Is sexual abuse an issue for the church in 21st Century Aotearoa New Zealand? In this long-form article Daphne Marsden, one of our pastor/scholar/authors shares her expertise on this very important topic.

The #MeToo movement is highlighting past and present pervasive injustice and the need for change. In Aotearoa New Zealand, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care and in the Care of Faith-based Institutions1 is currently offering a megaphone invitation into the pain endured by victims of church related sexual abuse. There is much we can learn from the disclosures by brave and vulnerable women. Going forward how can we, as churches, respond in ways which resonate with God’s heart and kingdom values?

Attending to the voices of women

These snippets of women’s stories are recent. They are heartbreaking, and ought to be:

I had babysat for a family in our parish. When the man drove me home, he tried to rape me. I had to fight him off. I was terrified. I managed to get out of the car… I didn’t know anything about sex… I was 15… I didn’t even have a boyfriend… I had never been touched in a sexual way. I never said anything to anyone about it. Our family and church didn’t talk about sexual things. I can trace the progressive long-term challenges with my mental health to this event. It was so traumatic for me.2

As a Pastor I was standing at the church door one Sunday morning greeting people as they came in. As a man shook my hand, he touched my breast with his other hand. It was subtle and fast, and he smiled as he walked into church.3

I went for counselling at Church and the minister put his hand on my knee.4

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 [the perpetrator] implied she would have to leave the church, she said. During that time, he also continued to pressure her for sex.5

He would place his hands where he shouldn’t have and we [she and her sister] knew this was very wrong, but didn’t know a lot about why it was wrong, being so very innocent.6

It was at his home [her vicar’s] late one night that he first touched me intimately. I would only have been 12 when this happened. His wife and the children were asleep…7


In 2017 the #MeToo movement emerged, using social media to enable women to join in solidarity, highlighting the pervasiveness of sexual assault, harassment, abuse, and rape. The movement showed how these issues are ignored, covered up and minimised. Joanna Stiebert, Professor of Hebrew at the University of Leeds, explains that the #MeToo movement began in 2006 with Tarana Burke, an African American activist, who responded passionately to her community’s limitations in helping teenage girl victims of sexual abuse.

The goal was:

…that the most vulnerable in her own community, namely, young girls of color, would not be isolated or alone but could find support, community, and a means to empowerment and healing.8

#MeToo today

In recent years, #MeToo has ensured women are seen and heard in new ways. We are now aware of people in power who have relied on and used their power, their status, and resources to cross sexual boundaries in secret and even at times in broad daylight. Women’s silence has been bought with threats to careers, student grades, acting parts, access to elite groups, and vocational opportunities—all misuses of sex and power.

#MeToo has thrown light on the contexts that allow abuse to happen. Sexual abuse is always about power, the power of one person over another. Some of our cultural norms and values leave the way open for abusers. Victims of the power that permits abuse suffer injury to heart, mind, and body, and often carry unbearable loads of silence and suffering. For many women, #MeToo has at least garnered a sense of solidarity and support.

New questions asked

Yet the #MeToo movement cannot help women in many parts of the world: women who have limited or no access to the internet.9 And #MeToo is still not the voice of the majority of victims. Most victims do not or cannot disclose their abuse. As followers of Jesus, we need to be mindful of the never been heard and never to be heard voices of millions of our sisters, who have been, who are being, and who will be abused sexually.

The #MeToo movement has resulted in many of us being challenged and asked to question historical myths which have informed what we believe about gender, the role of women, and sexual violence. These myths have traditionally blamed and silenced women.

We are also being invited to ask deeper questions about the nature of leadership and its vulnerabilities around the potential to engage in the exploitation of the weakness or vulnerability of others. Why are abusers like this? Numbered among them are Christian men, exploiting fellow humans, made in the image of God.

And what of our structures? When we consider our communities, churches, businesses, and neighbourhoods, how can we address the unconscious and conscious sexual bias that leads to rape culture? He pononga (servant) Doug McNeil explains:

Unconscious bias is when we make judgments or decisions on the basis of our prior experience, our own personal deep-seated thought patterns, assumptions, or interpretations, and we are not aware that we are doing it.10

Among Christians, we know that there are many historical and current thought patterns which contribute to building the unconscious bias which leads to sexual violence towards women. We have moved away from Jesus’ model and teaching about gender respect and equality. We have replaced Paul’s early-church practice of men and women working side by side. We have rejected Paul’s practice of basing roles on gifting, in favour of roles based on gender. For centuries we have elevated men and diminished women in local churches. We have used scripture to justify these values and practices.

Let us recognise the harmful consequences that run counter to what God intended. We long to see the change that will come when there is no abuse, when those who hold power recognise how power can so easily lead to abuse, and choose instead to act with justice, enable equality, and bring safety.

Owning our church rape culture

I cannot speak for others, but personally I find it difficult, even painful, to use the term ‘rape culture’ in the same sentence as the word ‘church.’ But when I consider the amount of abuse, past and present, and recognise the unhealthy structures which limit safety and disclosures, sadly, I have to say rape culture does exist in New Zealand churches.

Rape in our communities is part of a bigger picture. Within the picture there are issues around gender, relationships and sexuality.11 We see who has power and who does not. The same can be said about the relationship of rape to consent. It is not just about two individuals:12 but is also ‘enmeshed in social structures, cultural practices, and complex operations of power.’13 Writer Milena Popova14 explains rape culture as the:

collection of ideas, practices and structures in our society that make it easy for perpetrators to commit sexual violence and make it hard for victims to speak out or get justice.15

Many Christians who hear the words ‘rape culture’ have an internal voice that replies: “I’d never rape anyone… There’s no way I would abuse a woman… sexual violence? That’s not part of my church community. I’d know about it…”16 However, experts tell us there is a rape culture continuum.17 To help understand this, the activist group 11th Principle: Consent! has created a visual illustration using a pyramid diagram with blocks of colour and descriptions:18

The yellow base lists what may been seen as less serious discrimination like sexist attitudes and rape humour. This can include negative comments about a woman’s body, size, breasts, clothing, or her perceived degree of sexual attraction. Note below the triangle the problem of tolerance. Further up the diagram the colour orange is used to show behaviours like taking of non-consensual photo or video, threats, or coercion. The pinnacle of the diagram is coloured red to represent rape, the most serious of the listed behaviours. According to Stiebert, this diagram illustrates how: rape is founded on and shored up by a range of behaviors which collectively constitute rape culture.19

Church leadership, as well as their congregations, needs to acknowledge that the examples in yellow are in contrast to the loving, egalitarian values of Jesus. Does teaching and modelling that men are to be obeyed, and privileged with leadership, reinforce tolerance of these attitudes and behaviours? We could also ask, “What contribution are we making to rape culture with our sexist language and humour in staff meetings, sermons, small group gatherings and weekly events?”

