Paul Verryn: What went wrong?
A power struggle in the Methodist Church? A pre-World Cup clean-up cloaked in official hypocrisy? Or the reining in of a gung-ho cleric who has made almost as many enemies as friends?
The swirl of mixed emotions and views on the shock suspension of Methodist minister Paul Verryn this week has reopened wounds about the church’s refugee crisis in central Johannesburg and dredged up an old controversy from Verryn’s own past.
Verryn is the superintendent minister of the Central Methodist Mission (CMM), which for years has been a haven for indigent and transient people.
Opinions about what went wrong are split. Some say Verryn has done the best he can to protect the mainly Zimbabwean refugees and the homeless men, women and abandoned children who stream through the church’s doors on Pritchard Street in Johannesburg’s CBD.
Others blame him for allowing the situation to deteriorate into a squalid, unsanitary nest for criminals and sexual predators.
On January 18, the Methodist Church of South Africa laid disciplinary charges against Verryn. He was suspended the next day.
By declining to disclose the charges and the reasons for the popular minister’s suspension, the church triggered a frenzy of media speculation about whether Verryn may be personally linked to sexual misconduct.
The Legal Resources Centre, acting for Verryn, has since revealed that he has been charged with instituting a legal proceeding (to have an independent guardian appointed to oversee the welfare of the 56 children living in the church) without the authority of the presiding bishop or executive secretary. Verryn is also charged with making media statements after being instructed not to do so.
The first charge, at least, seems spurious, given that Verryn withdrew from the case once the church made its objections known. When he stepped down, the Aids Law Project took over the case.
Activists who work with Johannesburg’s indigent say Verryn’s suspension is being used to divert attention from the plight of the inner-city poor.
Although there is much support for Verryn and the CMM from civil society, most agree that it is hardly an ideal place for people to live.
‘The church is not suitable for habitation and it’s a health and fire hazard,” said Molebatsi Bopape, Gauteng health and social development portfolio committee chairperson.
‘The bylaws have been ignored and there is a total disregard for government structures. Our recommendation was to close the church to refugees so it remains a religious building and [is] used for its original purpose.”
Those who have worked with refugees and residents at the church say they’re trapped in a cycle of violence, which begins long before they get to the city and continues afterwards.
‘It didn’t surprise me when I started hearing reports [of abuse] from young girls from the church,” said Susan Black, a former medical director of Usindiso Ministeries, who worked with women from the CMM.
And yet many women refuse to leave the church.
‘A lot of the women there think he [Verryn] is a saint. They feel they wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for him,” she said. Black had a falling-out with Verryn after she told the media she believed the church residents’ love for him was ‘cultish”.
Some have gone further, accusing Verryn of obstructing NGOs and government from intervening in the situation. Last year, a group of NGOs compiled a dossier on alleged abuses of refugees.
The matter was referred to the National Prosecuting Authority.
But Verryn’s supporters say psychologist Johanna Kistner, one of the authors of the dossier, is pursuing a vendetta against him after a dispute over the removal of children from the church.
Kistner responded, saying: ‘This is not a personal issue; this is an issue of child abuse and abuse of other vulnerable people at the church, and there is enough evidence around that.”
People close to the matter say Verryn has been reined in on a technicality, but that there are deeper reasons for his suspension. The issue is so sensitive that many of the people the Mail & Guardian approached for comment refused to go on the record.
One view that has gained some purchase holds that there is tension between Verryn and his boss, the presiding bishop, Ivan Abrahams.
‘The presiding bishop has an animosity against Paul, there’s no doubt about that. Every time there’s a contest for leadership, Paul’s name is bandied about. The presiding bishop sees him as a threat,” said a source close to Verryn.
But Vuyani Nyobole, the executive secretary of the Methodist Church of South Africa, denied that there was a power struggle within the church: ‘That’s baseless. I’m not aware of any personal vendetta ... The elections for presiding bishop only come up in May 2011, so that’s mere speculation.”
Penny Foley, circuit steward of the Central Methodist Circuit, believes Verryn’s suspension and a recent police raid on church residents are part of a government clampdown on the homeless in the inner city.
