Phyllis Wong Mei-fung from the Christian Council said sexual harassment problems would get more serious if the churches played down the issue.