Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]
March 3, 2021
By Marian Faa
- The ABC understands there was no policy relating to child protection in place at the time of the alleged abuse
- The issue has sparked concern about child safety in Fiji more broadly
- Seventy per cent of all sexual assaults indictments in the Fijian High Courts last month involved victims under the age of 18
A Methodist Church minister in Fiji has now been stood down as police investigate allegations he sexually abused 14 young boys between 2018 and this year.
Police told local media the alleged abuse happened in the outer island of Ovalau in the country’s south.
Communications Secretary for Fiji’s Methodist Church Reverend Wilfred Regunamada said the man has been instructed to stop preaching.
“He’s not allowed to be involved in doing any communion service,” Reverend Regunamada said.
“Due to the current investigation he has been instructed to go and stay at his home.”
Reverend Regunamada said the man had been working in Ovalau for at least three years.
The ABC has made multiple attempts to contact Fiji’s police service but did not receive a response.
It is understood no charges have been laid against the minister at this stage.
No child protection policy in place
Reverend Regunamada said the Methodist Church in Fiji was in the process of developing a child protection policy, which will be tabled at a meeting later this month.
However, the ABC understands there was no policy relating to child protection in place at the time of the alleged abuse.
“That is something that we’re working on,” Reverend Regunamada said.
It’s also unclear whether the minister had received any specific child safety education as part of his theological training.
“We talk about how we minister to young people … and we are taught the importance of, you know, how do we conduct ourselves in front of them,” Reverend Regunamada said.
He said the Methodist Church of Fiji condemned any form of violence against children and was committed to addressing the issue.
“This is a global thing, something that has been challenging the church. At one stage, it was an elephant in the house, no one talked about it,” he said.
“I think we want to talk about it more … you know, get this out from where it has been hidden.”
Community shocked by allegations
People in Ovalau have expressed concern over the allegations, which surfaced in local media reports late last week.
“A lot of people are still baffled … I wouldn’t want to condemn anyone until proven guilty,” Ovalau resident Suliana Sandys said.
Ms Sandys is a Methodist churchgoer and a former town council CEO in Ovalau.
She said sexual violence was an issue in the region but she was not aware of any past cases involving the Methodist Church.
“There has been quite a few cases of child molestation,” Ms Sandys said.
“Some have been hushed because of the embarrassment it will cause members of the community and the stigma on the child itself.”
‘Concerning’ rates of sexual violence against children
While police continue to investigate the allegations and no charges have been laid, the issue has sparked concern about child safety in Fiji more broadly.
Last month, 70 per cent of all indictments presented to the Fijian High Courts in relation to serious sexual assaults involved victims under the age of 18.
According to a report by Fiji’s Director of Public Prosecutions, some of the alleged victims were as young as five.
Shairana Ali, who heads the Fijian arm of non-profit organisation Save The Children, said the statistics were extremely concerning.
“Appropriate action needs to be taken. There needs to be longer sentencing, but also, there needs to be a lot of awareness in communities,” Ms Ali said.
She said in some cases, communities attempted to resolve instances of child sexual violence through traditional protocols.
“But at the end of the day, it’s the child who is left out and has to deal with a lifetime of psychological impact,” Ms Ali said.
Church leaders encourage community to speak up
General Secretary for the Pacific Council of Churches Reverend James Bhagwan encouraged people to continue speaking up about sexual violence against children.
“It’s never a good thing to hear, although at the same time, it’s good to know that these issues are being reported,” Reverend Bhagwan said.
“We (often) talk about these things quite generally. And when something is spoken about generally, then it’s very often that the issue itself is treated that way.
“If you know that something is happening, or you think that something is happening, it’s important to report that.”
Reverend Bhagwan said a child protection framework was being developed for churches across the region, with pilot programs to be rolled out in the Fiji, Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands.
“I guess this has been one of the gaps in our churches in the past,” Reverend Bhagwan said.
“We recognise that this is a very important issue, ensuring that there are very robust safeguarding issues (for children) within the church.”