Monrovia, Liberia: Liberian Church leaders have visited the Vatican after a priest claimed to have been mentally and psychologically abused by two bishops, reportedly in retaliation against him for refusing sexual relations.
Father Gabriel Sawyer, who has since left ministry and attempted to marry, made the accusations against Archbishop Lewis Zeigler of Monrovia and Bishop Andrew Karnley of Cape Palmas in an Aug. 15, 2018 letter to the apostolic nuncio to Liberia, Archbishop Dagoberto Campos Salas.
Archbishop Zeigler declined to comment, while Bishop Karnley characterized Sawyer’s claims as “a campaign of lies and falsehoods against me.”
The visit took place the last week of May, the news site Crux reported. The Vatican meeting included Bishop Anthony Borwah of Gbarnga, who heads the Liberian bishops’ conference; Father Dennis Cephus Nimene, secretary of the bishops’ conference; and Campos, the nuncio.
The alleged victim said in his letter to the nuncio that the harassment was constant and systematic for over 14 years.
In a May 23 New Narratives report, the priest said he was left destitute and waited for a year and a half for an investigation. He claims to have then attempted to marry a friend in February 2019 “to protect my own life.” He said he faced threats and he accused his ecclesiastical superiors of refusing to provide him with necessary healthcare.
“Once the information got out they were sending me threatening messages,” he said. “I am the first person to speak out on these homosexuality and sex abuse charges. And these things have haunted the Church for years. I felt it is time someone speaks out about them.”
Sawyer said the retaliatory incidents involving Karnley lasted more than two decades, dating back to his time as a seminarian when Karnley was vocations director.
Karnley made sexual advances towards him “continuously” when they traveled by car together, Sawyer alleged.
In one incident, Sawyer said, Karnley tried to touch him sexually when he was half-asleep in his room. When he refused the bishop further sexual activity, the retaliation began, the priest claims.
“He quietly and calmly left my room, telling me at the same time, that he will make sure that I did not become a priest,” said the priest, who said the previous Archbishop of Monrovia, Michael Francis, assigned him to another priest for evaluation before approving his ordination to the priesthood. Francis died in 2013.
Sawyer said he kept quiet “in order to save my vocation.” He said he discussed the retaliatory behavior with his classmates, though not Karnley’s alleged sexual advances.
Karnley, 52, has served as Bishop of Cape Palmas since 2011. He was a priest of the Archdiocese of Liberia and was its apostolic administrator from 2005-2009.
The 75-years-old Zeigler has been Monrovia’s archbishop since 2011. He is the former Bishop of Gbarnga.
New Narratives said it has interviewed five other priests and lay people who affirmed Sawyer suffered abuse from the two bishops. These alleged witnesses asked for their identities to be withheld for fear of retribution from Church leadership.
Moses Carter, a spokesman for the Liberia National Police, affirmed that the country’s laws will be enforced if anyone is convicted, explaining, “If any individual in the Catholic Church commits an act it does not becloud the entire church said individual must be made to face the full weight of the law.”
“Whoever claims they were sodomized or attempts were made on them, the law is always there for everyone. They can come over to the (Liberia National Police),” said Carter.
Liberia’s penal code bars “involuntary sodomy,” classifying as a third-degree felony “deviate sexual intercourse” or causing someone to engage in such intercourse. It is unclear whether the law would apply in Sawyer’s case.
Sawyer has also charged that the archbishop abused his power and refused him leave to go to Ghana for treatment for an illness.
The harassment was so severe it has caused him “untold sufferings and mental disorders,” he charged, including “psychological breakdown” and even a periodic “state of paralysis.” He also suffers from acute gastrointestinal disorder.
Explaining his sex abuse claim against Zeigler, Sawyer said the archbishop “told me that I was looking nice and he loves me.” It appears to be based in the archbishop’s recommendation that “I should make time available to visit him at his house,” which Sawyer said he realized meant “something else.” In Sawyer’s account, the bishop later repeated such a proposal.
“This time I told him I was not interested and cannot reduce myself to that level. I was so upset and left his office without discussing what I went to see him about,” the priest said.
Another priest speaking anonymously said that Zeigler has professed his innocence of the allegations in meetings with clergy.
Karnley said “I challenge Father Sawyer in the name of God to take me to any court and prove it, not only him but any man living or dead.”
News reports cited a leaked email to Sawyer from Bishop Borwah, dated Dec. 4, 2018, that appears to show Borwah asking Sawyer to “please keep things away from the media, public and the court.”
The bishop, who was ordained a priest of the Monrovia archdiocese in 1996, appeared to want the priest’s side heard.
“You have the right to be listened to and protected by the Church,” said the bishop, who pledged his help to bring the process to a successful conclusion “as much as I can with God’s help.”
Sawyer has supporters and detractors.
One lay Catholic, Aaron Weah, said he’s supporting “a strong and impartial investigation.”
“I believe that if they are verified to be lies it will help the Church. If these acts are actually happening in the Church and they can be verified and authenticated it will also help our faith,” Weah said.
Others were critical of the accuser.
“I think it is misinformation,” Solo Otto Gaye, a journalist and a Catholic who volunteers with the Cape Palmas diocese, said of Sawyer’s claims. “This is hard to believe because (the) bishop is an African man from the village. I run his social media page. I have gone from village to village with him. We even sleep together. If he is gay I would know.”
Some reactions came from the pulpit.
“What you are hearing is because an individual is hurt and decided to smear the image of the church,” Sacred Heart Cathedral’s administrator, Father Alphonsus Momoh, said to a Sunday congregation in Monrovia. “One day the truth will be told by the one who told the lie. Some believe it, some don’t and some are standing firm.”
He attributed the controversy to greed and a desire for money, saying, “Nobody wants to go through the proper channel. You will go and tarnish the name of the institution you belong to. There is no trust. We find in our midst- pulling down each other.”
A division of the Catholic fraternity Knights of St. John International, based at the same cathedral, expelled a member who spoke to the press about the matter and criticized the Church.
Sawyer said harassment continued after his ordination, though indirectly. He charged that Karnley and his allies conspired to oust him from his parish assignment, leaving him destitute and forced to beg for money at times.
His letter objected that the bishop’s office provided him insufficient funds to secure a visa to the U.K. for studies, and provided insufficient funds to support him while studying in the U.K., which similarly forced him to beg.
Upon his return, he was assigned to pastors who failed to provide his basic material needs. Sawyer contended his assignment as an associate priest after having served as pastor was non-canonical and a “total abuse of ecclesiastical power.”
A pastor he served under, he said, called the bishop and falsely reported that Sawyer threatened to kill the pastor “with a cutlass.” Sawyer also claimed that Karnley falsely accused him of having affairs with women, because of his refusal of sexual advances.
Sawyer claimed that his refusal of Zeigler’s alleged sexual advances meant that the bishop would listen to gossip about him rather than fairly investigate the accusations and unjustly kicked the priest out of his assignments. He claimed that the archbishop showed insufficient empathy to the priest and did not pay sufficient respect to his family after his father’s death. The priest’s letter speculated on whether this apparent inaction was due to an Ebola outbreak.
Both bishops ignored canon law, the priest charged.
The series on the Liberian bishops was produced by New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project. It acknowledges funding from the Australian government agency Australian Aid, with the disclaimer that the funder had no say in the content.
The New Narratives project’s international partners are the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the U.K.-based charitable arm of the news network, and Chime for Change, founded by the Italian luxury fashion company Gucci in 2013. The Chime for Change campaign on its website describes as an effort “to convene, unite and strengthen the voices speaking out for gender equality.”