“If we don’t address the gospel of submission, we will never effectively address abuse.”
This view was expressed by the Anglican Bishop of Natal and echoed by a Pentecostal church leader at the recent conference organised by a coalition of faith-based organisations responding to the challenges of sexual and gender-based violence. In contrast, a female Pentecostal church leader claimed that submission was a ‘revelation from God’.
Titled “From Rhetoric to Action” it was clear at the conference, organised by We Will Speak Out South Africa (WWSOSA), that some senior church leaders commit to addressing sexual abuse, although responses are mixed and action is more difficult than talk.
Senior leadership from the Anglican, Methodist and Catholic churches described concrete steps their churches have taken to address gender-based abuse, discrimination, and violence within their structures. Steps include amending their policy and legal frameworks in a quest for victim-centred investigative processes and to sanction abusers at all levels of authority in the church, as well as putting in place preventive strategies like requiring Police Clearance for ordained and lay leaders. The Anglican Bishop of Natal emphasised his zero-tolerance approach to sexual and gender based violence within the Diocese of Natal, which he had already announced at a press conference in 2018.
On the other hand, Rev Msindisi Mbalo, representing a small group of concerned Pentecostal church leaders (5-Fold Ministries in Pietermaritzburg), expressed concern that addressing sexual and gender-based violence within the church continues to remain taboo amongst most Pentecostal churches.
Pastor Vanessa Chetty of The Hope Centre shared her experience as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, when as an 11-year old she spoke up and the church leader asked her: “What did you contribute to being raped?” (at age 6!). In order to prevent others suffering what she did, she had decided that her church would “do things differently”. She and her husband, also a pastor, have integrated sexual and gender based violence, human trafficking and related drug abuse matters into their church’s ongoing teaching and pastoral care ministries: “If we do not talk in church about the things our members deal with from Monday to Saturday, then all we are doing on Sundays is preaching sermons, “she said. She has also assisted the Department of Social Development in working towards new legislation that will directly address child abuse by faith leaders.
Representatives of the Phephisa Survivor Network, with over 20 survivor groups across KZN, briefly thanked the panellists and expressed their hope for closer collaboration in their struggle for justice and against survivor stigmatisation.
Those present agreed that a major hindrance to achieving justice within the faith sector is the slow and often corrupt Community Safety and Justice systems, which continue to protect perpetrators, intimidate complainants and undermine legal processes. It was also agreed to undertake joint advocacy to address this situation.
However, faith leaders did not only look for solutions outside themselves, but were honest enough to acknowledge their own role and complicity in abuse.
They called for continued training, communication, knowledge sharing, and opportunities for collaboration and emphasised the important role of We Will Speak Out SA in creating these spaces.