The global #MeToo hashtag campaign encouraging victims of sexual abuse and harassment to speak out has sparked calls for better strategies to prevent sexual harassment and assault in Hong Kong's Protestant churches after a pastor was named and shamed on social media in April.
A recent online survey carried out by the Hong Kong Christian Council in the wake of #MeToo found 55 reports of sexual harassment and assault from church-goers or people who knew about incidents involving others in the same church.
One in five of the cases involved allegations of rape or attempted rape, while other reports included inappropriate touching, e-mails or messages or "gestures" between August 2017 and April 2018, local media reported.
The Council's report, titled "No More Silence," found that 17 percent of the victims were forced to engage in some form of sexual activity.
The Council has called on the city's churches to develop and publish anti-sexual harassment and abuse policies, and to educate congregations, lay staff and clergy about how to report such cases.
Jessica Tso, of the Hong Kong Christian Council Gender Justice Group, said the reports came from a variety of different churches.
"The organizational structure of churches is pretty hierarchical, and very precise about that hierarchy," Tso told RFA. "Sexual harassment is usually very closely linked to power, and we have seen a lot of cases reported in which the perpetrators are pastors and teachers, generally higher-ranking than the victims."
"It's pretty easy for them to prey on less powerful people because they use the fact that they are widely trusted by the public," she said.
An employee who answered the phone at the the Hong Kong Christian Council declined to provide any details of the cases, however.
Wong Ka Fai, chaplain in the theology department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the close bonds forged in churches can sometimes lead to a blurring of personal boundaries.
"Churches are a bit like a big family where everyone has known each other for quite a long time, so if some people have such intentions, and are confused about boundaries, then sexual harassment can happen," Wong said.
"Many of the victims aren't afraid to speak out, but they are concerned about the relationships with their leaders, teachers and pastors, because these are people who they respect greatly," he said. "[They may feel that] these things will damage reputations."
Churches not used to public criticism
Wong cited the firing in April of Brotherly Love Swatow Baptist Church pastor Ngai Lap-yin. Ngai admitted last week that he had behaved "inappropriately" and harmed women from the church. The victims had complained about him via social media.
Ngai said he turned himself in to police last week, and said he is willing to stand trial over the allegations.
Wong said churches are unused to facing up to such public criticism, but that they must.
"Maybe they think that they have their own methods of dealing with such things, but if you don't handle them well in this day and age, there are reports on social media and mainstream media that will effectively supervise them, and they have to deal with this," he said.
"The situation at the Brotherly Love Swatow Baptist Church was allowed to slide for a long time," he said.
Linda Wong, executive director of the Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women, said her organization has received some 3,500 reports of sexual abuse and harassment since it was set up 17 years ago.
She said churches have a responsibility to formulate guidelines and policies to deal with such cases, so that victims know that they have the right to complain.
"It is also necessary to formulate policies to prevent sexual harassment," Wong said. "Strictly handling complaints of sexual harassment, or arranging training for churches can only help their members."
"When such issues arise, at the very least, the church should take initial steps to deal with it, because most church members are very unlikely to take it to the police in the first instance," she said. "Churches must also educate their congregations on such matters; this is even more important."
Woo Chi-wai, director-general of Hong Kong Church Renewal Campaign, said it is currently too difficult to investigate pastors suspected of sexual harassment independently of their church.
He said Hong Kong churches typically handle sexual harassment cases poorly, with less developed policies than those found in the United States, for example.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.