Lessons from Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:7-42)

The Samaritan woman may have held some assumptions about the man she could see sitting at the well as she approached that day. She was alone. Did she wonder, “Am I safe?” She knew talking with a Jewish man was out of order. She probably believed she was, as a woman, viewed as the lesser person. She would have been surprised at his openness to using her drinking vessel. On their return the disciples had thoughts too which we read they kept to themselves. I suspect they had assumptions about the woman and made their judgments about her character as they were surprised to see her chatting with their master. It was not a common sight for a man and a woman to be deep in mutual conversation about Jewish and Samaritan theology at the village well. Jesus was not practising the cultural rules about gender roles and divisions. Jesus’ behaviours were in contrast to the norms of how women were treated; he was disobeying the cultural rules around gender. He pointed to a new day.

In light of the solidarity of victims aligning with the #MeToo cause, pastor, survivor, and writer Ruth Everhart claims:

As story after story splashed across front pages, the uncomfortable truth resounded: women are so frequently abused because they are seen as less than men – less worthy, less valuable, less valued.20

Equality is important; research tells us that women are more often victimised: One out of every six women is a victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.21 #MeToo is a justice movement, and the church is invited to participate.22 Everhart claims, however, that churches are no better than our wider culture at protecting the vulnerable and prosecuting offenders, and many believe our churches are places of increased sexism and misogyny.23 She describes the view of Australian philosopher and professor, Kate Mann, that: sexism is an off-shoot of patriarchal ideology, justifying and rationalizing a male dominant social order, while misogyny is the system that polices and enforces these norms.24 Everhart notes that the price of patriarchy is sexual abuse, and people who love Jesus should no longer be willing that anyone should pay that price. The church has been too slow to connect the assumptions of patriarchy with the realities of sexual abuse.25

Rape myths and false beliefs

We understand so much more how old myths about victims and perpetrators have hindered justice and maintained the rape culture in our communities. Victim-blaming underpins common questions like: “What she was wearing?” “Was she drunk?” “Was she in a place known to be unsafe?” “Was she attractive?” “Did she scream out?” “Or did she fight back?” In pastoral responses we need to be aware that these kinds of questions are outdated, ill-founded and abusive. Elisabeth McDonald,26 Professor of Law at the University of Canterbury, refers to the description by Martha Burt:27

Rape myths are descriptive or prescriptive beliefs about rape (i.e., about its causes, context, consequences, perpetrators, victims and their interaction) that serve to deny, downplay or justify sexual violence that men commit against women.28

Look what she was wearing

What Were You Wearing?29 an art exhibition first held at the University of Arkansas, displayed clothing rape victims were wearing when raped. In this art installation, and others of a similar vein, we see what women and girls were wearing is wide ranging—school uniforms, work clothes, dresses and nighties worn by elderly and helpless women, and nappies.

Research highlights that what a rape victim was wearing is irrelevant and doesn’t contribute to the choice of a perpetrator to rape. The belief that a woman is asking to be raped by wearing particular clothing is unfounded. Rape is not motivated by sexual desire but based in a desire to control and dominate:

Consequently, ‘dressing down’, like other behaviors (such as drinking less, or abstaining from flirting), does not and cannot protect against rape. Explaining or justifying the actions of rapists by emphasizing the looks or actions of the victim constitutes victim blaming and facilitates rape culture.30

Many rape allegations are false

Another myth is that rape claims are often false and are a response to a regretful sexual experience. A woman is wanting to get even, or simply seeking attention.31 Yes, tragically false allegations do occur. However, such cases are rare and most rape is never reported.32

Then there is the myth that most rapists are strangers hiding in the darkness waiting to pounce. To the contrary, most rapists are known to the woman. They are husbands, partners, ex-partners, relatives, church leaders, or people known to the women and girls. Rapes sadly, very often take place in women’s homes.

She didn’t fight back—she must have wanted it

Next rape myth: If women don’t fight back to prevent a rape, it’s not a rape because they were consenting. And worse: She said “no” when she meant “yes”. She enjoyed being overpowered, and she likes ‘wild’ or rough sex.33 These issues were highlighted in the Grace Millane murder trial in New Zealand. The defence attempted to avoid a murder charge by claiming Grace died as a result of consensual rough sex.34

There are many reasons for a woman not to scream or resist force. Some are just trying to survive, to minimize hurt due to the inequality in physical strength, knowing they have no chance of avoiding the rape. Some may feel paralysing terror, freeze in fear, or disassociate.35 Researcher Elisabeth McDonald explains:

We support the development of a ‘counter-intuitive’ direction that will address the widely held belief that victims of sexual offending, including rape, will put up a good fight. In fact, very few people will physically resist the attack, even those… who thought they would do so – before they got in that situation: ‘I always said to myself if that ever happened to me I would fight and until I was in that situation myself I had no idea what those people went through.’ The reason for the lack of physical resistance is related to the physiological and psychological responses, a consequence of which is that a person under attack is more likely to freeze or flop, rather than fight.36

McDonald helpfully quotes from a court trial where the Crown Counsel told the jury:

