The Courage to Speak – The Church and Child Sexual Abuse

The Courage to Speak – The Church and Child Sexual Abuse

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Busola Dakolo, a professional photographer and a Nigerian celebrity has recently recounted painful and uncomfortable details of rape she experienced as a teenager in an interview that has sent shock-waves across social media. The alleged rapist has been named as Biodun Fatoyinbo, a Senior Pastor of The Commonwealth of Zion Church. The public reaction was swift with most people showing support for Busola, while Fatoyinbo released a statement denying the allegations.

Her disclosure has ignited a conversation about the unchecked prevalence of sexual abuse in churches in Nigeria and has shown Busola as the courageous hero she is. To understand the importance of her actions in speaking out publicly, we must understand a number of things. Firstly, that sexual assault has a devastating impact; secondly, that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 10 boys in Nigeria experience sexual violence before they reach the age of 18; and thirdly, that most children do not disclose sexual abuse experiences because they are ashamed and afraid of not being believed, afraid of social rejection and stigmatization, and are afraid of the predator. To make matters worse, only 2% of girls and 4% of boys in Nigeria know where to get help after abuse.

It is generally acknowledged that child sexual abuse is more about power than about sex, and typically occurs within asymmetrical power dynamics, where the perpetrator is in a dominant position in relation to the victim. However, these fears and the after-effect of abuse are exacerbated where the sexual abuse of a child involves a breach of trust. Where an authority figure is the perpetrator, an abused child experiences intimidation and is even more reluctant to report. When person in a position of authority abuses his/her position and uses that power to abuse children, the psychological effects leads to long-term harm and can cause permanent dysfunction, impaired ability to trust, sleeplessness, anger, and suicidal tendencies. Sadly, children who have experienced abuse are left to cope with sexual abuse by themselves and deal with the after-effects without any help, because the religious and socio-cultural settings in Nigeria do not encourage the reporting of abuse and do not demand that perpetrators are held accountable by the law.

So many faith-based organisations in Nigeria are a life-line to many people, but within the four walls of these organisations, there is sin that is often suppressed, disregard and refuted. The church leaders don’t respond appropriately to the reports of sexual abuse or address the culture that allows the abuse to occur in the first place. Churches, as a reflection of communities they reside in, are aware of child sexual abuse within the church and the risks it poses to children. Yet they take no steps to protect these vulnerable children. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales found that the safeguarding of children was relegated to second, even third place, with the Church much more concerned about reputation management. (The Commonwealth of Zion Church needs to take heed of this and should do the right thing). The Independent Inquiry was also devastatingly clear: Children could have been saved from abuse if the Church had focused less on its reputation.

There is a great need to change religious, societal, communal and individual attitudes towards child sexual abuse. There is a need to break down barriers limiting access to information, support, and mental health care services. Survivors need to feel safe, and they need know that they will be listened to, that they will be believed and that they will get justice. If we look at the first tangible steps that the Catholic Church has taken to address the issue of abuse with its church, they are insightful. Pope Francis has made it mandatory for Roman Catholic clergy to report cases of clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups to the Church, and for the first time, church officials are required to disclose any allegations that has come to their notice, instead of it being left to each individual’s discretion. This is meant to change the way the Church investigates cases of abuse and indicates that no-one will be exempt from its reach. There is still a long way to go, but this is a step in the right direction.

The churches in our communities have to change if they do not want to continue to fail survivors and vulnerable children. An independent Review of The Catholic Church in Scotland advised that a better resourced and independent safeguarding service was a “crucial step to promote transparency and restore credibility” and that “The leadership of the church must take ownership of driving the change necessary to gain a level of confidence that lessons have been learned.” This means that our churches should seek professional help to empower themselves to protect children and that the required culture change must be driven from the top.

(This article was written by Bola Tinubu,Partner & Corporate Law Practice Lead at Olajide Oyewole LLP)



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