Like many South Africans, I watched with horror, shame and disbelief last week the trial proceedings of Mr Tim Omotoso who has been charged with rape and human trafficking.
Omotoso is a supposed pastor and as a religious leader and a Christian I feel scandalized and embarrass by his alleged conduct. The title pastor has a Greek origin meaning a herdsman or shepherd who looks after sheep. A shepherd guides and protects his sheep. Therefore, if anyone calls himself a pastor, s/he must be having the qualities of a shepherd – guiding and protecting those over whom s/he presides.
What we heard from the young and courageous Cheryl Zondi who testified against Omotoso suggests the latter is not a pastor. No pastor worthy of the title does to his congregants what Omotoso allegedly did to Cheryl. He did not guide and protect Cheryl as expected of the person who occupies his religious position. He used the title pastor or the so called man of God to abuse her and others who still to testify
The title pastor, as with many titles in the Christian faith today, is loosely used. There are many dubious characters who go around calling themselves prophets, bishops and apostles, among others, but whose claims to these titles cannot be backed up by credible deeds in ministry.
Paul, for an example, could lay claim to the title of apostle given the many letters he wrote and the churches he established. And the man was learned too. Today any clown with a motley crowd of zealots and who can hardly put together an intelligible paragraph can wake up and call himself an apostle when he is, in fact, a charlatan.
The sad thing is that there will always be a gullible audience ready to be the followers of these religious con artists. And let us disabuse ourselves of the notion that only the poor and uneducated are the followers of these dubious religious leaders. I have seen the rich and sophisticated fall prey to these tricksters by being promised miracles. The latter can only be performed by God and no religious leader has the right to extort money from the public in exchange of miracles. God’s gifts and miracles are given and received freely.
Back to Cheryl, her case speaks to the urgent need for the religious sector to develop a code of good practice or conduct. In its absence, some religious leaders think they can do as they please with their followers. Such a code must address, apart from conduct, the very establishment of a religious organization.
Who establishes a religious organization and what are the criteria that must be fulfilled? Can anyone come into South Africa without any reference from their country of origin and start a religious organization? Should there be some kind of vetting or peer review that precedes the establishment of a religious organization? Who do the leaders of these religious organizations account to?
If society has an issue with the conduct or integrity of a religious leader, what are the governance structures that can be approached? And here I make a distinction between the ethical and the criminal. On the latter, there should no ambiguity about approaching law enforcement agencies. If a so-called man of God is alleged to have broken the law, our criminal justice system must kick in. No one, however anointed they claim to be, must be above the law.
Buy calling for self-regulation within the sector one is by no means implying that this should replace the application of the law. We have had instances were men of the cloth have been accused of breaking the law. These include allegations of rape, child abuse and fraud, among others. In such cases the law must simply take its course. Self-regulation should not be a cover for impunity
I was aghast to see some of Omotoso’s followers on television coming to his defence. I felt particularly appalled when I saw women defending Omotoso and accusing Cheryl of lying. Even the manner she was cross-examined was problematic for some of us and I know my colleagues in the South African Council of Churches have already expressed their concern in this regard. The cross examination came across as further brutalization, with the judge losing patience with the defence at some stage. In a country that has a Bill of Rights and one where we have seen gross violation of women and their rights, our judicial officers and the justice system in general has some introspection to make.
Finally, I commend Cheryl Zondi for the courage she showed by standing up to abuse and crude religious authority. She has, through her testimony, taken forward the struggle against gender-based violence and in the process exposed what is wrong with some of our religious organizations. Bravo to her!
Pastor Ray McCauley is the President of Rhema Family Churches and Co-Chairperson of the National Religious Leaders Council.