‘It’s untenable for the City of Johannesburg to have poor and indigent people on the streets if it is to maintain the image of a world-class city before 2010 [the World Cup],” she said. Foley, who works with a number of shelters in the city, said that she has observed an ‘increasingly ruthless campaign to get rid of homeless people” in the city over the past year. The CMM, she says, is just harder to close down because of its high profile.
A number of groups involved with the CMM believe that government is singling out the CMM instead of addressing broader issues within the city.
Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), which operates a clinic at the CMM, says it carries out health services in 20 other buildings in the CBD and the organisation estimates that there are tens of thousands more people living in dire situations in the CBD.
Jonathan Whittall, head of the MSF’s programmes unit, said he believes the attack on Verryn and the church is another form of intimidation of the Zimbabwean refugee population.
‘Government is not responding to the needs of Zimbabweans seeking refuge in South Africa ... and the [CMM] church is a very visible place where those failures are being exposed.”
Verryn has asked for mediation in the matter of his suspension and the disciplinary hearing has been scheduled for February 1. Meanwhile the Methodist Church says it is possible that he may be reinstated.
Old whispers, old wounds
The announcement of Verryn’s suspension without reason on January 18 set media speculation on fire, write Faranaaz Parker, Verashni Pillay and Niren Tolsi.
Reports of child abuse at the church were subtly linked to him and ran unchecked by the presiding bishop of the Methodist Church, Ivan Abrahams, who had instituted the disciplinary measures.
Four days later Verryn’s legal representatives released a statement in an attempt to put the record straight. The reasons for his dismissal related to procedural matters and had nothing to do with any abuse, they said.
Several sources have since added their voices to put paid to the notion.
Jonathan Whittall, head of Médecins sans Frontières’ programmes unit, said: ‘We have never treated a child that has been sexually abused in the CMM [Central Methodist Mission]. The only case we have treated is a child that was abused on their way to the CMM.”
Even Verryn’s detractors come up empty. Susan Black, a former medical director at Usindiso Ministries, which took in some girls from the CMM, said she knows of five girls who claimed to have been raped during their stay at the CMM in downtown Johannesburg. None of these were linked to Verryn. Instead, the girls named certain teachers as their attackers.
Yet the cloud of suspicion of sexual abuse has hung over Verryn for 21 years, almost to the day. This was when, in 1989, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela accused him of such.
The backdrop to the 1989 allegations, and their trigger, was a scandal that rocked the country, then on the brink of making its delicate transition from apartheid to freedom.
It involved the abduction and torture of four teenagers and the murder of one of them, 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, by the Mandela United Football Club (MUFC).
It lifted the lid on the thuggish impunity with which the club—under the baton of Madikizela-Mandela—operated.
The club had abducted Seipei and three others, Gabriel Mekgwe, Thabiso Mono and Kenneth Kgase, in December 1988 from the Orlando Methodist Mission, where they had been living with Verryn.
As community anger mounted alongside concern within the anti-apartheid movement over the MUFC’s lawless behaviour, Madikizela-Mandela refused to hand over the boys to the Soweto Civic Association. This despite telephone calls from ANC president Oliver Tambo in Lusaka and, by some accounts, attempts by then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela to intervene through his legal
Instead she stuck to her guns, held on to the boys and accused Verryn of sexually molesting them. A Soweto Civic Association meeting held at the time of the kidnapping ‘resolved unanimously that there was no evidence to indicate sexual abuse” on the part of Verryn, reported this newspaper’s predecessor, the Weekly Mail.
A crisis committee, previously set up to investigate the MUFC and comprising the likes of Frank Chikane and Cyril Ramaphosa, found, on interviewing the surviving youths, that they had been tortured into making allegations of sexual abuse against Verryn—allegations they later retracted.
There is no evidence to show that Verryn is, or ever has been, involved in sexual misconduct with minors. Yet at a time when he is back in the glare of a controversy, not all of it flattering to his pastoral or professional style, it seems the old whispers just won’t be silenced.