When we talk about rape we often think about, you know, people being dragged off into the bushes, and force and pressure and screaming and yelling. Well, I can tell you that that’s not the law. The law is that rape or sexual violation is sexual conduct without consent and without a belief in consent based on reasonable grounds. And it’s important that you understand that from the outset.37

‘GOOD’ Christian women and girls don’t get raped

A common Christian myth is that God created women to be subservient to men, and abuse results when women don’t embrace this view. In her book, What is a Girl Worth? Rachael Denhollander, who became famous as the first victim to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of abuse, relates her experience as a Christian young woman attending a church family camp. She listened to a message about Dinah, a rape victim in the Old Testament.38 The Christian speaker, a man, explained: ‘This rape, this abuse… is what happens when a daughter steps outside her father’s protection.’ 39

Such a view reinforces the victim-blaming myths:

Abuse is the women’s fault. …if you are abused, it’s because you did something wrong. No blame on the rapist. No guilt for the father who shrugged it off. It’s the daughter’s fault. This is what happens to girls who ______. Society filled in that blank all the time: to girls who drink; to girls who wear low cut tops; to girls who go to college, who go to bars, who freeze instead of fight back. One way or the other, the fault always falls on the girls, never on the person who actually committed the crime. Christians dressed it up differently, but it was the same message. Damaged. And it’s your fault. This is what happens to girls who…40

In contrast, listen to this: Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.41

More lessons from Jesus and the Samaritan woman

As a biblical figure our Samaritan woman has inherited more than her fair share of ‘rape myth’ type labels. Over centuries, various commentators have referred to her as fallen, loose, immoral, notorious, adulterer, and more. Her questionable character has often been assumed and relentlessly applied. Just like rape myths of our day, the accuracy and relevance of these assumptions can be called into question.

Yes, it was noon—hot—she was by herself. She has had five husbands and is not married in her current relationship.42 Professor of New Testament, Lynn Cohick, challenges these assumptions based on the social norms of the time.43 There are no reasons to assume different kinds of women went to the well at different times of the day. In particular, there are no similar examples of morally dubious women avoiding the well in the cooler hours.44 The fact that she is on her own is not a reason to conclude she has questionable morals. Other people worked as individuals: for instance, labouring in fields or taking care of livestock; we don’t think of them as immoral.45 Cohick explains how in the context it is obvious Jesus would be thirsty at noon in the heat.46

Not being married, so therefore promiscuous? Cohick suggests that she had been unfortunate. In the Greco-Roman context, it wasn’t unusual for a woman to be widowed and/or divorced more than once.47 Men could divorce to: better climb the social ladder.48 Neither of these situations: necessarily casts a shadow over one’s character.49 If she was barren, that was a common reason for divorce.50 In the main, it was husbands who initiated divorce. Women did not have independent access to court proceedings; they needed a willing guardian or someone to represent them.51 Cohick explains: If it seems highly unlikely that the Samaritan woman was divorced five times, it is entirely credible that she was a widow several times given the high death rate in that era.52

Also, women were married as teenagers. Perhaps the Samaritan woman, like many others, was widowed young?53 With a man who was not her husband? She may have been a concubine, again not unusual. Or the man may have been a Roman citizen unable to marry below his social position.54

Jesus did not condemn her. The villagers respond to her invitation to come and see a man who may be a prophet; they did not shun her invitation as from a person of poor reputation.55 Cohick clarifies that many commentators unjustly label the Samaritan woman as: a promiscuous vixen bent on seducing unsuspecting men, and who therefore becomes the village pariah.56

Perhaps the assumptions of questionable character come from the same worldview that asks about a rape victim: “What was she wearing?” “Why was she in that place at that time?” “Was she flirting?”

Mobilising sexual safety in Aotearoa New Zealand

We have been discussing the wider world, but what about the scene in Aotearoa New Zealand?

Sexual safety in the workplace

In New Zealand, in an effort to rebut these long-held myths regarding sexual violence, many workplaces are taking offences against women seriously and making changes and plans. Excitingly, there is more demand for increasing openness and awareness of violence against women. Honesty about the existence and practice of rape culture within organizations and workplaces means we can protect and progress. More focus on and naming sexual harassment as part of rape culture have influenced the adjusting of HR policies and individual employment agreements.

Rachel Hopkins, chief executive of Diversity Works, says:

The #MeToo movement has changed behaviour in New Zealand workplaces. It’s never going to alter the way some people think, …it has however improved behaviour in the workplace. …It is behaviours that impact other people.57

While some employers/employees have woken up to sexual harassment in the workplace as a result of #MeToo, many people, especially women, have always known it was there. ‘As a woman I have always seen it,’ says Hopkins. The continuum starts with sexist language and so-called jokes, and goes all the way to criminal behaviour at the other end.58

What has begun to be noticed more in the workplace, says Hopkins, is the lower end of that continuum. ‘It is the impact sexist language and stereotypes and jokes have on certain groups and on women.59

While there has been an improvement thanks to #MeToo, says Hopkins, the only appropriate level is zero. ‘It shouldn’t be happening in the workplace.’60

Some followers of Jesus believe it should no longer be happening in church either, especially from the front or from a pulpit.

Sexual safety under Aotearoa New Zealand law

As part of the wider New Zealand story of violence against women and children, we can also note and celebrate progress within New Zealand law. From 2019 we have had a new Family Violence Act.

