Sexual harassment victim wins landmark apology from Anglican Church

By Kirsty Johnston
New Zealand Herald
March 22, 2020

Until now, the Church has refused to be held liable for clergy, saying they were not its employees but were essentially employed by God.

The Anglican Church says it deeply regrets its handling of the case.

A parishioner who fought the Anglican Church for 15 years after being sexually harassed by a priest has won a landmark settlement and apology, including an acknowledgment the Church can be held to account for its ministers' behaviour.

Until now, the Church has refused to be held liable for clergy, saying they were not its employees but were essentially employed by God.

However, in a successful settlement negotiated after the woman took her case to the Human Rights Review Tribunal, the Church admitted it was responsible, and will now improve its vetting, training and complaints process.

The Church will also pay the woman $100,000 in recognition of the gravity of humiliation and hurt she suffered, and in recognition of its flawed handling of the complaint.

"It has been a hard road," the complainant told the Herald. "When it first happened the Church basically minimised things and justified things."

"But they are going to say sorry publicly and make change and that's what I wanted - for priests to be trained prior to being let loose on the vulnerable. I wanted more open justice."

The woman, who has name suppression, first complained that priest Michael van Wijk touched her inappropriately during one-on-one counselling sessions at the Nativity Anglican Church in Blenheim in 2005.

The woman's baby son had died pre-term in a traumatic way, causing her extreme grief and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She turned to the church for solace and while there was approached by the pastor who offered his counsel.

When she tried to end the counselling services, van Wijk implied she would have to leave the C, she said. During that time, he also continued to pressure her for sex.

In its apology, the Church acknowledged it did not investigate the complaint properly, nor follow its own policy, nor provide the woman with support - all while providing significant support to van Wijk.

It also failed to recognise van Wijk's conduct as sexual harassment, attempted to minimise and excuse the priest's behaviour, and did not inform police, despite having received a separate complaint about his behaviour towards another parishioner.

Instead, the Church allowed van Wijk to resign without any disciplinary action, which it says was wrong - as was its decision not to give full reasons to the congregation for his departure.

"We acknowledge this led to sympathy for Michael van Wijk, and speculation about what had occurred which compounded the harm suffered by the parishioner and her family. We deeply regret that this occurred," the Church statement said.

The complainant left the Anglican Church after the incident, spending a "rough" five years trying to recover.

"I'd lost a baby and was trying to look after my mental health," she said. "It was hard, because my kids had to quit the church too and they had friends there."

It wasn't until 2014 the woman decided to take further action. She'd witnessed the removal of a Catholic priest after a similar incident in the Catholic Church, and saw it had a disciplinary process. After going online, she discovered the Anglican Church also had a process, and went back to it.

In 2014, she went to the police. They never laid a charge. The police concluded there was not enough evidence - but didn't even interview the church staff the woman had made her complaint to.

In 2016, the woman took her case to the Office of Human Rights Proceedings. It agreed to take the case, and appointed barrister Nura Taefi to work with her.

"That was the first time I felt like I had someone on my team," the complainant said. "And it was free. I couldn't have done it without that. The Church would have had that resource and I wouldn't and I would have folded probably."

She said she found the human rights avenue far better than the police process.

"It's not just about throwing someone in jail for a few months. It looks at how I've been harmed, and also about what changes could be made to prevent it."

She said at first it had been hard to work with the Church as it was defensive, but she noticed a change of attitude after a Herald article about the case in 2018.

"I am really pleased with the outcomes, I feel they are fair and I have reconciled with the Church which is a really positive thing."

The Director of Human Rights Proceedings, Michael Timmins, said the complainant should be applauded for her efforts.

"The truth is that it's only because of her intelligence and tenacity that she was able to get a result," he said. " In this way, she has been an advocate not just for herself, but for others."

Timmins said he hoped the amount of the settlement - an astonishing amount compared with previous New Zealand settlements - sent a strong message that sexual harassment would not be condoned.

The complainant wanted the amount made public so other victims in similar situations would have bargaining power. She had no plans for the money other than using it to help people.

She returned to Church some years ago to try to rebuild her faith, which she found very challenging.

"It's been a mess. When we go and commemorate the anniversary of our son dying we have to remember all of that as well," she said.

"It undermined my faith. I don't think I'll ever be fully at peace with my faith. However I am not bitter towards the Church and want the best for it. There are also many caring people within it who have been very supportive of me."

Van Wijk was defrocked in 2018, after a thorough church investigation. He accepted the findings of that investigation but appealed the publication of them.

