Reverend June Major has been fighting for justice for 18 years, ever since she says she was raped by a fellow South African cleric.
She has undertaken various unorthodox protests in a bid to get the Anglican church of Southern Africa to open an investigation into her case and others.
On 9 August 2020, South Africa’s women’s day, Rev Major was among several women and activists who hung up underwear along the fence of the residence of the Archbishop of Southern Africa, Thabo Makgoba.
The women were protesting against what they said was inadequate action from the church over allegations of sexual misconduct by priests in the Anglican church of Southern Africa, including one who Rev Major says raped her.
“My fight isn’t against the church, it’s against the hierarchy and patriarchy that silences women, who tells us to keep quiet and who finds fault with us and allows the perpetrator to continue doing what they are doing,” she told South African media.
But this was not the first time Rev Major had protested against the church’s alleged silence on the issue.
‘I was willing to die’
In 2016, Rev Major went on her first hunger strike.
Four years later, in July this year, she went on another hunger strike, this time camping next to 20 Bishops court in Cape Town, the official residence of Archbishop Makgoba.
“I was willing to die on that pavement, not only for myself, but for every woman and child who’s been denied justice,” she told the BBC.
According to Rev Major, she was attacked in 2002, while visiting a seminary.
Rev Major says the priest entered the room where they were being hosted by one of the families at the seminary and attacked her.
“I fought him off but at some point he had his hands around my throat. I didn’t scream because there were children in the house. He left when he was done.
“I was shaky and frightened after. I just wanted to die. I called our other friend and told him what had happened,” she explains, adding that her attacker came back a second time and only left after she told him that their friend knew about the assault.
A life of silence and fear
Since the attack 18 years ago, Rev Major says she has been living in misery.
“[A] friend advised that we should keep the matter between ourselves and my rapist promised he would never attempt such a thing again. I agreed since in a few months’ time we would be living in separate towns and I thought that was enough closure.”
However, two years later, Rev Major decided to ask the church to have the matter investigated.
“I was again advised to keep quiet. I agreed, thinking I needed to protect the name of the church, an institution I loved very much. Unfortunately the silence took its toll on me.”
Rev Major says she has constant nightmares and has a fear of staying in rooms that can’t be locked, sometimes even sitting with her back against doors that can’t lock.
“I never let people get too close to me, let alone men, because I was hurt by someone I considered close,” she says.
Church accused of hypocrisy
It was only after someone she knew was involved in a rape case that Rev Major went public with her story, hoping that she would get some form of healing and inspire other victims to get the courage to report their attackers.
She first took her fight for justice to the police to open criminal proceedings but that did not bear any fruit.
She then took it to the church not only with the hope that the church would look into her alleged attack, but would address other allegations of sexual abuse.
She says the reaction she got from the church was further silence, prompting her to go on her first hunger strike in 2016. Only then, she says, did the church react – on the the seventh day of her hunger strike, the church administration promised to look into the matter. Rev Major, however, says nothing came of the promise.
The church says it urged her to ask the police to re-open investigations.
On 1 July, four years after her first such action, she says she felt compelled to go on another hunger strike, after what she felt was hypocrisy on the part of the church.
“That same year I went on my first hunger strike, I lost my income as a priest. I wanted to move to a new job in Australia and hence resigned from my post. However, I needed a letter of recommendation to be able to start my new job.
“My letter, which initially had been promised, never came and I haven’t been able to work as a priest ever since,” says Rev Major.
She then opted to sue the church for loss of income. The matter is still in court.
“What angers me is that the archbishop speaks up against sex- and gender-based violence, and patriarchy, yet the reason I am where I am is because of inaction from the church.
“It’s sad that as a woman you have to go to such extremes and put your body in danger, but I needed to speak to Makgoba to know what he would do about it [the rape case] and demand an internal investigation and some kind of justice,” she says.
What the church says
Six days after Rev Major went on hunger strike, she agreed to call it off after meeting Archbishop Makgoba.
He told her to put her demands in writing via email.
“The following Monday, the archbishop responded to me saying that they will start a disciplinary hearing and contact the prosecutor in the town the rape took place to re-open the case. Based on that, I stopped my hunger strike.”
The church emailed her, saying it was “committed to ensure that the matter is addressed with the seriousness it deserves”.
On its website, the Anglican Church of South Africa says it outlined the standards expected of clergy and office bearers in 2002. This was in a bid to address “the many forms of abuse of power that often affected women and children”.
In 2018, a framework was put in place to address complaints and “create a safe church and in 2019, committed itself to create spaces where justice and restoration can take place”.
However, two years later, Rev Major and other gender activists hung underwear at the archbishop’s gate in protest at what she termed a conflict of interest by members of the safe church committee, who are also members of the Anglican church tasked to investigate her case.
Ina statement released on her Facebook page Rev Major said: “I believe that an investigation conducted by people who are on the payroll of, and aligned to the Church, would only serve to further victimize me.”
She wants the investigation to be carried out by an independent body. She has resolved this with the church and has agreed to go through with the process.
The church released its own statement, saying that Rev Major was free to hire lawyers and that the church was even willing to help her get support, should it deem it necessary.
Additionally, the church says that in response to Rev Major’s concerns, it has “included a reputable part-time commissioner of the Gender Commission on the panel which will investigate her [Major’s] complaint. It is hoped that this will provide her with an added level of trust and comfort with the process”.
The Anglican Church of South Africa has faced several cases of sexual misconduct by its priests.
In 2018, award-winning South African author Ishtiyaq Shukri wrote an open letter stating he had faced years of sexual abuse at the hands of Aglican priests as a child.
Archbishop Makgoba apologised on behalf of the church for what he called past wrongs and the failure to address sexual abuse claims. Days later he revealed that several other victims had come forward, accusing some of the church’s priests of sexual abuse.
The church has also announced other cases that are being looked into.
Rev Major has said that she is open to going through the Anglican church’s investigative process.
In a statement, she said it was important for her and for the church that justice be served.
She said she had often considered pursuing the matter through the courts, rather than the church “but God made the calling on my life in the Anglican Church and that is where I believe He still calls me to be of service as His humble servant.”