The purpose of this Act is to stop and prevent family violence by recognizing that family violence in all forms is unacceptable. The government is prioritizing safety for family violence victims, seeking to stop and prevent perpetrators from harming, and keeping victims, including children, safe. The Act has updated the definition of family violence: to better reflect how controlling behaviour can be used over time to frighten a victim and undermine their autonomy.61 The Act enables more connections to services for victims and perpetrators and increased sharing of information between police social services. New criminal offences related to harm have been introduced: for example, 1) forced marriage, 2) strangulation and suffocation, and 3) assault on a family member.62 Importantly, the Act improves protection for children, empowering judges to make protection orders and impose protective conditions in child handovers.63

In addition, in April 2019, the Domestic Violence – Victims’ Protection Act came into force, which added legal protections into the Employment Relations Act for employees who are affected by domestic violenceThe Act allows employees affected by domestic violence to request paid domestic violence leave and short-term flexible working arrangements.64

Within our justice system, new law changes are proposed and oriented towards ‘ensuring fairness and safety for victims of sexual violence in the justice system.’65 Victoria University of Wellington Professor of Criminology Jan Jordan explains:

The changes proposed include giving sexual violence victims the right to choose by which means they give their evidence in court, training and supporting judges to intervene to protect complainants from inappropriate or aggressive questioning, and ensuring the availability of specialist assistance for witnesses who need it in order to maximise their ability to understand and respond to questions. Changes will also be made to ensure rape complainants can trust that they will not have to share the same waiting spaces and bathrooms as defendants and their family/whanau while attending trials.66

…What is clear is that in recent years there has been growing recognition that rape cases are complex and require specialist training and services. This has long been recognised by our support services, who knew from the 1970s that specialist counsellors were essential. Our doctors developed specialist training for those conducting forensic rape examinations in the 1980s, and in recent years we have seen New Zealand Police recognise the importance of specialist training and supervision for detectives involved in adult sexual assault investigations. Our courts remain as a last bastion, largely resisting the need for specialist interventions and systems.67

Sexual safety in the Accident Compensation Corporation

Our Accident Compensation Corporation is promoting healthy relationships. Here is an excerpt from their current material: Growing Attraction? Or Growing Aggression?

Our general wellbeing relies on healthy relationships, which include:

  • respect
  • equality
  • trust
  • communication
  • consent

Unhealthy relationships tend to miss one or all, of these. When consent is missing, it’s called sexual abuse or assault. Sexual abuse can include any unwanted or forced sexualised behaviours. This happens in New Zealand more often than you might think. One in three women and one in six men are likely to experience sexual violence in their lifetime, often before they’re 16 years old. Transgender, non-binary, and gender diverse people experience even higher rates of sexual violence. It needs to stop.68

All this progress is an attempt to reduce sexual and family violence in New Zealand. But we have a lot of work to do. Most abuse is not disclosed; we might be responding more appropriately, but we are a long way from slowing the rate.

Invitations to progress sexual safety in our churches

As Christian communities we are facing choices and new opportunities. The #MeToo movement affords us new learning so we can respond well when we are invited into a woman’s story. Christian women and children are not spared abuse within Christian relationships. Women of faith have specific dimensions and layers to navigate when spiritual power has been sexually misused against them by people they and others have loved, trusted, and respected. The New Zealand Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care is currently bringing to light stories we have much to learn from.

Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Auckland Caroline Blyth paraphrases Marie Fortune:

[It] is high time that members of the Christian community opened their eyes and ears to the pain of gender violence survivors, acknowledged the church’s responsibility to help survivors seek justice and healing, and admitted that the voices of those survivors have been (and continue to be) silenced by centuries of Christian teachings and traditions.69

Churches have discouraged Christian women from disclosing abuse, or disclosing it safely, and have prevented justice, healing, and freedom. It befits us to inform ourselves of best practice, to upskill, to use scripture appropriately, and to offer our very best in responding.

Most importantly, it is time—well past time—to find out what churches can do to prevent abuse within our sphere.

Why we need to respond well to disclosures

Brave Christian women are telling their stories, including those about being ignored or blamed. Some faced further abuse because the responses to their disclosures were inappropriate or lacking entirely. Some tell how as children they were sent back to dangerous people and more abuse. God forbid that we still walk this shocking path.

Denhollander gives some examples of inappropriate responses:

  • Christian leaders counselling victims to forgive and forget.
  • Failing to be alarmed by reports of concerning behaviour.
  • Hindering or blocking police investigations.
  • Women told to stay with husbands who abuse their daughters.
  • Women told to have more frequent sex with husbands, perhaps to help the man’s addiction to pornography or paedophilia.70

Denhollander also speaks of the concern about pastors and leaders who remained in leadership when the type of evidence against them carried a lot of weight in the spheres of law and abuse dynamics.71 She reports Christian leaders publicly supporting a high-profile leader accused of abuse as an example of flawed responses, saying:

All the survivors attributed the mishandling of their cases to the church’s theology. They alleged dynamics like an excessive view of pastoral authority; a refusal to engage with secular authorities or abuse educators outside the church; teaching on concepts like unity, forgiveness and grace that resulted in abusers being ‘forgiven’ while victims were silenced by being characterized as ‘bitter.’72

How churches unwittingly enable abusers

It is a mistake to: tolerate the perpetrator out of a ‘mistaken understanding of God’s love for all people,’73 say Fortune and Poling. They explain how:

…misguided tolerance is the result of yielding to six temptations:

  • The temptation of disbelief.
  • The temptation to protect the church’s image.
  • The temptation to blame the victim.
  • The temptation to sympathize with the abuser.
  • The temptation to protect the abuser from the consequences of their behavior…
  • The temptation of cheap grace.74

Kathleen McPhillips, senior lecturer at Newcastle University, specialising in religion and gender, recounts the issues which emerged from the Australian Royal Commission.75 It found that faith-based organizations had the worst track record in child safety. Leaders and administrators failed to protect children despite knowing they were in danger. There is evidence of poor financial compensation and victim blaming (we are talking about children here); victims being forced to keep secret compensation terms; clerics, bishops and priests failing to respond to complaints by children and their parents by not believing the children who disclosed and/or not removing perpetrators from the roles which gave them access to the children. In short, McPhillips says: the church protected the offenders and organisational reputation first and foremost. Without doubt, this strategy led to thousands of children being sexually abused after officials had full knowledge of the perpetrators’ criminal activities.76 This was part of a United Nations report in 2014.77

Everhart78 quotes Judith Herman,79 specialist in sexual trauma and recovery: It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement and remembering.80

Everhart, when looking back at the wreckage of child abuse in a church by a staff member, observed typical and flawed responses when knowledge came to light.81 These included:

