Liberia: Catholic Church Scrambles to Cover Up Sex Abuse Scandal


MONROVIA – Five days after this paper first reported allegations of sex-based assault and power abuse inside the Catholic Church, the church hierarchy, including the Pope’s representative in Liberia, have remained silent but there are signs the church is racing to find ways to tamp down a furor created by the story.

By Tecee Boley, New Narratives Senior Justice Reporter

Archbishop Lewis Zeigler, one of two church leaders accused of making sexual passes at Fr. Gabriel Sawyer and then hounding him out of the church when he rebuffed them, did not answer two visits by FrontPage Africa/New Narratives to his office. The Vatican Ambassador to Liberia, Nuncio Dagoberto Campos Salas, was also not available during a visit to his office on Friday. Phone calls and SMS message to the head of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Liberia also went unanswered.

The other man accused in the scandal, Bishop Andrew Karnley of Cape Palmas denied the allegations in a phone call reported by FPA on Friday. 

After mass at 4 pm there was a meeting of selected people within the church designed to come up with a response to the situation. The meeting was by invitation only.  The meeting included some clergy, department heads and few laypeople. 

Our sources from within the meeting say the Liberian Church intends to tell the world they are still investigating the allegations Fr. Sawyer has complained of since August of 2018.

The church leadership has been refusing to respond to the allegations of Fr. Sawyer since August last year when he first raised them in a letter to the Nuncio and later in a letter sent directly by special post to the Vatican.

In a personal meeting with the Nuncio in December, Sawyer claimed the Pope’s Representative told him there was nothing he could do as it was a domestic matter.

The website of Abbp Salvatore Pennacchio, the Vatican Ambassador to Poland part of the duties and responsibilities of an Apostolic Nuncio are 

“Informing the Apostolic See about life, conditions and activity of a given particular Church and assisting the bishops and the Bishops’ Conference by action and advice, leaving intact the exercise of their lawful power and personal responsibility”. 

Following the position of the Holy See’s Ambassador, Fr. Sawyer threatened to go public with his situation. The president of the Bishop’s Conference, Anthony Boah wrote him an email, leaked to FPA, dated December 4, 2018 asking Sawyer to keep the information of  alleged sexual immorality in the hierarchy of the church from going public.

“I do plead with you to please keep things away from the media, public and the court. You have the right to be listened to and protected by the Church. I will do my best as President to help the process reach its successful conclusions as much as I can with God’s help,” Bishop Boah wrote.

The church’s silence comes as the church worldwide has been besieged with allegations of sexual abuse of children, nuns and other church members. The Vatican has been slow to respond to the scandals but in a recent letter, Pope Francis ordered that people reporting to authorities should be given attention. “The ecclesiastical Authorities shall commit themselves to ensuring that those who state that they have been harmed, together with their families, are to be treated with dignity and respect, and, in particular, are to be”.

This new decree by the Pope is far-reaching because it mandates the clergy and laypeople to report any accusations of sexual abuse they may come across in accordance with church and state laws. It is intended to change the way the church investigates cases of sexual offense.  The letter is breaking new grounds because inquests in sexual abuse allegations are now required to last for 90 days.

FPA/New Narratives reporting suggests that decree has not been followed in Liberia. 

“I do plead with you to please keep things away from the media, public and the court. You have the right to be listened to and protected by the Church. I will do my best as President to help the process reach its successful conclusions as much as I can with God’s help.” – Bishop Anthony Boah

Members defending Bishops to protect church’s image

Since the publication in Frontpage Africa on Thursday, in which Fr. Sawyer accused the two powerful men in the leadership of the church, members have been trying to defend their bishops in an attempt to save the reputation of the faith. There have been arguments at work places, church gatherings, entertainment centers and social media platforms where members of the church vehemently defended their leaders.

“I have not experienced any such thing from Bishop Karnley. I have worked with him for 8 years. I don’t believe the story coming from Sawyer,” said Solo Otto Gaye, a devote Catholic and volunteer with the Dioceses of Cape Palmas and a journalist.“I think it is misinformation. This is hard to believe because 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.” 

Zoquay Beysolow Konneh, also a journalist, wrote on Facebook that Sawyer should not be referred to as a priest. 

“Pls remove the #FATHER# title from on him….
Cuz he no longer a priest.”

Former ELBC journalist Moses Kollie Garzeawu’s comment on Facebook attacked the character of the Fr. Sawyer, who was married in recent months, he says because his life was endangered by the church’s threats and refusal to provide him pay or health care.”

“When they fail to abide by the law of celibacy, they say foolishness.”

Mathew Nyanplue joined Garzeawu in attacking Sawyer.  Vowing to remain a Catholic forever, Nyanplu wrote on his Facebook page.

“If Gabriel Sawyer was eager to break his celibacy vow, he should not find solace in besmearing the Catholic Church. Bishops Jerome Zeigler and Andrew Jagaye Karnley are accomplished Catholic Shepherds. How soon Gabriel Sawyer didn’t become Priest and he started pursuing parishioners secretly making sexual advances. He should find something else to say. The Catholic Church in Liberia should not dignify the indignation Sawyer is pouring upon himself.” 

 The three members of the church mentioned above all journalists working within the Liberian media. Konneh and Garzeawu are also members of the Knights of St. John International. Their comments follow a fellow brother Rhodoxon Fayiah who testified that allegations of sexual abuse and abuse of power have huanted the church for a long time. He said nothing has been done about it for all those years.

Fayiah comments follow a land mark decision by Pope Francis making it mandatory for Roman Catholic clergy like Sawyer to report cases of clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups to the Church.In an Apostolic letterlast week, the Pope made it very clear thatany sexual advance involving the use of power will now be considered abusive and should be reported.

“An obligation to keep silent may not be imposed on any person with regard to the contents of his or her report,” the Pope’s letter said.

Allegations of sexual immorality have been circling the Liberian church for decades. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor in the late 1990s throw jabs at Bishop Michael Francis on national radio calling him gay, after the  late Archbishop trethened to shut down Catholic schools in the country.

‘This thing nah stay long’

The mother day mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral, the central parish in the country was stained with the allegations of clerical sexual immorality and abuse of power. A prayer by one member of the choir asked God to rid the church of sexual abuse.

Although all three bishops are in Monrovia, none of them attended mass at the cathedral. This is unusual. 

People were seen in groups outside of the service discussing the scandal. “They people up there [top level in hot water oh,” said one usher. “It is nah easy on them oh. This thing nah stay long.”

Until the church comes up with a position on sex abuse, the scandal hangs over the image of the church, which has 166,000 or more than five percent of the country’s population, and has a rich legacy of standing up to dictatorship, corruption and other vices of the society. 

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Report.