Abuse of women and children by religious leaders/sector: CRL Commission briefing

Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities

30 October 2018
Chairperson: Ms T Memela (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities Commission (CRL Rights Commission) presented its recommendations to prevent the commercialisation of religion and the abuse and exploitation of people’s belief systems. There is a lack of proper regulation to control churches that are operating outside of the law. Municipality by-laws should be enforced. Legislation should be put in place to allow for the accountability, transparency, registration and regulation of churches and religious leaders. The South African Revenue Service (SARS) should play a role by ensuring that tax is paid by churches. An investigation team has been put in place by SARS to monitor this. There was the suggestion to make use of a peer review system by the Commission to prevent abuse.

The public awareness campaign suggested by the CRL Rights Commission was welcomed by the Committee and education institutions should be engaged as well when this is initiated. The differentiation between a church and a cult must take place. Many MPs felt that self-regulation is not possible in the religious sector and that government needs to intervene with legislation. The acknowledged that the Commission’s budget was insufficient to deal with this. They encouraged partnership with other Chapter 9 Institutions as well as government departments.

The rape trial of the Nigerian pastor, Timothy Omotoso, who had operated for many years in South Africa, loomed large in the meeting. The Commission was meeting the Minister of Justice later that day to urge for witness protection and counselling of victims to ensure the safety of those who had been abused.

Meeting report

Ms Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, Chairperson of CRL Rights Commission, said that it is important to hold the meeting given that South Africa is faced with sexual abuse of women in certain churches. She highlighted the following challenges within the South African religious sector:
▪ There is mushrooming of independent and charismatic churches in the country by both South African and foreign pastors.
▪ Lack of effective regulations in the religious sector profession.
▪ The religious sector accounts to no one.

There is a “Big Man” syndrome. Men are taking control of churches and they are looked upon as men of God. The man is everything in the church. There is a gender problem in churches and women are at the bottom of the church ranks. She noted that there is the “supermarket approach” within the religious sector with the selling of faith in the church through products such as healing water, salt and candles. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) had been approached and it was investigating this. Advertising rules are not followed when these products are sold. Municipal by-laws are broken by churches. Some are occupying old buildings and parking lots which raises safety concerns. Enforcement of by-laws by municipalities needs to take place.

Due to unemployment, inequality and poverty, people are desperate and believe in the promises made in these churches. The poor economic state of the country is playing a big role. Children who graduate and are unemployed are being taken advantage of as they resort to these churches. Exploitation takes places when they are told: “God said this”. She gave an example of the Omotoso trial where people were told that if they did not conform to a certain standard they would die as well as their families. Patriarchy exists in these churches. Boys are also abused and are reluctant to come forward. Boys find it challenging to take this to law enforcement officers. When households are not working well, mothers find themselves learning towards the church and this becomes problematic. This also applies to young girls. Music drew a lot of girls to the Omotoso house. Music was an idea that was sold to them to limit and destroy their professional life. There are threats of death if they do not submit to the religion. Religious leaders make money easily and become millionaires - this is a lucrative business. She was pleased that the whole nation now knows about the role of religious people and their ways, through the Omotoso trial. She remarked that dealing with drug lords is easier than religious leaders. It is important to find a way to keep girls who are trapped in these churches alive. There is a problem with foreigners forming churches. With the Seven Angels case, it is not just a case of the killing of police but what was taking place before this incident. There is a problem with people controlling each other through churches. It is now a case of national security. People should have a sense of urgency. It is not only charismatic churches that need to be monitored but all churches. People need to be protected from individuals in the religious profession rather than the church or the bible. She said that Cheryl Zondi would not have gone through what she endured for four years if there were laws that monitored abuse. Most of the girls call religious leaders “daddy” and this alone is problematic.

Recommendations to deal with challenges:
▪ State intervention is needed.
▪ Peer-review will play an important role if there are able to call out the perpetrators for their wrong doings.

The freedom of religion that currently exists needs to be well defined. What is happening in the Port Elizabeth High Court should wake up the nation.

Another recommendation was raising public awareness and education campaigns. The person who says that they speak to God every day and every minute needs mental assessment. People need to be aware of what is happening around them. People need to be sceptical as this will save millions of people’s lives. God is God everywhere, but people must not abuse this. She said that the CRL Rights Commission is working on a public awareness campaign and they are talking with the National Lotteries Commission. She hopes Parliament will assist with this.

Mr M Dirks (ANC) thanked Ms Mkhwanazi-Xaluva for the presentation. He supported self-regulation that was previously tabled by the Commission, but matters have since changed. The government must step in and regulate the religious sector as it cannot do so on its own. Religious leaders have failed to protest about abuse and corruption in churches. The church has been captured. Why are these religious leaders not on the streets? He had a problem with peer review. The church operates on the premise of forgiveness. Peer review will not be possible to execute in the religious sector because of forgiveness.

