WHEN IT COMES to speaking out on sexual violence, the first barrier for pastors is awareness of the problem, according to a LifeWay poll, “Broken Silence.” Commissioned by Sojourners and IMA World Health, the poll—released in June—surveyed Protestant pastors across the United States on their views on sexual and domestic violence. That church leaders don’t often discuss sexual violence is not surprising; for perhaps the first time in the United States, the poll puts numbers to just how few actually do—and illuminates some reasons for the silence.
The lack of awareness of sexual violence is a multipronged problem. According to the poll, 74 percent of surveyed pastors underestimate the level of sexual violence experienced by members of their congregations. In part, this gap reflects a failure to understand the tragic ubiquity of sexual violence—1-in-3 women in the United States, and 1-in-4 men, will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime. In a country in which 80 percent affiliate with religion, statistics strongly indicate that this issue is as pervasive within congregations as without.
Another problem, however, is around the willingness to believe it is happening. Of the pastors who talk about sexual violence, 72 percent do so because they believe it happens in their local community—but only 25 percent acknowledged that their own congregants may have experienced it.
“It couldn’t happen among Christians” is, sadly, a very common refrain among faith institutions. Reported instances of sexual abuse this year at Christian colleges, from Patrick Henry to Pensacola, indicate the deep costs of this refusal to ask whether sexual violence could happen “within the flock.”