  • Not accessing expert help.
  • Enabling a forced and insincere apology to victims which evaded actual truth and did more damage to victims.
  • Covering the crime, perhaps deterring the voice of other victims.
  • Failing to provide support and counselling for the victim when she needed trauma-informed care.
  • The church did not even ask, “What in our culture allowed a predator to thrive for years?”82

Preventing and dealing constructively with abuse

Church leaders and communities want to be constructive in dealing with sexual assault and we wonder how. Everhart believes our work falls into two broad camps: prevention and response. Reflecting on Matthew 25: 31-46, sheencourages us to ask:

Do we need to adjust our theology or only our application? Matthew 25 speaks to this because practical skills flow from our theology. The text reminds us, first, to do no harm. Be honest about the ways our theology has done harm, even unintentionally. Do we sometimes treat girls as less than boys, women as less than men? Face that truth. Stop doing harm.83

Writer Gricel Medina addresses the danger in advocating strong gender roles in relation to abuse. We need to:

Understand that teaching female submission makes girls easier to control: Predators often use hyper-masculine and authoritarian rhetoric. Many find refuge in communities that embrace male dominance and submission, because it can be easier to groom young girls. Churches that preach and commend female submission can be nesting areas for predatory behavior because girls learn to trust and obey men at a young age… Take away that ease of control and predators will go somewhere else. Patriarchy enables male abusers by granting them a dangerous amount of power over women and by training women and girls to trust male leadership. Abusers are generally attracted to victims they believe will be obedient and submissive. This is why it is so crucial to not only not teach one-way submission but to actively teach young girls that they have the authority to defy men who make them uncomfortable, or who harass or attempt to control them.84

The prevention tasks:

  • Educate young men and women about healthy relationships.
  • Teach the signs of controlling relationships.
  • Let churches model inclusive and equitable cooperation between men and women.
  • Talk about inclusion and mutuality in Sunday services and church leadership.85

Here are questions for church leaders to ask and act on:

  • Do men have the predominant voice, space, influence, and time in church services and meetings?
  • Who is being asked to participate in teaching and preaching, and who is not asked?
  • Who officiates at sacramental events, such as communion tables, infant dedications, weddings and funerals?
  • Is inclusive language used in church services? Is it in Bibles? Songs? Newsletters and screens?
  • How is scripture being preached from the pulpit with regard to the topics of marriage and relationships?86

In your church and mine, the people who sit are both victims and victimizers. Let’s fix the balance of power. Let’s do justice.

The environment that won’t tolerate abusive behaviour

Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, draws on the work of psychologist John Pryor who identifies four common characteristics of those most likely to sexually harass:

  • A tendency towards power, dominance, and authoritarianism
  • Lack of empathy
  • An environment that fosters impunity
  • A belief in traditional gender sex roles.87

Haddad draws on decades of data found in the much-used premarital inventory Prepare/Enrich which shows partner dominance is a key indicator for physical and sexual abuse. (There are four million data points on marital satisfaction and abuse).88

Haddad, in explaining a lack of empathy, describes how those in power who are self- focused tend to objectify others and lack an awareness or concern about how their behaviour impacts other people. Sadly, they are often operating in environments where there is no accountability.89

Without the fear of Justice, perpetrators believe they are untouchable, removing one more obstacle to predatory behavior. Communities who do not require training, certification, and accountability of leaders unwittingly collude with predators.90

Pastor and consultant Dr. Jeanne Porter King encourages church communities to establish policies and procedures which include clear statements that describe sexual harassment and abuse. These policies need to outline consequences for violation: paid and volunteer staff need to be informed of them. Protocols for reporting and investigating allegations need to be clear and accessible and safe. Porter cautions that neutrality can be compromised when investigations are handled by congregational members who may have pre-existing relationships with the person being accused. Porter also highlights the value and importance of background checking.91

The stories from varied church contexts about Christian responses when women have tried to get help shows us there is still ample room for improvement. Women sharing such stories tell of previously being given guidance and advice which hampered or closed down their disclosures, limited their safety, and prevented justice.

In terms of responding well and preventing gender-based violence, the Christian community has vital work to do. In Aotearoa New Zealand, thousands of girls and women come in and out of our church buildings. Many live with past and/or present abusive encounters.

As church communities we need to play our part in ending the sexual violence that weighs down too many women and children. It is long overdue.

Circling back to Samaria

As we conclude, let us draw once more on the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman:

Jesus asks an unsuspecting Samaritan woman for a drink. Her surprised response reflects her belief that Jews would not associate with Samaritans. This was due to the historical, racial, gender, and religious divides between them. The Jews and Samaritans did not agree about the proper geographical place for the temple. The Samaritans saw themselves as the true children of God and Judaism as a heresy. The Jews did not consider the Samaritans to be Jews and believed their religious practices were heretical resulting from foreign relationships being brought about by earlier Assyrian deportations into Samaria. Nigerian biblical scholar Christopher Naseri explains: [Jews] avoided contacts with the Samaritans for fear of ritual contamination and thus did not use vessels or dishes used by the Samaritans. Samaritans were not allowed into the inner court of the Jerusalem temple and marriages with them were forbidden.92 Naseri adds that in the time of Christ the term ‘Samaritan’ was even used as a curse word and Samaritans were considered unclean by the Jews.93

The valuing, practising, and entrenchment of these beliefs somewhat resonates with historic rape myths which have kept women from telling their story safely. Age old beliefs have shaped and influenced what women can expect and experience when their truth is told. Victim blaming and gender distinction beliefs about sexuality have long limited options and justice for women.

Regardless of all these divides, together Jesus and the woman go on a conversational journey about these age-old beliefs.