With the goal of more open justice, the complainant continues to pursue her claim against Van Wijk in the tribunal. A hearing is set down for June of this year.

*If you would like to talk to SNAP Aotearoa (Survivors Network for those abused by Priests), please call 022 3440496.

This statement forms part of a settlement agreement between a parishioner of the Anglican Church and the Bishop of Nelson in respect of proceedings filed in the Human Rights Review Tribunal.

The proceedings relate to historical events involving a minister working in the Nelson Diocese. The statement is made jointly by Bishop Steve Maina (the current Bishop of Nelson), retired Bishop Richard Ellena (then Vicar of the Nativity parish, Blenheim), and retired Bishop Derek Eaton (then the Bishop of Nelson).

In 2016 an Anglican Church Disciplinary Tribunal found that in 2005 Michael van Wijk engaged in misconduct by acting in a manner inappropriate or unbecoming to the office and work of a Minister, including: "(a) an act of corruption or immorality; or (b) an act of sexual harassment or disregard for responsible personal relations".

The Tribunal found that the complainant did not truly consent to sexual contact at the time it occurred.

Michael van Wijk's conduct toward the complainant was disgraceful and involved a breach of the trust placed in him and a misuse of his priestly authority.

Michael Van Wijk's ordination was revoked as a result of this process.

The office of the Bishop of Nelson accepts liability under the Human Rights Act 1993 for the sexual harassment of its parishioner by one of the Church's ministers, Michael van Wijk, in the course of providing her with pastoral services.

We accept that in his role as an ordained minister acting under the Bishop's licence, Michael van Wijk was acting as an agent of the Bishop.

We accept that the Human Rights Act 1993 applies to the pastoral services provided by Michael van Wijk, and assume responsibility for Michael van Wijk's conduct.

We deeply regret that one cloaked in priestly authority, by misusing that authority and ignoring priestly boundaries, has perpetrated such harm.

We apologise to the parishioner of this church who suffered as a result of those actions.

We are deeply sorry that we failed to protect her from this harm.

We acknowledge the hurt she and her husband and children have suffered as a result and regret we did not provide her with support in the direct aftermath of the events, while providing significant support to Michael van Wijk and his family.

We were not aware of Michael van Wijk's conduct at the time it occurred in February and March 2005, however by March 2005 we knew some of what occurred and in June 2005 we received a detailed written complaint.

We regret that we failed to recognise the conduct as sexual harassment, and attempted to minimise and excuse Michael van Wijk's behaviours, despite having received a separate complaint about his behaviour towards another parishioner.

We regret that we failed to take sufficient steps to resolve the victim's complaints by neglecting to follow our policy.

We acknowledge that we should have investigated her complaint fully, informed Police when issues of consent were raised and instigated formal Church disciplinary processes.

We were wrong not to fully inform the victim of these processes and to dissuade her from using them.

We apologise for disclosing the complainant's name to Church staff in circumstances where it should not have been disclosed.

We were wrong to allow Michael van Wijk to resign without any disciplinary action.

Had we followed proper procedure we would have insisted upon a disciplinary process at the time, rather than simply accepting his resignation and the surrender of his licence.

We were wrong to decide not to give full reasons to the congregation for Michael van Wijk's departure.

We acknowledge this led to sympathy for Michael van Wijk, and speculation about what had occurred which compounded the harm suffered by the parishioner and her family. We deeply regret that this occurred.

Over the years these failings have caused the parishioner and her family additional hurt and for that we are sincerely sorry.

Between 2016 and 2019 we defended the Human Rights Review Tribunal proceedings brought by the parishioner and did not accept liability for what occurred.

We now recognise that our defence of the claim prevented reconciliation between the parishioner and the Church, and we regret the time it has taken to reach a position where we can now achieve that reconciliation.

Our deepest wish is that this occur. Our failures have caused the complainant additional hurt and prolonged her suffering over a period of many years.

For this we are truly sorry.

We are paying the complainant $100,000 in recognition of the gravity of humiliation and hurt she has suffered and in recognition that the way we handled her complaint was badly flawed.

We have read the parishioner's account of events and listened to the resulting impact on her life.

We have spent many hours considering what we could have done to prevent this from occurring and how we could better have dealt with the situation that arose.

As a result, the Diocese of Nelson is putting in place additional structures to better protect and support parishioners, including by bolstering and improving the vetting process for ordination candidates, the training programme for ministers, supervision of ministers, and the complaints process.

We as a Diocese will do all that we can to prevent such actions from occurring again and to deal appropriately and sensitively with any complaints which may arise.

Please join us in our prayers for the ongoing healing of those concerned.


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