Cape Town - The Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa has apologised for its past wrongs and failure to address sexual abuse claims.
Archbishop Thabo Makgoba was responding to damning allegations of sexual assault of a former Anglican and award-winning South African author Ishtiyaq Shukri by priests at St Cyprian’s School in Kimberley, Northern Cape.
Shukri’s best known work, The Silent Minaret, is about a South African Muslim boy facing prejudice in London in the wake of 9/11, which won the EU Literary Award in 2004.
“As the Archbishop of southern Africa, I take responsibility for what has happened during the time of my predecessors and where we have wronged or failed anyone, we beg their forgiveness,” Makgoba said.
He said the church’s Synod of Bishops in southern Africa was “shocked and distressed” to hear of Shukri’s abuse. He expressed his commitment to focus on claims of abuse levelled against the church’s leaders who were entrusted to give pastoral care, especially when nothing had been done about such allegations.
Makgoba said Shukri had been in touch with one of the bishops but was “unwilling to go into detail or name the person or persons who had abused him”.
“While respecting his wishes, we usually urge victims of abuse to lay charges with the police and with church authorities. The police are often better equipped to investigate cases than we are, especially in cases which go back many decades and may have occurred in dioceses whose former leaders have died,” Makgoba added.
Shukri broke his more than 40-year silence in an open letter to the press on sexual assaults he allegedly endured from various priests at St Cyprian’s Grammar School.
Although the alleged incidents took place a while ago, he felt he could no longer keep quiet after Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu announced his resignation as ambassador to Oxfam, the international aid agency, in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals that have recently rocked the organisation.
In response, Tutu said he was “mortified” to learn this week of the suffering of Shukri at the hands of priests in Kimberley.
“Members of the clergy who break the law or behave immorally are as accountable for their actions - now, in the past and in the future - as any other member of God’s family.”
Tutu said he had confidence in Makgoba’s commitment to hold the clergy accused of wrongdoing to account, and support those whose trust in the clergy had been betrayed.
In the letter, Shukri wrote: “when Archbishop Tutu made his statement about Oxfam, saying he is deeply disappointed about the sex scandal, I was reminded of all the times I had been sexually abused by Anglican priests."
“Not that one ever needs much reminding; my own memories of the abuse I experienced are with me everyday, and continue to impact my life on a daily basis."
“My memories dwell just beneath the surface of the veneer I have so carefully crafted to conceal them, covered in the shroud of silence I have draped over them since the first touch in 1978, when I was 10 years old."
“By the time of Father Desmond’s inauguration as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986, I was 18 and still being abused."
“I was not the only one; there were others, too, many much younger. Today, I am speaking only for me, but my heart goes out to all of them,” he said.
Shukri said he realised that breaking a silence of 40 years was as painful as maintaining it.
“As a child, those words - sexual abuse - were not part of my lexicon. The abuse was alienating and confusing. I did not know what to do, so I kept quiet, knowing that I was not alone, and that there were others, too.
“That knowledge provided a distorted sense of comfort, normalising the abnormal which, after all, is what life in apartheid South Africa trained us all to do.”
The abuse, he said, had a lasting impact on his life and led to him being dependent on medication for depression.
“I have lived with clinical depression all my life.
“Over the years, self-loathing and despair have become part of my experience, habitual thoughts of suicide part of my routine. I have cultivated different coping rituals to get through the desperation,” he added.
Shukri accused the Anglican church of a “conspiracy” of silence around sexual abuse in the church and challenged Tutu to openly take a stand against it.