Crisis Roils the Catholic Church as NN Investigation Reveals Bishops’ Abuse of Power; Vatican Stays Silent

MONROVIA, Liberia – A leading priest of the Roman Catholic Church in Liberia has made explosive allegations against Arch Bishop Lewis Zeigler and Bishop Andrew Karnley roiling Catholic congregations in the country. In his testimony, sent to Pope Francis’s email address and by registered mail to the Vatican and to Reverend Monsignor Dagoberto Campos Salas, the Apostolic Nuncio [Vatican’s Ambassador] to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, Father Gabriel Sawyer accused two of the of the men in the church’s hierarchy of sexual harassment and extreme abuse of power against himself and other priests. 

“Archbishop Lewis Zeigler of Monrovia and Bishop Andrew Karnley of Cape Palmas, Maryland County are sexual predators that persecute subordinates who refuse to have sex with them,” Sawyer wrote in the letter seen by New Narratives.

In a letter date August 15, 2018 and addressed to [the Papal Ambassador] Sawyer insisted that the two men who are in very powerful leadership positions had been after him for years.

“I have been constantly and systematically molested for over 14 years by the two clergy men mentioned above. These psychological and mental molestations came as a result of my refusal to have sexual intercourse with the names mentioned above,” Sawyer said.

Referring to a particular occurrence between him and Bishop Karnley, Sawyer penned that one of the church’s most reverend men sexually assaulted him.

“His action reached its climax one night when I was in my room between sleep and awake. I felt his warm hands pressing against my chest and his mouth was reaching for mine when I woke up in dismay. Father started pleading with me to have sex but I strongly resisted him that night and told him if he did not get out I will shout and report him to Msgr. Jubwe (the Rector at the time).”

Father Sawyer said he has suffered these assaults from Bishop Karnley for almost two decades beginning from his days as a seminarian. New Narratives has spoken with nine seminarians who have each corroborated aspects of Sawyer’s story. Some said Sawyer had shared details of Karnley’s assaults with them at the time of the attacks. Others said they had witnessed the bishop’s seemingly inexplicable attempts to curtail Sawyer’s career. All spoke on the condition of anonymity saying they feared the church hierarchy would retaliate against them as they claimed it had against Sawyer.

According to Sawyer, the assaults did not stop even after Bishop Karnley left the Archdioceses of Monrovia where he [Sawyer] works. Karnley is not the only the person, Sawyer also claimed that Archbishop Zeigler himself attempted to sexually assault him. “It all turned for the worst on one tasteless afternoon when the Archbishop told me that I was looking nice and he loves me. I was sitting right by him on a bench just outside the rectory of Christ the King Parish when we went to honor our regular Palm Butter Lunch when he said those words. I thought for a while it was a compliment coming my way from my shepherd but when he added that I should make time available to visit him at his house then I realize that it was something else.”

 He claimed that because he has suffered for many at the hands of the Archbishop for refusing sex with him. He said Archbishop has been using his power to harass him.

“He wanted revenge for my refusal of his sexual advances”, Sawyer said, Even once I was sick. I asked for leave to go to Ghana for treatment he refused to let me go.”

Father Sawyer later met with the Nuncio and another senior clergy member in person demanding action. Reverend Campos Sala said he had little to do with domestic matters and only the Vatican could launch an investigation. After this meeting Fr. Sawyer destitute and afraid for his life, married a friend for protection. 

“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 hunted the church for years. I felt it is time someone speaks out about them,” Sawyer said.

As far as Sawyer and other senior priests know, nothing has been done by the Vatican or its Ambassador to investigate the allegations.  The Papal Nuncio is yet respond to New Narratives’ emails requesting comment on the matter. Other phone calls to his office were not answered. However, NN investigations found that the matter has been raised at the last two retreats of senior Catholic clergy in Liberia by Arch Bishop Zeigler himself.

One priest who wants to remain anonymous said Zeigler raised the allegations with the clergy present and told them he was innocent of the allegations. Bishop Andrew Karnley has also denied being gay or abusing power. 

“This is a campaign of lies and falsehoods against me,” he said Monday via mobile phone from his Cape Palmas home. 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. If he is dead, let his spirit speak.”

The testimony, and news of its content, has been spread widely among Catholic priests and congregations. Congregates at some masses have told New Narratives that attendance has dropped by as much as 30% in some cases.

“Sawyer has his own followings. There are people who believe in him,” the priest told New Narratives. “You know, he is a charismatic character hence he is easily likeable. In most of the parishes he served, some of the people stopped going to church. If you were to check the records, you would instantly notice the drop in those congregations.” 

Many church goers and priests have spoken highly of Fr. Sawyer in the wake of the news. Krubah T. Mendscole was a member of the St. Monica Parish in Bopolu City, Gbarpolu County. She is now a member of the Gbarpolu Central Seventh Days Adventist Church in the same place.

“Father Sawyer was a very good priest. He would go out of his way just to make people go to church and be happy,” Mendscole said.  Mendscole used to be an active member of the church. She worked as a registrar with the Catholic School in Bopolu. 

Although the Catholic Church International has a zero-tolerance policy on clerical sex abuse and homosexuality, the Liberian Church had faced these sexual scandals for many years. No one has ever been investigated or punished in accordance with the law. 

Rhodoxon Fayiah is a Catholic and a member of the Knight of St. John International. He says these allegations were always swept under the carpet. “People have been complaining in their corners but no one was ever brave to speak out. Sawyer is the first person. Look at how they treated him. He was never given attention. He therefore, got marry out of frustration,” Fayiah said. 

For now, the scandal continues to roil the church in Liberia. Without any investigation the uncertainty around Karnley and Zeigler continues to linger. 

This story first appeared on FrontPageAfricaOnline as part of a collaboration for the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.