Contrary to the illusion that places of worship offer a safe haven to children against predatory faith leaders, an investigation by iHubOnline has revealed that many children in Malawi are actually at greater risk of sexual abuse and exploitation at the hands of custodians of their faith.
Although there are no precise official figures of children sexually abused in religious circles, data we have sourced randomly from the police and court records paint a worrisome picture.
The random historical investigation, spanning the past 10 years, shows that abuse is not a preserve for a particular religion as accusations, arrests and prosecutions were secured for faith leaders or lay workers across religions.
The research, however, shows that a culture of silence, cover-up and concocting lies to suppress child sexual abuse reports among the abused children are major stumbling blocks.
Out of the sampled 14 cases we managed to verify, at least three perpetrators are known to have exposed their victims to HIV, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), pregnancy and unsafe abortion.
This corroborates fears that sexual and reproductive health rights of minors could be under threat in religious circles hence the need for interventions aimed at making religion safer for them.
Our research established that at least 14 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in 11 out of 28 districts.
Police agree that levels of disclosure of abuse among children is low due to threats of violence, fear of losing livelihoods or scholarships, or fear of being blackmailed to have consented.
Actually, our study of the cases shows that most abuse went unreported until much later due to similar reasons.
Malawi Police National Child Protection Officer Alexander Ngwala told iHubOnline that child sexual abuse is a bigger problem in Malawi.
“There are currently two major problems – child sexual abuse in places of worship and girl children patronizing drinking joints,” Ngwala observes.
He added: “In the year ending, for example, we engaged CCAP Nkhoma Synod (with support from UNICEF) on ending child sexual abuse in general and child marriages in particular.”
The Violence Against Children and Young Women Survey (VACs) of 2013 suggests that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 7 boys experience at least 1 incident of sexual abuse before attaining 18.
The VACs report recommends education, disclosure and counseling as critical steps towards eradicating abuse.
Evidence of prevalence
Police and courts official records show that Father Andrew Timpuza (60) and Father Francis Ngalande (44) belonged to the Catholic Church, Pastor Chiwawa Banda (42) of the CCAP Livingstonia Synod, Pastor Harrison Juwa (50) of the Seventh Day Adventist and Pastors Steve Wingolo (39), Henry January (39), Philip Ndipo (50), Brighton Favor Mbewe (35), Chikumbutso Pilowe (41), Vincent Mateyu (45), Juwao Antonio (52) and Steven Maseko (32) all belonging to various Pentecostal churches and Sheikh Jawadu Mbiya of Islam have either been arrested or convicted of child sexual abuse-related offenses in the last 10 years. Ages of the suspects or accused are as recorded upon arrest of the suspects.
A follow up on some of the child sexual abuse cases showed that the State could not proceed to prosecute as some victims had opted to withdraw.
An 18 year old survivor whose abuser is still in jail told us that many people pleaded with her to consider dropping the case for the sake of her churches’ reputation.
“They told my family that he had repented and I should forgive him. But I and my family refused,” she told us.
How they did it
Some two months ago, Pastor Wingolo was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl who was a member of the Soul Savers Church’s praise team in Area 25 in Lilongwe.
According to court documents, the pastor allegedly impregnated the girl and, further, enticed her to procure an abortion.
In October 2018, a Ntcheu based Pastor Ndipo of the New Covenant Assemblies of God was arrested for allegedly sexually abused his neighbors’ 10-year-old daughter.
In 2017, records we have seen show that Father Timpuza sexually abused a passing by 17-year old girl whilst Father Ngalande is on record to have sexually abused a 16-year-old beneficiary of a scholarship scheme he managed in 2016.
The two cases involving Catholic priests were reported in Dedza and Kasungu respectively.
Another case involving a catholic priest was recorded in 2018. The Zomba Magistrate Court slapped Father Numeri Mweta formerly of Lisanjala Parish under the Zomba Diocese with a 17-year jail term for child sexual abuse.
In Rumphi, Reverend Banda of CCAP Livingstonia Synod was jailed for 14 years for sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl several times in 2017, according to court documents.
Court records indicate that the cleric had bought a mobile phone to entice the minor.
Pastor Juwa of the SDA was on the wrong side of the law after sexually abusing his 13-year-old niece staying under his roof in Lilongwe.
In 2015, Pastor January of the Zionist Christian Church in Zomba told a 15-year-old victim that she was under a spell that required special prayers. When they went to a secluded place for the alleged special prayers, the “man of God” defiled the unsuspecting girl.
In 2014, Pastor Mbewe of Winners Chappel in Nkhotakota was handed a 7-year prison term for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl.
The victim was assigned to assist with household chores at the convict’s house.
In Chikwawa, Pastor Pilowe of Jesus Message Church was arrested for sexually abusing a 16-year-old faithful whom he had offered to pray for in what he called “demon cleansing prayers.”
Records indicate the Pastor threatened the victim that the impending ailment would attack sooner if the prayers were delayed.
Pastor Mateyu of the Pentecostal Church in Zomba was sentenced to 16 years in jail for offering money to have sex with a 10-year-old victim in 2016.
In 2017, 52-year-old Pastor Antonio of the United Church of God in Neno was arrested for having sex with a mentally challenged 16-year-old girl.
In November 2015, Pastor Justin Katsala of the Evangelical Church was arrested for allegedly raping a 19-year-old girl during special prayers at his house in Lilongwe.
In Mangochi, an Imam (Islamic Studies instructor) was nabbed by law enforcers for allegedly defiling a 5-year-old minor back in 2008.
Why tackle sexual abuse in religion separately?
National Child Protection Officer at Malawi Police is a scared man: “Every year, we arrest several religious leaders on child sexual abuse charges. This is scary. A lot needs to be done to make religious places safer for children.”
Association of Progressive Women (APW) Executive Director Noel Msiska cautions however that oftentimes, religious leaders cover up to protect reputation of their institutions.
“Because of such secretive nature, child sexual abuse cases in religious set-ups require different approaches,” he observes.
After the home and school, most children are likely to spend significant time in a religious institution.
In light of the risk, it is important to empower children and adolescents to speak out so that sex abusers are removed from the pulpit in Churches and Mosques and sent to jail, where their type belongs.
Left unattended, religious institution will turn into a grooming hotspot for future sexual abusers, not God-fearing citizens.