By Jesse Masai
One of the Anglican Church of Kenya’s senior bishops has been charged with allegedly touching the breasts of one of his clerics, attempting to kiss her without consent, and demoting her after she spurned his advances.
The Rt. Rev. Joel Waweru Mwangi, who has served as Bishop of Nairobi since 2010 and is a member of the Anglican Communion’s Standing Committee, denied the charges before Kibera senior principal magistrate Derrick Kuto on January 10, 2022.
“On diverse dates and different times at Otiende in Langata, Nairobi, being a person in the position of authority [Waweru] persistently made a sexual advance at JNM knowing or having reason to believe that such advance was unwelcome by the said JNM, thereby interfering with her work,” the charge sheet read.
The police file adds: “Bishop Waweru demoted her at a church in Westlands, then transferred her to a different parish.”
The bishop, who was arrested on January 3, 2022, will return to court in a fortnight after being released on bail of 50,000 Kenyan shillings ($441 USD).
The formal charges come after months of embarrassing disclosures in the Kenyan press about Waweru’s alleged assaults against the Rev. Canon Jane Nyaguthii Mwangangi, vicar of St. Barnabas’ Parish, Langata, and a former archdeacon of the diocese.
In October, Nyaguthii told The Nairobian that Waweru first made advances to her on a retreat more than 10 years ago, despite knowing that she was married to another diocesan priest, the Rev. Japhet Kathenyu.
She said that in 2016, while she was serving at St. Mark’s Parish in Westlands, one of Nairobi’s most affluent districts, Waweru grabbed her and tried to push her down onto a sofa. Nyaguthii says she was only able resist him by screaming and hitting him with her elbow.
She reported the assault to the police shortly afterwards, but they took no action. Nyaguthii was, however, transferred by Waweru to St. Barnabas’ Parish, in a much humbler suburb on the outskirts of the city. When he visited her at St. Barnabas’ on June 13, 2021, she alleges that Waweru pressed her breast, claiming to be removing a stain from her blouse.
Waweru went on to suspend Nyaguthii for a month on August 8, claiming that she failed to exercise proper oversight of the church’s finances, and mishandled the termination of the church’s secretary, who allegedly stole KShs.1,061,544 ($9,360 USD) from the congregation.
The same day that Waweru announced her suspension, Nyaguthii filed a complaint with local police about the alleged assault, also notifying the Kenyan primate, Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit. Kenya’s Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), a prominent public interest group focused on combating gender-based violence and securing women’s rights, has also taken her case.
The Nairobian further revealed colorful correspondence between Waweru and his accuser and her husband, which appeared to try and limit damage caused by the allegations.
“For these reasons, I am now forced to put this into writing and formally complain to you, with a request that you should, my Lord Bishop, stop demanding to have sex with my wife Jane,” her husband, the Rev. Japhet Kathenyu complained in a letter dated August 12, 2021.
Waweru wrote back the next day in a letter copied to the primate and numerous senior church leaders, denying the charges and attacking Nyaguthii for leadership and management failures.
“First, we categorically deny any and all allegations of sexual misconduct as alleged or at all. The allegations are clearly malicious and motivated by your misguided and misconceived feelings of bitterness and hatred towards the bishop. I do not have any feelings of hatred towards you as alleged or at all,” Waweru wrote.
“Take note that, besmirching my office, spoiling my name, lowering my esteem among right-thinking members of the public, damaging my personal character, spreading innuendos, making false allegations to the police, publishing untruths, spreading baseless allegations and utter falsehoods will not be helpful in unravelling any financial impropriety issues and will further not stop the due process from being undertaken,”
He added: “Before your transfer [to Langata], there were complaints of unlawful termination and summary dismissal of church employees without following due process. There were also issues of insubordination to express resolutions of the diocesan synod.”
According to The Nairobian, Nyaguthii said she didn’t understand why Waweru was criticizing her handling of the secretary’s termination, when the secretary “did not raise any appeal or express reservations about the manner or reason of termination of employment.”
Nyaguthii added, “What is perhaps more disturbing and worrying is how you have personally taken it upon yourself to crusade, defend and protect an employee who has since transgressed on management of church finances, when it should obviously be your duty to protect the parish and church in general against such transgressions.”
The Federation of Women Lawyers has also recently spoken out on Nyaguthii’s behalf, warning Waweru against abusing his power and continuing to threaten the priest.
“Take further notice that should you, in any way whatsoever, proceed to humiliate, intimidate, harass, attempt to rape or sexually harass our client, FIDA-Kenya shall institute all mechanisms available within the law to ensure justice for our client,” wrote the organization’s chief executive, Anne Ireri.
Prof. Esther Mombo, a lecturer at Kenya’s St Paul’s University’s department of Theology and Development studies, says the current dispute reveals that gender-based violence remains a genuine problem within the church in Kenya, and that this is shaped by deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes.
She says: “This incident has reminded me of Valli Boobal Batchelor’s book, When Pastors Prey. I chose to read posts on different social media, especially WhatsApp groups of laity and clergy. Four issues have come up: Why are the affected using a secular court when the church has its courts; the two parties should forgive each other; impunity should not be left to rule; the bishop should step down and let the church be led by a commissary. What I have not heard is the subject of sexual violence.”
“The patriarchy is so loud that there seems not to be room for pastoral care for those caught up in gender-based violence. The wounded and silenced hop from one congregation to the other listening to the theology of Vumilia (perseverance) in varied forms for the sake of the family and church,” she says.
Mombo concludes: “Sadly, there is no safe and sacred space with the respect and a willingness to listen and understand the pains of the wounded. The Anglican Church has a great capacity to create protected spaces for healing and restoration for survivors alongside confession and repentance for perpetrators. There has to be a willingness to be radical and use other lenses for ministry, which may well become a voice of the voiceless.”
Waweru has not issued a public statement since being charged. The bishop, who was an international leader in the Church Army evangelistic movement before his consecration, is married to Tabitha Muthoni Waweru, with whom he has two daughters. In addition to his ministry within Kenya since 1994, he served on the staff of parishes in England and Minnesota while undertaking advanced degrees.
In 2016, he was elected by the Anglican Consultative Council to its fourteen-member Standing Committee, which guides the operations of the Anglican Communion Office and acts on Communion-wide matters, like the authorization of new provinces. He was also appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2019 as a member of the Lambeth Design Group, the body charged with developing the program for next summer’s Lambeth Conference.
Jesse Masai is a freelance journalist based in Limuru, Kenya.