It becomes obvious the woman (through no fault of her own) is locked into theologically based traditions and values which, if left to continue, will impede her growth and potential. The same can be said of her wider Samaritan community. Initially, the woman cannot imagine that she and her community live under a cloud of ignorance. As Jesus says, ‘You worship what you do not know.’94 She does not yet entertain the possibility that Jesus might be greater than Jacob or that his power and love can meet her present needs. As they engage together about these old beliefs, Jesus invites her into a deeper understanding. We see her progression of enlightenment as Jesus reveals himself, expresses compassion, and introduces new truths. Because we know the story, we know that when these new truths were accepted and embraced both the woman and her community flourished. The dual agenda of Jesus is moving. We see him holding the big picture as well as genuinely being interested in and respectful of her individual circumstances and heart journey.

These themes are gems we can draw on as we give consideration to individual Christian women who bravely share their abuse stories within our faith communities.

How did Jesus enable a trusting, safe, and engaging conversation? He had the power, but he used it to empower the woman. Sitting—not standing over—he made himself vulnerable and put himself in a position of needing her power to access water for him to drink. He expressed need. He asked for help. He did not use his knowledge to judge her but to give evidence for the claims he made.

In the account we see examples of culturally informed and enforced gender roles, hierarchy, and religious divides being practised and spoken of by the woman. Jesus’ disciples are thinking along the same lines; thus, their alarm and unspoken disapproval and judgment. John 4:27 describes their thoughts of Jesus as a Jew talking to a Samaritan, and a woman at that! Jesus’ disciples are possibly worried about protecting his reputation, safety, and perceived integrity. They see her in a negative light.

However, both in conversation and in modelling, these assumptions and age-old beliefs are being dismantled and transcended by Jesus.

Commentator Francis J. Moloney explains the process of Jesus. Jesus invites her to consider a new truth, ‘If you only knew.’95 Jesus delves into old problems between Samaritans and Jews and attempts to draw her into a deeper understanding of who he is. He points to a new future, in John 4:21, and speaks of his superiority over tradition; we see her progressive understanding.96

Similarly, the #MeToo movement and our current context of the Royal Commission of Inquiry invite us to reconsider misinformed themes, assumptions, reasoning, and resistance found in the age-old collective and individual avoidance and silencing of abuse stories.

In contrast, we see Jesus and the woman enthusiastically engaging in much detail about water, husbands, and places of worship. This is a two-way growing conversation which is becoming thirst quenching and life giving for them both. The result is not a woman sneaking off quietly in shame but confidently going to her community with her story of the day. As previously highlighted, her storytelling results in interest enough from her community for them to follow her back to be an audience to the person and claims of Jesus.

As church leaders we can invite victims, their stories and questions. Where invited we can partner with women to dismantle barriers and ask questions about how we can be helpful and ensure safety for those on the journey of telling their story of victimisation.

We are learning what hasn’t been helpful; our not believing, blaming, and protecting powerful individuals and institutions. So as Christian #MeToo voices increasingly make their stories known, let us resist the familiar but irrelevant collection of responses of misinformation: “she was asking for it,” “look at her past,” or “he is so well thought of.”

The Samaritan story offers us some guidance in the way Jesus initiates and navigates conversation. Right from the start Jesus has a focus on her own future and her future in her community. We could paraphrase Jesus’ words to say, “If you only knew what I want to do for you and with you.” Her testimony and truth alters her community. The conversation results in her personal freedom and her whole community aligning with new truth which brings spiritual flourishing. Both the woman and her community go into a very different future. Traditions needed revising and updating; new clarity and the way forward was being heralded by Jesus.

The #MeToo movement is another way to express and highlight injustice and attempt to seek fairer, fuller, better, and safer futures for all. As issues are raised publicly, as in our NZ Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse within religious settings, we are offered an opportunity to forge new ways forward. The unfolding disclosures will guide us as to how the brave and vulnerable women in these situations can be served well. I ask how we as leaders and Christians can respond in ways resonant with God’s heart and kingdom values for our own church communities? #MeToo inspires us to work towards best practice, informed responses, and responsible use of scripture so as not to further wound these vulnerable and brave people.

I end with the statement of Tarana Burke, the originator of #MeToo:

Ending sexual violence (and harassment) will require every voice from every corner of the world and it will require those whose voices are most often heard to find ways to amplify those voices that often go unheard.97

For the sake of justice may our Christian voice speak with one accord.

Contributor: Daphne Marsden (BMin, MTH)

Daphne leads Project Esther Trust, a Community Ministry of South West Baptist Church, Christchurch, New Zealand focusing on women and their families facing adversity. She wrote Dishonoured and Unheard: Christian Women and Domestic Violence, published by Archer Press 2018.


