The Anglican Church is facing a landmark case from a parishioner arguing it should be responsible for abusive priests – one of whom allegedly harassed her in counselling sessions after her baby’s death.

It will be the first time a New Zealand church has been tested as an employer under human rights law, and if successful could prompt wholesale changes in the hiring and training of ministers.

Published in NZ Herald

Until now churches accused of abuse have argued clergy are not employees providing a service, but agents of God responding to a “calling”, and therefore church hierarchy cannot be held accountable.

However, in the case currently before the Human Rights Review Tribunal, it is argued the priest was an “agent” of his diocese, and that he abused the woman while carrying out his duties – and therefore both the vicar and the bishop are “vicariously liable” under the sexual harassment provisions in the Human Rights Act.

Similar cases overseas have had mixed results – but in both the UK and Canada recently, courts have found the church is liable for its priests.

Court documents released to the Weekend Herald show the woman, whose name is suppressed, accused Blenheim priest Michael van Wijk of touching her inappropriately during one-on-one counselling sessions at the Nativity Anglican Church in Blenheim during the mid-2000s.

The woman’s baby son had died pre-term, causing her extreme grief and to turn to the church and the pastor’s counsel for solace, she said.

She alleged that when she tried to end the counselling services, van Wijk implied she would have to leave the church. During that time, he also continued to pressure her for sex, she said, causing her to suffer humiliation, a loss of dignity and injury to her feelings.

She said she felt despair, shame, guilt, trauma, betrayal and lost her trust in men and the church because of van Wijk’s alleged actions.

The woman is seeking an order for the church to prevent further similar harassment, and that the Nelson diocese undergo harassment training. She also seeks $100,000 in reparations.

In his reply, van Wijk denied any harassment, saying any sexual intimacy was consensual, and in the context of an ongoing relationship.

The two church officers named – the Bishop of Nelson (then Derek Eaton) and the Vicar of Blenheim parish (then Richard Ellena, who is now the Bishop of Nelson) – said they had no knowledge of the harassment and therefore were not responsible.

While van Wijk was appointed by Eaton and he reported to Ellena, he was not an employee. The spiritual counsel provided was not a formal counselling service, they said.

In any case, the diocese had taken reasonable steps to prevent any harassment with thorough training and ongoing supervision, they said.

In response to how they dealt with van Wijk, Ellena said when he was made aware of the “relationship” between the pair, van Wijk was placed on leave, and then asked to tender his resignation after he continued to contact the woman.

Ellena said he was not aware of the abuse at that time, although the woman said she made a full complaint. Van Wijk was not formally defrocked until last year, after the woman made a second complaint in 2016 about the previous non-consensual sexual conduct and the church investigated it.

Van Wijk has never been charged by police, although a complaint was made in 2014, and investigated. The handling of the case now before the Independent Police Conduct Authority.

Van Wijk refused to comment for this article.

In a statement, the Diocese of Nelson said that since the events it had revisited its protocols to ensure safety. It was always open to learning from experience, it said.

“The Diocese reiterates its deep regret for the actions of one called to be an ordained minister of the Church, which amounted to a significant breach of trust against the complainant.”

The woman at the centre of the case said she could not comment while the case was ongoing. Given lengthy delays in the tribunal, that may not be until next year.

By Kirsty Johnston
Published in NZ Herald
9 March 2019