Johannesburg – Calls for justice have been made against a church for allegedly defending a church worker accused of gender-based violence.
Members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (SDA) went on social media to lambast the church for protecting a man who allegedly sexually assaulted a 16-year-old youth member of the church branch in Bedfordview, east of Johannesburg.
The alleged perpetrator, Nkosi Gagisa, is set to appear before the court for his bail hearing on the allegations of sexual assault and attempted rape. The church told the Sunday Independent that Gagisa was not employed by the church at the time of the incident but is still a member.
When news of his alleged assault went public, the SDA responded with a one-page statement calling for peace and prayers as the matter was investigated. This had church members reacting on Facebook and Twitter, criticising the SDA’s ill-treatment of women within the church.
A petition for the court to oppose Gagisa’s bail was started by another pastor of the SDA church who opposed the statement but was unavailable for comment. Writer and member of the church, Bomikazi Njoloza, said that the allegations made against Gigasa fit the environment of the SDA from a woman’s perspective.
“When this was brought to our attention, the bail hearings hadn’t started, but there was a petition circulating against granting him bail. That petition was started by a woman pastor within the structures of the church, and it got a little bit of backlash,” Njoloza said.
“We had been trying to mobilise and activate in the spaces we had access to, and the pastors we had access to, to garner support for the petition.”
Njoloza explained that when the Youth Director, Pastor Talent Moyo, of the Bedfordview-based church, released the statement. It angered members. They felt it was a continuation of protecting abusers despite the church’s public rejection of gender-based violence and abuse.
In the statement, the branch of the SDA said: “We note with caution the unfortunate information which regards to the accusation of sexual offences involving some of our young people within our two churches in the conference.”
The statement included resources created to help victims of abuse before ending with, “For now, I urge all to substitute individual opinions with prayer and support to the involved parties as we extend the love of God that keeps us safe in His everlasting arms. I stand in support of our local Pastors as they deal with this matter diligently in the respective churches.”
Njoloza felt the statement tried to discourage members and silence those in support of the victim and other survivors. Additionally, she and other members on Twitter called out Moyo’s stance and defence of the statement through his tactics of deflection and invalidation of members’ re-tellings of abuse inflicted by senior SDA church workers.
“I grew up in a church environment that protected perpetrators, and the fact that for the first time in my life that a person tried to force themselves on me was, in fact, a pastor, who was also a deputy principal in my school because I went to a Seventh-Day Adventist school. But they were also my church pastor. They were also my kindergarten teacher, the person who taught me to sing ‘Barbie Girl,” she said.
The Bedfordview-based branch said the statement released by Moyo was not an official response from the church’s executive committee. The church’s legal representative, Advocate J Strydom, said that the executive committee would meet on November 27 on the matter but continue to offer their support to the victim and their family through the local church and pastor.
The SDA church is an Adventist Protestant Christian denomination distinguished by its observance of Saturday as the Sabbath and the seventh day of the week in the Christian and the Hebrew calendar.
On the SDA’s website, the church said that it had its own programme, called End It Now, to tackle and eliminate abuse within its organisation, but Njoloza, along with another anonymous member said the programme had no strong presence within the church congregation.
Both women said that those who spoke out against the church, defying its brand, would face some sort of punishment.
“When it comes to holding men accountable or holding spaces for victims, End It Now can only do so much because it has to exist within a frame that defends the brand of the church,” Njoloza said.
“In real terms, people have not felt safe. If anything, the things that have made them feel safe to even tell their stories are architecture outside the church. Whether it is social media or work done by NGOs or communities, it’s certainly not the church.”
“Because the church’s approach is that when harm has been done, there is a whole narrative of forgiveness and the understanding that people are prone to sin. It’s a lot safer to go to an NGO or directly to the police station instead of engaging with the systems the church is trying to build. Because those systems are fundamentally flawed because they have to exist in the interest of the church.”
The church said that where workers and church members violate the church’s standards of ethics, they are disciplined under the SDA Church manual.
From as early as the 1800s, there has been a string of abuse scandals that have rocked Christian churches across the world, particularly within the Catholic denomination.
Findings from a 2021 independent inquiry exposed harrowing details of the abuse of minors by active and retired Catholic priests. The inquiry concluded that there were about 216,000 victims of sexual abuse carried out by the French Catholic Church’s clergy between 1950 and 2020.
Other notable cases include:
- In 2015, former pastor Georg Kerkhoff was convicted and sentenced to six years in jail in Germany for sexual abuse. He was charged with more than 20 cases of sexual abuse of children from 2001 to 2006 in Krefeld and Nettetal, Germany, and two years later in South Africa, where he was accused of sexually abusing children during a religious camp.
- Cardinal George Pell was an Australian Catholic priest who was found guilty in 2018 of sexually abusing choirboys in Melbourne in the 1990s. He was released in 2020, having served more than one year in jail after Australia's top court overturned his conviction.
- In Germany, a German Bishops’ Conference study in 2018 previously revealed widespread sexual abuse by German clergy in the western state of Cologne. It revealed that 314 minors (mostly boys under 14 years) were sexually abused there between 1975 and 2018.
- In 2022, South Baptist church leader Paige Patterson was fired in Texas over remarks and sex abuse allegations against women. In June of that year, more than 3,300 Southern Baptist women signed a petition for Patterson's removal from the church over malicious remarks made towards women.
- In 2018, South African author Ishtiyaq Shukri revealed the sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of priests in Kimberley in an open letter addressed to the late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.