  1. (22 October, 2021)
  2. With permission from Pastoral conversation.
  3. With permission from Pastoral conversation.
  4. With permission from Pastoral conversation.
  5. Kirsty Johnston, “Sexual harassment victim wins landmark apology from Anglican Church,” New Zealand Herald, 23 March 2020, (20 April, 2021).
  6. Mick Hall, “Catholic Church knew of abuse claims against paedophile priest Michael Shirres for 28 years,” New Zealand Herald, 29 August 2018, (20 April, 2021).
  7. Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, “WITN0062001 Ms C Witness Statement,” (pdf, 21 August, 2020), 3, (20 April, 2021).
  8. Johanna Stiebert, Rape Myths, The Bible, and #MeToo (Oxford: Routledge, 2020), 15.
  9. Ibid, 49.
  10. Doug McNeil, “Unconscious or Implicit Bias: Pretty certain this isn’t about me,” (lecture, Oxford Terrace Baptist Church, Christchurch, NZ, 29 September 2020). McNeil uses the title ‘He pononga’ (servant).
  11. Mithu Sanyal, Rape: From Lucretia to #MeToo (London/New York: Verso, 2019), 1, cited in Stiebert, Rape Myths, 8.
  12. Stiebert, Rape Myths, 4.
  13. Milena Popova, Sexual Consent, MIT Press Essential Knowledge series (Cambridge, MA/London: MIT Press, 2019), 10, cited in Stiebert, Rape Myths, 4.
  14. Milena Popova is a writer, activist and creative consultant working on sex and consent in media and popular culture.
  15. Milena Popova, Sexual Consent, 4, cited in Stiebert, Rape Myths, 55.
  16. Judith McInnes (editing input).
  17. Stiebert, Rape Myths, 55.
  18. Jaime Chandra and Cervix, “Rape Culture Pyramid,” v.5 (September 2018), (20 April 2021).
  19. Stiebert, Rape Myths, 56
  20. Ruth Everhart, The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church‘s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct (Downers Grove: IVP, 2020), 3.
  21. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), “About Sexual Assault,” (April 11, 2019) cited in Everhart, The #MeToo Reckoning, 7.
  22. Everhart, The #MeToo Reckoning, 7.
  23. Ibid, 8.
  24. Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 20, quoted in Everhart, The #MeToo Reckoning, 8.
  25. Everhart, The #MeToo Reckoning, 8.
  26. Elisabeth McDonald, Rape Myths as Barriers to Fair Trial Process 2020: Comparing adult rape trials with those in the Aotearoa Sexual Violence Court (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2020). (20 April 2021). McDonald’s work, Rape Myths as Barriers to Fair Trial Process 2020, examines and compares thirty adult rape cases tried between 2010-2015, with ten cases tried in the Aotearoa Sexual Violence Court Pilot during 2017-2018 (which were adult acquaintance rape cases where the defence argued consent).
  27. Martha R. Burt published the first major study of Rape Myth acceptance in the 1980s.
  28. Martha R. Burt, “Cultural Myths and Support for Rape,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 38 (1980), 217, in McDonald, Rape Myths as Barriers to Fair Trial Process 2020, 43.
  29. The exhibition can be viewed at (20 April, 2021).
  30. Stiebert, Rape Myths, 65.
  31. Ibid, 69.
  32. Ibid, 70.
  33. Stiebert, Rape Myths, 66. Also see, Zurbriggen and Yost, “Power, Desire, and Pleasure in Sexual Fantasies,” Journal of Sex Research 41/3 (2004): 288-300.
  34. Robb McCann, “The Victim-Blaming Defence (that didn’t work this time),” White Ribbon Media Release, (21 February, 2020), (20 April 2021).
  35. Stiebert, Rape Myths, 66.
  36. McDonald, Rape Myths as Barriers to Fair Trial Process 2020, 283.
  37. McDonald, Rape Myths as Barriers to Fair Trial Process 2020, 56.
  38. Genesis 34: 1-31.
  39. Rachael Denhollander, What is a Girl Worth? My story of breaking the silence and about exposing the truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2019), 126.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women (Ukraine: Basic Books, 2009), quoted in Everhart, The #MeToo Reckoning, 108.
  42. John 4: 18
  43. Lynn H. Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 122.
  44. Ibid., 123.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Ibid.
  49. Ibid, 124.
  50. Ibid.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Ibid, 125.
  53. Ibid, 125.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Ibid, 128.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Dianna Clement, “Working in the #MeToo Era,” New Zealand Herald, 12 November 2019, (20 April, 2021).
  58. Ibid.
  59. Ibid.
  60. Ibid.
  61. Ministry of Justice: Tāhū o te Ture, “A new Family Violence Act,” (20 April, 2021).
  62. Ibid.
  63. Ibid.
  64. Heather Collins, “Domestic Violence Leave – Key Points for Employers,” (20 April, 2021).
  65. Honourable Justice E.W. Thomas, cited in Jan Jordan, “The new laws are great but rape victims deserve more radical change,” The Spinoff, 3 July 2019, (20 April, 2021).
  66. Jan Jordan, “The new laws are great but rape victims deserve more radical change,” The Spinoff, 3 July 2019, (20 April, 2021).
  67. Ibid.
  68. ACC, “Growing attraction? Or growing aggression?” 19 October 2020, (20 April, 2021).
  69. Marie Marshall Fortune, “Faith is Fundamental to Ending Domestic Terror,” Women’s Rights Law Reporter 33: 463-470, cited in Caroline Blyth et al. (eds.), Rape Culture, Gender Violence, and Religion (Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature), 2.
  70. Denhollander, What is a Girl Worth? 140.
  71. Ibid.
  72. Ibid.
  73. Marie M. Fortune and James Poling, “Calling to Accountability: The Church’s Response to Abusers,” in Violence Against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook, ed. Carol J. Adams and Marie M. Fortune (New York: The Continuum, 1995), 451-463, cited in Everhart, The #MeToo Reckoning, 53.
  74. Ibid, 53-54.
  75. Kathleen McPhillips, “The Royal Commission Investigates Child Sexual Abuse: Uncovering Cultures of Sexual Violence in the Catholic Church,” in Rape Culture, Gender Violence, & Religion: Christian Perspectives, ed. Caroline Blyth et al. (Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature), 55.
  76. Ibid.
  77. Ibid.
  78. Everhart, The #MeToo Reckoning.
  79. Judith Herman is an American psychiatrist, researcher, teacher, and author who has focused on the understanding and treatment of incest and traumatic stress.
  80. Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 7-8, cited in Everhart, The #MeToo Reckoning, 54.
  81. Everhart, The #MeToo Reckoning, 141-142.
  82. Ibid, 142.
  83. Ibid, 234-235.
  84. Gricel Medina, “6 Principles for guarding Churches against Predators,” CBE International, May 2018, Sec.3, (20 April 2021).
  85. [85] Daphne Marsden, “The Church’s Contribution to Domestic Violence: Submission, Headship and Patriarchy,” in Rape Culture, Gender Violence, & Religion, ed. Caroline Blyth et al., 92.
  86. Ibid.
  87. Mimi Haddad, “Ending Abuse: 4 Steps for Churches,” CBE International, June 2018, (20 April 2021).
  88. Ibid.
  89. Ibid.
  90. Ibid.
  91. Jeanne Porter King, “The Paradox of Power: 7 Leadership Strategies in the Age of #ChurchToo,” CBE International, June 2018, (20 April 2021).
  92. Christopher Naseri, “Jews Have No Dealings With Samaritans: A Study of Relations between Jews and Samaritans at the Time of Jesus Christ,” Lwati: A Journal of Contemporary Research, Issue 11/2, 2014, (published 2015-02-09), 9. (20 April 2021).
  93. Ibid.
  94. John 4:22 ESV.
  95. John 4:10 GNT
  96. Francis J. Moloney, S. D. B, The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, S. J. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016), 128.
  97. Tarana Burke, cited in Facebook Post by Health in Her HUE, 28 September 2018, (20 April, 2021).


