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Liberia’s Catholic Church Alleged Sex Scandal: The Real Story – Globe Afrique’s Ongoing Probe

MONROVIA, Liberia– The Catholic Church of West Africa and Catholics around the world, especially members of the Liberian diaspora community of the Catholic faith in the United States, were caught by surprise when a local Liberian Catholic priest alleged that he had been sexually harassed by two of the country’s most influential Catholic prelates, Most Reverend Lewis Ziegler, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Monrovia, and Right Reverend Andrew Jagaye Karnley, Bishop of Cape Palmas.

According to several Liberian local dailies, including the country’s most widely read and influential Frontpage Africa Newspaper, Father Gabriel Sawyer secretly wrote His Holiness, Pope Francis, some time ago accusing the two Catholic Church leaders.

According to reliable sources and local news reports, Father Sawyer, a young Catholic priest stated in his communication to the Holy Father that he was supressed and marginalized in the Archdiocese of Monrovia because he allegedly rebuffed the sexual advances of retiring Archbishop Lewis Zeigler and Bishop Andrew Jagaye Karnley.

Father Gabriel Sawyer waiting to meet his bride during his wedding

The allegations by Father Gabriel Sawyer against the Archbishop and the Bishop rocked the African Catholic Church and left millions of African Catholics distraught.  Moreover, it damaged the standing of the Catholic Church of Liberia which has long been regarded as the moral conscience of Liberia for the past decades. 

The fact is, sexual harassment is wrong and should, in no way, be condoned in any form, shape and manner. It is also necessary for any act of sexual harassment to be reported to the appropriate authorities for action and redress, and in Father Sawyer’s case, he was right to have communicated with the Holy See, Pope Francis, regarding his perceived sexual harassment allegation.

However, when allegations are made with probable falsehood and underlying motives, and when such unwarranted motives serve to pose short and long-term danger and adverse consequences on credible institutions, families and individuals for personal gains, then the equation is quite different.

Since news report of Father Sawyer’s charges emerged, Globe Afrique’s lead investigative and research team initiated a thorough probe to ascertain the facts in a case which seems to disheartened many followers of the Catholic faith across Africa and Liberia in particular.

Although the investigation is still in its infancy stages, preliminary leads and unfolding facts based on information and other trends gathered so far suggest that the allegation lacks merits.

According to Globe Afrique’s preliminary investigation, the alleged accuser or victim, Father Gabriel Sawyer, had been involved in a romantic relationship with a young Liberian female who he supported midway throughout her undergraduate education and eventually medical school. During that period, the preliminary investigation revealed that Father Sawyer allegedly sought pastoral appointments to Catholic parishes in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.  Not pleased with his request, mismanagement, lack of financial accountability and suspected lifestyle, the Archbishop refused to assign him to such parishes in Monrovia.

Moreover, the preliminary investigation also revealed that Father Sawyer had promised his female lover with whom he was deeply and openly involved that as soon as she completed her medical degree from the A.M Dogliotti College of Health & Life Science – University of Liberia , and they married, they would relocate to the United States and seek residency.

And since the Catholic Church was facing mounting sex abuse scandal in the West, he (Father Sawyer) decided to use alleged sex abuse scandal/allegation as a platform to carry out his plans.  On the basis of such allegations, he decided to frame a story accusing the Archbishop of Monrovia, Lewis Ziegler, his immediate boss, of planning sexual attacks against him.  

The Archbishop nonetheless has a year to retire since all Catholic bishops and archbishops are deemed to retire at age 75 maximum.  It is also widely believed in Liberian Catholic circles that Bishop Andrew Jagaye Karnley would be the next in line to replace the retiring archbishop based on a number of factors including his popularity and stature in the Liberian Catholic community and the country in general.

Father Sawyer and his wedded wife

Ongoing investigation into Father Sawyer’s claims also suggest that Father Sawyer decided to include the name of Bishop Karnley in his sexual harassment allegation so that when Archbishop Ziegler retires by the end of this year (2019), he would still have a reason for his departure and his asylum claims.

Father Sawyer is still officially a Catholic priest. While still a priest, he officially and openly wedded his Liberian female lover who he helped support in medical school.  After their wedding, their plan was for Father Sawyer to travel to the United States, apply for asylum on the basis of being sexually harassed by the country’s most known and influential Catholic leaders, retiring Most Reverend Lewis Ziegler (Archbishop of Monrovia) and Right Reverend Andrew Jagaye Karnley (Bishop of Cape Palmas) – the first Catholic diocese in Liberia.

Father Sawyer and his wife proceed to the alter to exchange vows

Father Sawyer who also wrote the Pope several months ago in an attempt to build up his case and give it a historical reality, did not take the matter to the press (local Liberian media) at the time.  He waited until he obtained his visa for the U.S., travelled to the United States last week before engineering the publication of the case through proxies.   After he arrived in the United States few days ago soon after the media reported the allegation.

This case is especially vital to some prominent Americans who provide financial and other support to the Liberian Catholic Church through the Society of African Mission (SMA) Fathers with headquarters in Tenafly, New Jersey.  These people are interested in getting a full grasp of the allegation from both sides.  It is also vital to the Liberian and other African communities because such allegation, if false, has the propensity to dismantle and undercut other Africans with legitimate asylum claims.

According to some experts, asylum is enshrined as a right in both U.S. and international law. However, asylum has become increasingly controversial in the United States and Europe as a growing share of foreign citizens attempt to claim asylum, raising questions over whether this once-modestly-sized migration program faces abuse and misuse.

Father Sawyer after exchanging vows with his wife

The questions are : Should a priest fabricate a lie to obtain asylum for he and his wife? How can a priest while still a priest get marry? Why should a priest have a female lover, support her with church funds and expects his bishops to assign him to wealthy parishes? On what basis is Father Sawyer seeking asylum in the United States for he and his newly wedded wife? Why can’t Father Sawyer return to Liberia to report the case to the Liberian authorities for investigation? Why Father Sawyer wait to take the alleged case to the local Liberia media through proxies after he landed in the U.S. barely a week ago to seek asylum?

NOTE: Father Sawyer is the only priest or person who has come up with such allegation against the Catholic Church of Liberia and the two prelates. No other incidence like this has ever been reported and there is no one who has ever made such a claim. Almost all Catholic priests in the country contacted say the allegation is untrue, self-serving and made with reckless intent and selfish motives.

A full investigation and research continues – full details to emerge soon as Globe Afrique’s investigation team and the Vatican emissary in West Africa investigate the matter further.

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Jacob Ujamaa Nyerere

Jacob Ujamaa Nyerere is a public affairs researcher and senior investigative correspondent.

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