On Thursday last week, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities held a dialogue to establish a support structure for people who have been sexually abused by religious leaders and traditional healers.
Minutes before the dialogue was due to start, I lit a cigarette and struck up a conversation with a fellow smoker.
“What is happening here today?” she asked. After I’d explained the reason for the activity at the commission’s offices in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, she said: “So this place … I can come here and tell them about what happened to me?”
Then, in as much time as our smoke break allowed, she spoke about how her pastor had started sexually abusing her. The years of sexual abuse later turned into financial abuse. “He took a lot from me, that man,” she said.
As we put out our cigarettes, she agreed to tell me her story and we set up a time and place to meet.
“But you can’t use my name in the story,” she said. “I haven’t really spoken about this thing. It was years ago but I’m still working through it.”
In a room in the commission’s offices packed with activists and survivors of sexual abuse, chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said the commission had “discovered that the problem [of abuse] is much more vast than we had originally thought”.
The commission was setting up a support system because most complainants said they did not want to go through the criminal justice system. The commission is offering support from psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists and spiritual leaders.
Until the commission has set up its toll-free line, people can call its office to “be linked with the support systems and facilitate the reporting of cases”.
Sexual abuse by religious and traditional leaders was “the highest exploitation of people’s beliefs” and, when sexual abuse took place in religious settings, there was often “a relentless amount of grooming”, Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said. Religious leaders would often tell their victims: “If you have sex with me, you’ll get a job or your business will do better … blessings will come your way.”
Three women spoke of the alleged abuse they had suffered at the hands of the head of the Jesus Dominion International church, Timothy Omotoso. The pastor and his three co-accused appeared this week in the magistrate’s court in Port Elizabeth on several charges, including sex trafficking, rape and sexual assault. The case was postponed until May 15.
Now 21 years old, Babalwa* alleged how, from the age of 14 to 16, she was assaulted by the pastor. A talented singer in the church choir, she came to the attention of Omotoso and was one day given the cellphone number of the church leader by one of the “beautiful young women” he often surrounded himself with.
“It was a very, very big thing for me, because you don’t see yourself having the cellphone number of this big figure,” she said.
But it soon backfired on her.
“I would have to contact him every day. If I went to the shop to buy bread, I would have to let him know. He controlled my mind. What he was doing was designed to isolate me from the rest of society,” she said.
A constant refrain during their communications, she said, was his insistent question to her: “What about your love life?”
“It was always ‘love life, love life, love life’. But I didn’t have one. It was nonexistent. I was 14,” she said, tearfully.
He eventually forced himself on her, she said, “for two-and-a-half years, every weekend, every holiday — except when I was obviously on my cycle. Then he didn’t want to see me.
“Afterwards he prayed, asking God to forgive us our sins, to forgive us what we have done and wash us with the blood of Jesus. It was the prayer he always prayed after.”
Babalwa is one of at least 18 young women who allege that Omotoso sexually abused them. Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said that, “for boys and young men [who are survivors of sexual assault], the healing may be longer and maybe more difficult. But we will also give them whatever support they need.” Following media reports earlier this year about the alleged sexual abuse of boys by Anglican Church clergy, Thabo Makgoba, the archbishop of Cape Town, committed to supporting survivors of sexual abuse.
“In recent weeks, four individuals have either spoken out publicly or contacted my office privately to report experiences of sexual abuse in two dioceses, apparently during the 1970s and 1980s. It is clear from the experiences reported … that we are lagging behind in our care for victims of abuse.
“Last month, before these developments, the church’s Synod of Bishops held a detailed discussion on the worldwide Anglican Communion’s Safe Church Network. This is an international body on which we are represented and which was founded some years ago in response to … the betrayal of trust by some clergy and church workers who have abused children and adults for whom they have had pastoral responsibility.”
Makgoba said he had assembled a team a few years ago to advise him on how to handle such complaints. The team included a psychologist, a lawyer and a priest.
“However, since that team does not have the capacity to advise bishops across Southern Africa, I wrote to all our bishops last week advising them to establish similar advisory teams in their dioceses and in their local archdeaconries and parishes. I have asked that these teams be appointed to intervene when there are allegations of abuse in parishes or church schools.
“I am also urgently consulting more widely on how the church can not only act more effectively but be seen to act effectively in cases of sexual abuse. Key to my efforts is to achieve holistic and sustainable healing.”
In a recent Mail & Guardian report looking into sexual abuse by Anglican church clergy in South Africa, Gavin Hendricks* spoke about his years of sexual abuse.
When he was informed of the commission’s new support structure, Hendricks (52) said: “That’s a good thing, but you know it will never leave you. But it’s important for people to get things out in the open, because it gives these institutions cause to be careful. They’re supposed to be spaces where people can not only get moral support for what they are going through, but [where they] are also taught moral values. But ja …” he laughs wryly.
Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said people are more vulnerable to abuse in religious spaces “because of the holiness of the setting. This makes it more difficult for people to walk away and say: ‘No, this is wrong.’ For young people to stand up, it takes a lot.”
Young people like the woman I had the smoke break with. Not yet ready to tell her story, she failed to arrive on the day I was to interview her.
Mkhwanazi-Xaluva that “this is a different type of sexual offence because it is so immersed in religion … culture and tradition”.
Recalling her years of abuse, Babalwa wiped away tears as she said: “I need people to understand that it was not only sexual abuse that I endured at the hands of this person who used God to cover up his acts. I have suffered confusion, blurred lines between ‘Who is God?’, ‘What exactly am I supposed to do to attain salvation?’ and ‘If I don’t satisfy this man, then I’m not going to heaven’.
“My own beliefs were used to entrap me. He is a liar … too afraid to own up to what he is. So he uses God.”
* Not their real names.
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the M&G