Ms T Stander (DA) said that religious manipulation of people is not something new and has taken place before. She referred to the Doom sprayer case. The CRL Rights Commission is already aware of these cases. The mandate of CRL Rights Commission, in terms of Section 4 of the CRL Rights Commission Act, requires it to conduct a legislative intervention if need be. She disagreed with peer review. Public hearings are a requirement based on Section 4 and it is not right to engage with the religious leaders at a peer level. She said what is required is a Religious Practitioners Act, were a council will exist and allow for compulsory registration and regulation. This will weed out harmful practices. Everyone must be safe as defined by the Constitution. Complaints and investigation mechanisms and procedures should be implemented.

Ms C Majeke (UDM) applauded the Commission for its good work. She said that the state is supposed to protect the nation. Formal law should be put in place. Churches need to be regulated and municipalities should do checks on the locations of these churches and find out if they are demarcated. If one is found not to be in a demarcated location, it must be closed. SARS should come in through the regulation of financial transactions within churches. Children and teachers must be involved when campaigns are run. The differentiation between a church and a cult must take place.

Ms G Tseke (ANC) said that Ms Mkhwanazi-Xaluva is a fighter in her own right. There is a need for a sense of urgency to regulate. She noted that the CRL Rights Commission receives it budget from COGTA and asked about its budget. Does the Commission have capacity and skills? What is the role of foreign nationals in the country? What is the Commission’s relationship like with other Chapter 9 institutions? Do you have support from the Department of Justice?

Ms M Khawula (EFF) said that these churches have grown immensely in the townships and rural areas. We must go to these communities and have mass meetings with community members and warn them about the dangers of these churches. These churches lie to lure families to join their churches, cause division amongst families and move them away from their traditions. These churches in townships that operate all day and night should be looked at. The church has lost its dignity as there are now churches with ATMs and many pastors have their own TV channels. They have been given a platform to reach more people. It has made it easy to exploit people and take their money. They promise better lives, jobs and good luck if you donate. She was thankful for the Omotoso trial.

A committee member said that Parliament needs to engage communities to make them aware of bogus churches. The Commission should follow up on the abuse of men. Such churches must be barred from operating both in urban and rural areas. Traditional leaders also follow up on the role of charismatic churches.

Ms D Robison (DA) thanked the Commission for the presentation. She asked where is the manpower and funding? Funding must be available. She asked how the Committee can help the CRL Rights Commission.

The Chairperson said that foreigners are playing a huge role in this exploitation. It is not a case of xenophobia as most cases involve foreigners. She referred to the Omotoso case and how it has made children turn away from their parents. Until when will women allow these “animals” to work like this, they need to be gotten rid of. These churches need to be closed. Municipalities need to ensure that they are on the lookout when it comes to allowing such churches to build.

Ms P Bhengu-Kombe (ANC) thanked the Commission for their work. SARS and government need to regulate and collect revenue from these churches. Some of these foreign-led churches must be closed. She asked if the CRL Rights Commission has considered holding a summit and calling church leaders to deal with these matters. She gave the example of the Pope who is going around the world addressing the abuse of men in Catholic churches.

Mr T Nkonzo (ANC) said that the awareness campaign is on its way and awareness should start in Parliament before moving beyond Parliament. The partnership between the CRL Rights Commission and men’s organisations should exist.

The Chairperson said that engagement with men will play an important role.

Ms Mkhwanazi-Xaluva replied that the call for regulation of the religious sector has been ignored. The silence is weakening. She referred to the Omotoso trial and said that Omotoso had chosen the wrong girls and they said enough is enough and stood up to defend themselves. The problem is bigger than this case alone. The state cannot take over the church. The state should only come in when the church fails to regulate itself. The Constitution says that communities need to be protected from religious leaders and not the protection of the leaders. In terms of peer review, forgiveness happens within a church itself. But if people are pulled from various sectors outside of this particular church, forgiveness will not take place. Some religious leaders claim to have more power than the President. The awareness campaign is determined by funding. The CRL Rights Commission only gets R49 million and they cannot run a public awareness campaign with such funds. Their budget is disabling them and causes inflexibility. They are located only in Johannesburg, but more offices are needed. The nation needs a campaign. No Commission conference has taken place over the last five years and Parliament is supposed to assist with funding but is not doing so. If funding is sourced from churches, it will cause more challenges. They will capture the Commission. Parliament advised them to source funding from the churches because they have money. CRL Rights Commission is looking for funding elsewhere.

