ROME – Last week representatives of the Liberian bishops’ conference traveled to the Vatican to address accusations from a local priest that two of the country’s bishops were guilty of soliciting him for sex.
Bishop Anthony Borwah, President of the Liberia Bishops’ Conference, traveled to Rome to meet with Vatican officials after Father Gabriel Sawyer, a parish priest from Monrovia, raised accusations against the current Archbishop Lewis Zeigler, who heads the archdiocese, and against Bishop Andrew Karnley of Cape Palmas – located on Liberia’s southern coast – of sexual advances and abuses of power.
Reportedly accompanying Borwah to the Vatican were Father Dennis Cephus Nimene, secretary of the bishops’ conference and Archbishop Dagoberto Campos Salas, Vatican envoy to Liberia.
In a lengthy 17-page August 2018 letter to Campos Salas, Sawyer said that when he was in seminary in Monrovia in 1997, Karnley, who was vocations director at the time, had made inappropriate advances and attempted to have sex with him while on trips to say Mass outside of the seminary.
Sawyer alleges that after refusing, Karnley threatened to block his ordination to the priesthood and made his life both pre- and post-ordination difficult. When Zeigler was named archbishop of Monrovia in 2011, Sawyer said he also made sexual advances, and harassed him after he resisted.
According to Sawyer, the alleged abuses went on for some 14 years. In his letter, published on the Liberian news site Front Page Africa, the priest said he was “constantly and systematically molested” by Karnley and Zeigler, and that he has suffered numerous psychological and mental molestations “as a result of my refusal to have sexual intercourse.”
Despite his alleged abuse and mistreatment in seminary, Sawyer said he “kept quiet in order to save my vocation.”
“This is the honorable thing any Seminarian and even most priests will choose to do. Because of this culture of threats and intimidation from some church leaders in Liberia and Africa at large we will choose to be quiet,” he said, adding that “this culture of silence in the face of molestation cut across all facets of our society and it is prevalent most especially in the local Liberian church.”
Sawyer in his letter said he believed the mistreatment and intimidation would end once he was ordained, however, he said Karnley continued to make his priestly life difficult, threatening to “torture” him until he left the priesthood.
Among the alleged retaliations Sawyer said he suffered were the refusal to give him a stipend, forcing him to at times beg friends and fellow priests for food; and being accused of having inappropriate relationships with women and of political campaigning.
He said he was also accused of financial misdealing at one of his parishes and the attached school after refusing advances from Zeigler and was not assigned to parishes for long periods of time.
“I was so frustrated with his continuous violation of my dignity and personality,” he said in the letter. “I was stabbed in the back by the Bishop who should be the shepherd of all the priests. I felt so hurt, and it really destroyed my ability to work hard for God.”
Sawyer said he continued to be blocked and mistreated as a priest, often being removed from parishes without reason and assigned as an associate pastor at other churches, where he was required to report to men who had previously been classmates in seminary.
He said he was also mistreated by Zeigler during a study trip to the UK, asserting that the archbishop refused to give him funds for necessary testing, transport, living costs and winter clothing, forcing him to “beg” for money from friends.
“These events had brought me untold sufferings and mental disorders. These experiences from the bishop of the Archdiocese of Monrovia had caused me serious medical conditions and psychological breakdown,” he said, explaining that he at times allegedly falls into a state of paralysis “due to the intense trauma I have suffered from bishops Zeigler and Karnley.”
He said he suffers from acute gastrointestinal disorder, and that after a doctor requested that he travel to Ghana for treatment, Zeigler refused to grant permission.
Sawyer insisted that he was innocent, telling Campos Salas to visit his former parishes, because “My impeccable legacies are there.”
“There is nothing dishonorable that I have done to be treated rudely and without respect. Hence to be treated in this way by these two bishops is unjust, undignified and something needs to be done immediately before someone gets hurt,” he said, asking Campos Salas to intercede for him in obtaining financial support for medical care and for an investigation to be launched, keeping his name anonymous.
The Vatican is reportedly looking into the case, however, in recent weeks local media have raised questions about the credibility of Sawyer’s testimony, noting the fact he has left active ministry to marry a woman without requesting permission to leave the clerical state.
For his part, Karnley hit back against the allegations of abuse, insisting that they are false.
“It is without a shadow of doubt that I term the accusation as a blatant lie and malicious falsehood,” he said in the statement published in African media May 31.
Karnley said the allegations are “an invention of the mind of Fr. Sawyer and a calculated move by him to assassinate my character and tarnish the image of the Catholic Church in Liberia. At no time or in any place have I ever sexually harassed and abused him…NEVER EVER!”
“I categorically deny and challenge the accusation,” he said, insisting that Sawyer has never faced the difficulties he claims are the basis for his “arbitrary abandonment of his priestly life and discipline.”
“This claim is a falsehood with an ulterior motive and should be called into question and investigated,” Karnley said, praying that God would “expose and bring into the light of day this lie and falsehood against me,” and thanking those who have voiced their support.