JOHANNESBURG - Sexual assault and rape survivor, Cheryl Zondi, said on Tuesday that church parishioners in South Africa would prefer to hide their heads in the sand instead of confronting abuses by their religious leaders against young women and children.
"As you all know I spoke out about the sexual abuse and psychological oppression I suffered at the hands of someone who was supposed to be a man of God. To an extent, this kind of abuse is unheard of, or perhaps even ignored because people do not want to believe that their spiritual leaders are capable of such atrocities," Zondi said during a media briefing in Johannesburg in which she announced the establishment of her own foundation.
"And having gone through [that] myself, I realise the gap that exists with the support of victims and survivors of this special, complex kind of abuse should be. There is lack in awareness because people out there are warned to perhaps be careful when they go out to a party or when they are out at night, but they are not necessarily warned when they are going to a church, an ancestral space, a traditional space or any other kind of religious setting."
Zondi, 22, said that the number of rape cases that have been laid against pastors and traditional leaders since she came out was "astounding", adding that it was a "wake-up call for everyone who has an ear to hear what is going on in this country" and that it was "extremely upsetting".
Zondi, the first witness in the trial of Nigerian televangelist Timothy Omotoso, said her new foundation was aimed at providing support to women and children who have been sexually, mentally, emotionally and spiritually abused in sacred spaces, and also raise awareness for psychological support of in such cases.
"The tagline for the Cheryl Zondi Foundation is turning pain into purpose. I have named the foundation after myself because of the level of support I received after I came out about my ordeal, and I aim to inspire other victims," Zondi said.
"We want to support them through the legal process that comes with speaking out. We want to push dramatic changes in the system to make it work for, and not against, victims. I also want people to stop expecting victims and survivors of assault to walk around and feeling sorry for themselves, and stop living their lives. Just because we have suffered abuse of any kind it does not mean we must stop having joy."
Omotoso, the leader of Jesus Dominion International Church, faces 63 main charges and 34 alternative counts in the Port Elizabeth High Court, including human trafficking, rape, sexual assault, and racketeering.
The 58-year-old televangelist allegedly trafficked more than 30 girls and women who were from various branches of his church to a house in Umhlanga, KwaZulu-Natal, where he allegedly sexually exploited them.
Zondi alleges that Omotoso sexually abused and raped her, forced her to perform sexual acts on him since she was 14 until she was 19, and was allegedly threatened with death if she ever left the church.