There is the Commission Report recommending that everyone must be registered, have licences, be accountable and be in line with the code of conduct. Recommendations have been sent to COGTA. They were not embraced. The sample they used was a scientific one.

Ms Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said that freedom of religion comes with limitations given the Act that currently exists. Through Parliament, pastors must behave in a certain way. There must be a system in place for this. A worship centre should be registered through the municipalities and controlled by the law. Everyone is afraid of religious leaders. Religious leaders need to join accredited organisations.

SARS set up a unit to investigate the activities of the religious sector. They need to collect as much as they can from these churches. Poor people are affected the most. Middle income earners are paying as much as R22 000 to have a one-on-one with religious leaders.

Ms Mkhwanazi-Xaluva replied that they do have a relationship with other Chapter 9 institutions. Other Chapter 9 institutions were involved in helping the girls in the Omotoso trial to share their story. The witness protection programme has not been used yet. The girls from the Omotoso trial are still living the same way and live in fear. None of them is protected currently. She herself received a tip off that she was in danger and that she was going to be killed. Nothing has happened to date.

Ms Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said she cannot make the system move; what can they do for a girl who does not have access to security. Psychological assessments are not being availed to these girls. Social services are also scarce. The country needs to support the young people involved in these cases. She pleaded for the Committee to support the CRL Rights Commission. They are meeting with the Minister of Justice today to talk about the witness protection programme.

The Chairperson called for a break as there were Committee members who were emotional in the response to Ms Mkhwanazi-Xaluva. The room was full of emotion. The meeting continued after a few minutes.

Ms Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said that CRL is aware of terms of the abuse of men. They have approached some of the men but they said that they do not want to go on record. ATMs are being put into some of the churches. People are being manipulated into making money transfers to the church. Television itself is also playing a huge influential role in flighting illegal adverts about some churches. There are people who come out of prison who become pastors. A law must be put in place to curb this. Training should take place to ensure that religious leaders are trained in their profession. A religious summit has been tabled and Pastor Ray McCauley is set to head the summit. There is no definite date on this yet. She concluded that the lives of young girls and women need to be protected.

Ms Majeke asked how difficult it is to get social workers on board. She is happy that COGTA has been approached for assistance. South Africa needs to close some of the churches as is being done in other countries. Based on the Omotoso trial, serious monitoring is needed. A meeting with the Speaker needs to happen.

Ms Bhengu said that she tried to contact the Minister of Women but she was not available. She noted the breaking news that the judge presiding over the rape trial of Omotoso has dismissed an application for leave to appeal a ruling rejecting a request that he recuse himself. The use of people in wheelchairs for healing is also something that she is not taking lightly.

Ms Khawula said that it is their duty as public servant and as a community leader to ensure that when the churches referenced in the CRL Commission Report, arrive to set up shop, that they go and ensure that indeed there would be no playing around with people's beliefs by fake pastors. It is really sad how people with disabilities are being treated in these churches. Disability is not a choice, Disabled persons attending such churches could not be blamed entirely. When foreign pastors get here in South Africa, they start having relationships with young girls in these churches. They marry these girls so that they can manipulate and abuse them. The law had to be tightened around citizenship or work permits because the relaxed Home Affairs legal framework will be the destruction of South Africa. The law is not strict enough here as in other countries. Most of the fake pastors when investigated were found to be criminal refugees running from prosecution in their countries of origin. People have lost their common sense when it comes to these churches. There are kids who no longer go to school or get jobs because their main concern is to serve the church. Also people have stopped taking their medications even when they need to because of the "holy water" they get from church.

It was wrong that when the Committee was discussing such matters that the Minister of Women was absent from the Committee. Traditional leaders also had to be engaged on fake ministries because in some rural areas such churches had also proliferated. She appreciated the work of the CRL Commission proposing that the Commission together with the Commission on Gender Equality should be better funded to further resource their mandates. Police must arrest pastors who are accused of wrongdoing and the Hawks, NPA, SIU must investigate how these churches make so much money. Those found to be doing wrong must be brought to justice.

 A committee member asked why the government continuse to grant the operation of these churches given the impact they have caused? The CRL Rights Commission should deal with the churches directly.

Ms Stander said that it is sad to know that there is no support being given. R49 million is not sufficient for the Commission. An appeal should be made to Treasury and the Finance Minister. Why not cut back on the R9.1 billion that is being paid out for VIP protection services for Ministers. Treasury should fund the conference.

The Chairperson said that the future of the girl and boy child is being destroyed. More responsibility and accountability should take place. What are people doing as mothers? She gave the example of a sect in Uganda where people were burnt in a church in a case of genocide. They need to act immediately before it turns into this in South Africa.

The meeting was adjourned.

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