BLENHEIM (NEW ZEALAND)
Stuff [Wellington, New Zealand]
September 13, 2021
By Kirsty Johnston
For 16 years a Blenheim woman endured rumours and speculation about her sexual harassment by an Anglican clergyman. A Human Rights Review Tribunal declaration means she can finally tell her full story.
When grieving mother Jacinda Thompson sought solace from her priest, he soothed her with his vision of her stillborn child “cradled in Jesus’ arms”. Just weeks later, the Reverend Michael van Wijk would be touching her thigh and trying to kiss her, even as she cried and begged him to stop.
It was the first time van Wijk sexually assaulted her, but not the last, Thompson told the Human Rights Review Tribunal last June, more than 15 years since that day.
Van Wijk had gone to Thompson’s Blenheim home for a spiritual mentoring session because his office was “a mess”, the decision said. He began with washing her feet, because he wanted to “serve as Jesus had served”. Before, they’d always done foot washing in a group. But Thompson trusted the reverend. By now she had shared her most intimate grief with him, confiding traumatic memories of her son’s death, things she had never told anyone else.
As his hand went up her leg, Thompson felt confused, she said. She began to cry. She told him to stop. But van Wijk brushed her concerns away. He asked her to sit on his knee. “It’s okay, you can come to the Father,” he said. He asked to kiss her. And though she was crying even harder now, he kissed her mouth and her face and kept rubbing her thigh, saying “it’s OK.”
After he left, Thompson felt embarrassed, and guilty. She emailed to say if they were to consider the sessions, she wanted boundaries. Van Wijk agreed. But in the coming weeks he would break that promise again and again, including when he tried to force Thompson into intercourse, even when she’d told him she wanted him to stay away.
“I had trusted him as I would trust god,” Thompson would later tell the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care. “The breaking of this trust has made it difficult for me to allow people to get close to me, to allow them to know me well, and in particular it’s been hard to trust men, the church and god.”
A pattern of behaviour
Before her baby died, Thompson wasn’t a religious person. But in her grief she was searching for answers, and turned to the Nativity Anglican Church in Blenheim.
It was 2001, and her son had only been gone a year, dying in a birth so distressing that it would later see Thompson diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Almost immediately, Thompson became deeply immersed in church life. She volunteered at the creche on Sunday mornings. She went to the weekly mothers’ group. She donated money.
“I had a real passion for wanting to do god’s will but I didn’t have any other Christians in my immediate family or friend group, so I very much looked to the church for discipleship, to teach me how to live for god,” Thompson said.
The thought that her baby was with Jesus helped, for a while. But in 2004, Thompson began to have flashbacks about her son’s death and was struggling with her faith. She asked for help, and it was recommended she see both the church counsellor and new priest assistant van Wijk, as he specialised in pastoral care.
At their first session in December 2004, van Wijkperformed a ritual placing oil on Thompson’s head and a cross in front of her, so she could hand her pain over to Christ. When Thompson grew upset he put his arm around her and began rubbing her back. After a second session where Thompson also grew emotional, the pair began emailing. Thompson said the emails made her feel safe. Van Wijk began to increasingly befriend Thompson, and confide in her, stressing the importance of her keeping everything just between them.
The unwanted touching began in February 2005. Van Wijk set up a small “care cell group” that he insisted Thompson join. It was in the first of these sessions he introduced foot washing. After the other members left, he asked to practise on her alone. As he washed and massaged, van Wijk said he was “turned on”. Thompson told him it was inappropriate, and he apologised, saying he was a “very honest person”.
Soon after this, van Wijk suggested he become Thompson’s private spiritual “mentor”. He asked Thompson to set up a separate email for the mentoring, and he did the same. On February 24, they had the first private mentoring session, where he touched Thompson’s thigh at her home, and kissed her, leaving her confused and forcing him to promise not to do it again.
But van Wijk didn’t stick to the deal. Over the next few weeks he continued to make light of what he called “holy kisses”, hand holding, and hugs, making Thompson feel it was normal Christian practice, even as she continually shared her distress and unease.
At a session at van Wijk’s home in March, Thompson became upset as she shared some of her vivid memories of her son’s birth. She told the tribunal she was “crying heavily, struggling with intrusive memories of her dead child, feeling light-headed and distant”. Van Wijk, meanwhile, took off her top and her bra, held her breasts, put his hand up her skirt, and sexually assaulted her. He said he would “massage the pain away” and she needed to open up and trust him.
Following this Thompson told van Wijk she didn’t want to do the sessions any more, and she did not want him to touch her. But he convinced her to stay, saying she was making progress with the counselling. Van Wijk apologised, and Thompson believed he was sorry.
She was desperate for help with her mental health, the decision said.
“I was still dealing with the flashbacks of the death of my son that had increased in frequency since beginning counselling.”
She was also fearful of leaving the church.
