Liberia: Priest Tells Catholics Allegations of Sexual Harassment are False


MONROVIA – One of the priests in the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in Liberia has blasted parishioners for what he terms as a betrayal of the church. The Administrator of the Sacred Heart Cathedral, Rev. Father Alphonsus Momoh told parishioners in the Sunday service of his church that accusations by Fr. Gabriel Sawyer that Archbishop Lewis Zeigler and Bishop Andrew Karnley had bullied and abused him for more than a decade after he rebuffed their sexual advances, were nothing but an effort to taint the church.

Report by Tecee Boley, New Narratives Senior Justice Correspondent

“What you are hearing is because an individual is hurt and decided to smear the image of the church. 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. But there are some of you here taking notes and recording on your phones to send the recording to them,” Fr. Momoh said.

This is the first public statement coming out of a Liberian clergy since allegations of sex-based misconduct and abuse of power was made public in the media.

 Fr. Momoh, in a further rebuke of Sawyer, claimed that it was a quest for material and financial gains that Sawyer and others are ruining the church. “Because of greed! Everybody wants to get rich. Nobody wants to go through the proper channel. You will go and tarnish the name of the institution (s) you belong to. There is no trust. We find in our midst- pulling down each other.”

FPA/New Narratives’ extensive reporting found no evidence that Fr. Sawyer stood to gain financially from his allegations. NN interviewed five other priests and lay-people who bared witness to the abuse suffered by Fr. Sawyer at the hands of the two bishops. All wanted to withhold their identities fearing retribution from the church leadership.

This is the first priest to rally the church from the pulpit on behalf of the two bishops [Bishop Andrew Karnley of Cape Palmas and Archbishop Lewis Zeigler] accused by Fr. Sawyer.  Parishioners in the church said Fr. Momoh’s tone appeared designed to warn laypeople from speaking out and leaking information to the media.  This is a contradiction to the Pope latest decree on how the church should deal with allegations of sexual misconduct.

Pope Francis recently instructed laypeople and all others in the church to report cases of such nature.

The Pope has for the first time in the church history definitively given time line for the investigation of allegations of sexual abuse by the clergy. Priests are to report any allegations of sex abuse they may come across to their superiors with a resulting investigation within the span of 3 months.  Unprecedented powers were also given to the laypeople to report what they hear about clerical sexual misconduct.

The Church in Liberia is yet to open inquest in allegations of sexual molestations of Fr. Gabriel Sawyer.  Correspondence between him and his superiors’ shows that the church been dragging its feet to investigate the two bishops concerned.

After waiting for half a year, the priest Gabriel Sawyer made a statement by getting married to a woman in February of this year. He first complained to the Vatican Ambassador in August of last year.

“I had to get married to protect my own life. Once the information got out they were sending me threatening messages. 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.

West African Catholic Church Bishops Conference

Meanwhile, the West African Bishops Conference has concluded inOuagadougou, Burkina Faso. But what did the regional Roman Catholic bishops say about allegations of sex-based assault and abuse of power in Liberia? 

People close to the bishops say the West African Bishops were busy discussing the recent no tolerance decree of Pope Francis in relations to sex scandals which have rocked the global church.

“Despite their meeting, we are still calling for a full flesh investigation into the matter.  The church has been faced with allegation for a long time. And this is not unique to Liberia. It is worldwide.  The Nuncio must act now to save the Liberian Church,” Rhodoxon Fayiah said. 

Sawyer’s accusation follows a worldwide trench of allegations of sexual abuse of children, nuns and other church members. The long silence of the church is leading advocateVandalark R. Patricks to call for speedy investigations into the sex-base assaults allegations. 

For Patricks, it is the Liberian state that must act. “I think it is time for the government to step in. The Catholic Church should not be considered untouchable. If that has been an existing norm it needs to be broken down. This man has alarmed he is a Liberian citizen besides being a priest. In my mind it is the responsibility of the government to take appropriate steps where the church has clearly failed to investigate.” 

Attacks on Fr. Sawyer’s Credibility

Back home, many faithful Catholics are doing all they can to defend their bishops in an attempt to save the reputation of the faith. Arguments for and against the bishops are still happening at public gatherings including conferences, religious gatherings, entertainment centers and social media platforms. 

Those who spoke with this paper brought the credibility of Father Sawyer into question.  Former Bong County Senator and a prominent Catholic, Franklin O. Siakor says Sawyer should not been taken seriously.

“From my little dealing with him during the 2011 elections I wouldn’t take anything from him to be credible,” Siakor said.  “Cllr. Brumskin and I went to Gbarpolu because Sawyer had put us under the impression that he was helping us with the campaign. We went there to find out that he was actually campaigning for the CDC”.

But Sawyer is disappointed that as a priest his character has been called into question. “What people should be calling for is investigation and not trying to question my character. There is no way you can discredit me by questioning my actions. If I had a questionable character Siakor and his boss [Cllr. Brumskin] would not had been hosted and fed in my house.”

AdvocateVandalark R. Patricks who was an altar servant in the late 1990s said Sawyer is a man of good character. “I knew Sawyer when I was an altar boy at St. Pious. He is a morally upright man. He has the spirit of Archbishop Francis. These are people that speak on issues that affect the church and society”.

Until the Catholic Church in Liberia speaks the allegations hangs over it. Until an investigation is carried out the stain will leave questions for the entire West African congregation. 

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