Pray on the meek: Omotoso church ‘is like a cult’
Wielding the promise of salvation, religious leaders seek out the vulnerable, says an expert
Religious leaders exuding “God-like” power and influence over congregants are doing exactly what Adolf Hitler did politically in Germany, says Professor Saths Cooper, board member of the International Science Council and president of the Pan-African Psychology Union.
Cooper and a team were brought in to assist the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural‚ Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) and victims who allege they were sexually violated by Pastor Timothy Omotoso.
Omotoso, 60, Lusanda Sulani‚ 36‚ and Zukiswa Sitho‚ 28, are facing 97 charges‚ ranging from sexual assault to rape and human trafficking.
The alleged victims share very similar stories: they were singled out by the pastor while in their early teens, lavished with attention and privileges, and were often from single-parent households.
“No one wants to stand out, they want to belong. So if you have this person you admire invite you into the group, there is immediate acceptance.
“And these leaders look around, they know how to find the vulnerable ones. That is also why they flourish in poorer areas,” Cooper said. “For the promise of salvation, people are prepared to hand over everything they have.”
Once in the inner circle, followers lose their sense of individuality, become subservient and cannot act independently.
To break away from this is near impossible, since the victim needs to be able to draw on what self-worth they have buried. Cheryl Zondi, the first witness to testify against Omotoso, is testimony to this, Cooper said.
“For anybody who asks ‘why did the woman not just walk away’, remember their whole being has been stripped. They basically became an extension of another person.”
Cooper likened it to a cult following.
The word cult has different definitions, the most common referring to a religious group, he says.
It is mostly: Exclusive: claiming to be the only ones with the truth; everyone else is wrong: “If you leave our group your salvation is in danger”;
Secretive: certain teachings are not available to outsiders or they’re presented only to certain members;
Authoritarian: the leader expects total loyalty and absolute obedience. Referring to a psychology textbook, he said cult leaders shared a number of psychological traits that were typical of a narcissistic personality disorder.
“Narcissists exhibit a lack of ability to empathise with others and an inflated sense of self-importance. Narcissistic personality disorder is found more commonly in men. Symptoms include an excessive need for admiration, disregard for others’ feelings, an inability to handle any criticism, and a sense of entitlement,” the manual says.
What is alleged to have happened here went far beyond sexual grooming, said Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, chairperson of the CRL.
“It’s the religious indoctrination, then the threats. It is never ‘I will kill you’, it’s always ‘God will kill you if you don’t do what I say’. At that stage they absolutely believe this is the man of God.
“The modus operandi is the same – it is kids desperate for something, they are still discovering who they are. They are drawn in by music and promises of spirituality.”
The CRL first became aware of Omotoso and his church in 2016 when it was investigating the commercialisation of religion.
“All the projects he was running looked so good on paper,” Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said.
But by early 2017 the CRL started hearing allegations of sexual abuse in the church.
“A lot of women came to us, they had nowhere to go. Some just wanted to talk as they could not tell their families or partners.
“It was difficult for them to come forward, some were still in the church. The power of the religion – unbelievable!”
That year “two or three” girls laid criminal charges against Omotoso.
The desperation lay not only with those wanting to get out.
“One mother with two teenagers in the church went to the police so they could help her get them out, but they said as they were 18 years old they could make up their own minds.
“She had a strong sense that they were being violated, but had nowhere to turn.”
Church watchdog required
This highlighted the need for a watchdog organisation and the registration of unregulated churches, said Mkhwanazi-Xaluva. “We need a peer-review mechanism. If not we will face a national safety issue.”
Zondi and two other women approached the commission earlier this year. “They said they were tired of being faceless, nameless victims. They wanted to tell their story. Cheryl said she needed her life back.”
A senior psychologist was enlisted to help the three woman prepare, because there was no turning back once they went public. “We had to prepare them emotionally and psychologically.”
In a heartfelt letter released on Friday, Zondi thanked people for their support. She said she was overcome with emotion. “Being a woman in this world is a challenging task on its own and we constantly find ourselves having to defend our dignity on a daily basis, so whatever battle I am fighting is the same battle every other woman out there is fighting.”
In court on Monday
Meanwhile, Peter Dauberman‚ the lawyer representing Omotoso‚ asked presiding officer Judge Mandela Makaula on Monday to recuse himself from the case, TimesLIVE reported.
The application delayed the start of testimony by the second state witness.
In an affidavit read out in court‚ Omotoso said: “The presiding officer has already made up his mind ... he is sympathetic towards Zondi and her cause. He identified [with] and aligned himself to Zondi’s cause.”
Dauberman said co-accused Sulani shared Omotoso’s sentiments.
But Judge Makaula dismissed the application, saying “the application has no merit”. Dauberman had argued that Makaula was “overly sympathetic” towards Zondi. One of the reasons for his argument was that the judge had wished her well for her university exams, said Dauberman.