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Page last updated at 10:08 GMT, Wednesday, 23 September 2009 11:08 UK

SA bishops mull sex-abuse claims

Refugees in Central Methodist Church, January 2008
The facility is said to be overcrowded and run down

Methodist bishops in South Africa have met to decide what action to take over claims that Zimbabwean children have been abused while in the Church's care.

Some 20 children have been removed from Johannesburg's Central Methodist Church - a centre housing hundreds of Zimbabwean refugees.

The bishops say they are taking the claims seriously and have not yet said whether the facility will remain open.

Prosecutors say the police are investigating the claims.

The church has huge symbolic importance as it housed activists during South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle - and the sex-abuse allegation have been widely reported across the country.

'Overcrowded facility'

The bishops have been meeting in the south-eastern province of Kwa-Zulu Natal in the last few days to see how the problem can be solved.

It emerged last week that 20 children have been taken to a place of shelter after reporting that they had been sexually abused.

The BBC's Mpho Lakaje in Johannesburg says security guards at the church blame overcrowding for the problem.

Earlier this year the number of Zimbabweans staying there increased dramatically after a refugee centre near the Zimbabwe border post was shut down by the South African government.

Some refugees are still sleeping on the pavement outside the church.

It is not the first time children have reported sexual abuse to the police - earlier this year suspects were arrested over similar claims, but their cases were dismissed by the courts.

Our correspondent says the Central Methodist Church has always been a symbol of hope to African immigrants living in Johannesburg.

For many years anti-apartheid activists used the church as a base.

Bishop Paul Verryn, head of the church, helped to shield political activists who were wanted by state agents.

But our reporter says the church is now in a state of disrepair, with leaking sewage pipes leaking and peeling wallpaper.



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