‘It was a time of total confusion, emotional pain and anxiety’
For a few sessions, van Wijk refrained from touching Thompson. But in mid-March, Thompson again became light-headed, nauseous and was in a flashback during a session. While she was crying, van Wijk undid her shorts and assaulted her.
Confused and upset, Thompson told van Wijk she was quitting the church and never wanted to see him again. He responded by sending her multiple emails about how they had to be together, that he would leave his wife.
Thompson told him to leave her alone.
Van Wijk told Thompson he would only believe her if she told him face to face that she didn’t want to see him. She went to his house, and repeated herself. He kept talking, instead, about Thompson leaving her husband. She began to cry, and van Wijk led her to the bedroom, saying she “owed it to him” to talk things through. While Thompson was crying he undressed her, and then himself. Thompson resisted, but he kept trying to have sex with her.
“He was saying things like she needed him to take the pain of her dead child away and that the child’s memory would consume her without his help,” the decision read. Thompson left in tears.
That night, she finally told her husband about van Wijk.
“When I told him, I was very confused and was actually quoting bible verses at him and my mother,” Thompson said. “It was a time of total confusion, emotional pain and anxiety for me. I thought it must be my fault. The reverend was a man of god. I thought I had hurt everyone, that if I’d dealt with my grief better, none of it would have happened.”
A long journey for redress
Talking to her husband turned out to be the first step on a long path towards justice for Thompson, who would go on to help create widespread change in the Anglican Church, including helping other survivors also seek redress.
At first, church authorities stonewalled her. She was told by Bishop Derek Eaton that what happened “wasn’t really serious”. Vicar Richard Ellena told her if she took her complaint public, “ten years of my ministry to build up the numbers in this place will go to waste”.
The now-Bishop of Christchurch, Peter Carrell, wrote that the reverend’s behaviour was similar to someone “shoplifting unintentionally” when they were stressed, by walking out without paying, and therefore the church didn’t need to investigate further after van Wijk resigned.
He hadn’t even attempted to find the facts of the case, Thompson said.
It took years, and hours of psychological support, before Thompson would raise a second complaint with the church in 2014. The church held a proper “Title D” investigation, which led to van Wijk being defrocked. Thompson also went back to police, who still never charged van Wijk, and took the case to the Human Rights Review Tribunal.
In 2020, Thompson settled with the church in the tribunal, where despite initially arguing it was not liable because priests were “employees of god” it eventually agreed to publicly apologise and paid Thompson $100,000. It also agreed to changes to its vetting, training and complaints processes. (Some of which are yet to be implemented 18 months later.)
Last year, Thompson also gave evidence at the royal commission of inquiry. She had her name suppression lifted for the public hearing.
“I wanted to be able to speak freely,” she says. “If you don’t bring these things to light nothing changes. People keep saying ‘you’re so brave’ but to me it was the logical thing to do.”
The final step was the HRRT case against van Wijk himself, who denied the claims but did not take part in the hearing.
The resulting declaration was significant for a number of reasons. For one, it was the first time a case against a priest had gone through the tribunal process. And, the tribunal found that the Human Rights Act does cover churches – and priests – because they offer “goods and services”, the service in this case being counselling.
It also found that the statute of limitations did not apply, because Thompson’s PTSD meant she wasn’t in a state to make a complaint earlier.
Perhaps most significantly, however, the decision has raised the threshold for the amount of money survivors are entitled to. The tribunal confirmed that $100,000 was the correct amount owed in damages, for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.
The previous highest award for sexual harassment damages was $25,000.
For Thompson, the money is only important in that it is a recognition of the harm caused. The bigger relief is having the facts on the public record, not ‘’lost in a filing cabinet in a church somewhere”, and that it can be the end of innuendo.
“I’ve always felt the church has tried to muddy the waters or make out it was some kind of relationship or not to do with his work,” Thompson says. “The frustrating thing for me is that I was only alone with him for a few weeks and in counselling sessions. People didn’t know I went to the church for help, they didn’t know the context where it occurred.”
Now a member of a network for survivors of faith-based abuse, she says she will continue to push for change within the church.
“For me – and I think that’s true of most survivors – there’s a desire to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else and I feel quite strongly called to that, I just can’t put it down.
“I feel like I’m a thorn in their side, like if I don’t call them out, nobody will.”
Thompson has returned to church life but her faith remains an ongoing struggle.
“There are things I still cannot do that others can. I can’t pray with others, especially with my eyes closed, I can’t hug male clergy; I would not let them hold my hand. I struggle to call god ‘father’ and will not be anointed with oil. I will not let anyone wash my feet. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to overcome these things.
Even with counselling, it’s proved difficult to disentangle her experience of clergy sexual abuse from her thoughts about god, and the son she lost.
“It’s hard to think about one without memories of the other surfacing. I feel like some very precious areas of my life will be forever contaminated by it.”