ACC. “Growing attraction? Or growing aggression?” 19 October, 2020. (20 April, 2021).

Andzelika. “Victims who were told that their clothing got them sexually assaulted display what they were wearing.” Bored Panda. (20 April, 2021).

Blyth, Caroline et al. (eds.). Rape Culture, Gender Violence, and Religion. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature. (2018)

Burke, Tarana. Cited in Facebook Post by Health in Her HUE. 28 September 2018. (20 April, 2021).

Burt, Martha R. “Cultural Myths and Support for Rape.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 38 (1980). Cited in McDonald, Rape Myths as Barriers to Fair Trial Process 2020Comparing adult rape trials with those in the Aotearoa Sexual Violence Court. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2020.

Chandra, Jaime and Cervix. “Rape Culture Pyramid.” V.5 (September 2018). (20 April 2021).

Clement, Dianna. “Working in the #MeToo Era.” New Zealand Herald. 12 November 2019. (20 April, 2021).

Cohick, Lynn H. Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.

Collins, Heather. “Domestic Violence Leave – Key Points for Employers.” (20 April, 2021).

Denhollander, Rachael. What is a Girl Worth? My story of breaking the silence and about exposing the truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2019.

Everhart, Ruth. The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church‘s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct. Downers Grove: IVP, 2020.

Fortune, Marie Marshall. “Faith is Fundamental to Ending Domestic Terror.” Women’s Rights Law Reporter 33: 463-470.

Fortune, Marie M. and James Poling. “Calling to Accountability: The Church’s Response to Abusers.” In Violence Against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook, ed. Carol J. Adams and Marie M. Fortune. New York: The Continuum, 1995.

Haddad, Mimi. “Ending Abuse: 4 Steps for Churches.” CBE International (June 2018) (20 April 2021).

Hall, Mick. “Catholic Church knew of abuse claims against paedophile priest Michael Shirres for 28 years.” New Zealand Herald, 29 August 2018. (20 April, 2021).

Johnston, Kirsty. “Sexual harassment victim wins landmark apology from Anglican Church.” New Zealand Herald, 23 March 2020. (20 April, 2021).

Jordan, Jan. “The new laws are great but rape victims deserve more radical change.” The Spinoff, 3 July 2019. (20 April, 2021).

Lewis Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992. Cited in Everhart, The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church‘s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct. Downers Grove: IVP, 2020.

McCann, Robb. “The Victim-Blaming Defence (that didn’t work this time).” White Ribbon Media Release, (21 February, 2020). (20 April 2021).

McDonald, Elisabeth. Rape Myths as Barriers to Fair Trial Process 2020: Comparing adult rape trials with those in the Aotearoa Sexual Violence Court. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2020. (20 April 2021).

McNeil, Doug. “Unconscious or Implicit Bias: Pretty certain this isn’t about me.” Lecture, Oxford Terrace Baptist Church, Christchurch, NZ, 29 September 2020.

McPhillips, Kathleen. “The Royal Commission Investigates Child Sexual Abuse: Uncovering Cultures of Sexual Violence in the Catholic Church.” In Rape Culture, Gender Violence, & Religion: Christian Perspectives, ed. Caroline Blyth et al. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature.

Manne, Kate. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Cited in Ruth Everhart, The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church‘s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct. Downers Grove: IVP, 2020.

Marsden, Daphne. “The Churches Contribution to Domestic Violence: Submission, Headship and Patriarchy.” In Rape Culture, Gender Violence, & Religion: Christian Perspectives, ed. Caroline Blyth et al. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature.

Medina, Gricel. “6 Principles for guarding Churches against Predators.” CBE International, May 2018, Sec.3. (20 April 2021).

Naseri, Christopher. “Jews Have no Dealings With Samaritans: A Study of Relations Between Jews and Samaritans at the Time of Jesus Christ.” Lwati: A Journal of Contemporary Research (Issue 11/2, 2014, published 2015-02-09) (20 April 2021).

Ministry of Justice: Tāhū o te Ture. “A new Family Violence Act.” (20 April, 2021).

Moloney, Francis J., S. D. B. The Gospel of John. Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, S. J. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.

Popova, Milena. Sexual Consent, MIT Press Essential Knowledge series. Cambridge, MA/London: MIT Press, 2019. Cited in Johanna Stiebert, Rape Myths, The Bible, and #MeToo. Oxford: Routledge, 2020.

Porter King, Jeanne. “The Paradox of Power: 7 Leadership Strategies in the Age of #ChurchToo.” CBE International (June 2018) (20 April 2021).

RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network). “About Sexual Assault.” (April 11, 2019). Cited in Ruth Everhart, The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church‘s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct. Downers Grove: IVP, 2020.

Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, “WITN0062001 Ms C Witness Statement,” (pdf, 21 August, 2020), 3. (20 April, 2021).

Sanyal, Mithu. Rape: From Lucretia to #MeToo. London/New York: Verso, 2019. Cited in Johanna Stiebert, Rape Myths, The Bible, and #MeToo. Oxford: Routledge, 2020.

Stiebert, Johanna. Rape Myths, The Bible, and #MeToo. Oxford: Routledge, 2020.

Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women. Ukraine: Basic Books, 2009. Cited in Ruth Everhart, The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church‘s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct. Downers Grove: IVP, 2020.

Zurbriggen and Yost. “Power, Desire, and Pleasure in Sexual Fantasies.” Journal of Sex Research 41/3 (2004): 288-300.

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