The pastor is young, wears well-fitting suits, a gold-coated neck chain, big flashy watch, pointed shiny shoes and has a bit of an American accent when he takes to the pulpit. He is armed with a tablet, big bible, microphone and a small white towel and waves, “Praise Guaarrrrddd” to the excited crowd ready to receive from the table of the Lord.
Once the noise dies down, the congregation settles into their chairs. A few ladies exchange knowing glances at each other. Glances that say; we know what he did to the girls at the young professionals church, we know what he did to the woman whom it is claimed forced herself into his life. We know what happened to the woman that is always crying at the front of the church, the one who responds to every altar call because she has been convinced she has a “suicidal spirit” that needs casting. We know the numerous ex-girlfriends within the church he broke up with because “they couldn’t handle the “anointing” upon his life”.
They take their seats with a visible sneer on their faces and cross their feet. They sit silently, unmoved by the pastor’s charisma. They know and they have known for a long time. Everyone knows. But he is human, flawed and an imperfect vessel. Everyone will tell you, “embrace the message, the messenger is God’s responsibility, only God can judge him, touch not God’s anointed”, these silencing phrases are endless.
What does “everyone knows” do for the survivor? When does this collective knowledge become collective responsibility?
The flock-leader relationship is delicate. Many church members trust their pastors with intimate details of their lives, look up to church leaders for guidance, support and prayer. Many of these pastors and leaders are often seen as “spiritual authorities”, and some morph into “spiritual parents” and are fondly referred to as “Mum” or “Dad”.
Sexual abuse within the church isn’t unique to Pentecostal churches within the continent. The catholic church has been plagued by numerous sex abuse scandals over decades, around the world. The August 2018 grand jury report on clerical sex abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses gave a detailed account of decades of criminal offences against minors by catholic priests. In February 2019, Pope Francis spoke out against what he described as, “the sexual slavery that nuns and all-too-frequently suffered at the hands of catholic priests”.
In 2018, social media was flooded with heartbreaking stories of survivors of sexual abuse within the church under the hashtag #ChurchToo. Nigerians rallied against a pastor once a victim came out publicly. Popular Nigerian Pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo of COZA church in Abuja was forced to step down from his position after hundreds of protestors chanting anti-rape songs gathered outside the church premises. A celebrity photographer revealed pastor raped her when she was a minor in the central Nigerian city of Ilorin. This account is very significant because it shows the power of naming and shaming abusers within the church.
The church must be held to a higher standard of responsibility with relation to sexual crime within its walls. It should be a requirement from the registrar of societies to make sure churches answer if they have a sexual harassment policy? How does the church protect children from abuse? Once abuse has been reported, how is the abuse handled? Does the church have forums and sessions where sexual harassment and abuse is openly talked about? And where it fails can we then rely on the state to take charge?
The silencing of sexual abuse survivors within the church is fueled by deep cultural factors and unquestioned power. The pastoral-flock relationship presents a power dynamic that makes it very easy for religious leaders to be abusive, manipulative and controlling. Whenever abuse occurs within the walls of the church, the survivor is discouraged from reporting the violence as it will tarnish the leader’s name, which will, in turn, disgrace the church and hurt so many followers in the process.
It is no surprise the survivor ‘chooses’ silence over justice. With no access to proper counselling services, the survivor either shelve their pain and continues to attend the church or leaves the church.
The abuser, on the other hand, gets away with the crime and continues to abuse more people because faith institutions would rather protect their reputation than seek justice and protection for the survivors they claim to serve. If the survivor is ‘stubborn’ enough to report the matter, then the church rallies behind the abuser and the survivor is left alone voice.
Often times the survivor is coerced into withdrawing the charges and settling the matter out of court. The abuse is treated as a mediation case instead of the crime that it is. Sometimes the religious leaders reach out to the police, and the case will silently go away.
The survivor is treated like a situation that needs handling; with enormous pressure, survivors are paid off into silence. Never to be treated like a person who was harmed and needs healing, defending and protecting.
The church cannot be trusted to hold itself accountable, especially when it has a long history of thriving with little transparency. Abuse thrives in silence, secrecy and civility. Collective knowledge should lead to collective accountability. Our protest chants and shouts should rise until these abusers are brought to face the law. The separation of church and state is something we must continue to fight for because where the church cannot put internal protection mechanisms, then the state must step in to protect citizens. We don’t owe abusers decorum or civility. The protestors outside the COZA church refused silence and civility. That is the only way we confront abusers and cultures that enable them.
Wanjiru Nguhi is an Afro-Politico Feminist, Lawyer, Writer and the founder of Mwafrika Mwenzangut. Find me on Twitter: @Iam_Wanjiru