Woman Speaks Out Against Fordham Alum Who Sexually Assaulted Her
By Sophie Partridge-Hicks
July 2, 2019
|Harber says she was raped by the Reverend Edwin Erhimeyoma in 2010. At the time of the assault, Rev. Erhimeyoma was pursuing a doctoral degree at Fordham’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education, which he completed in 2015. Harber hopes that, by sharing her story, necessary change will be made to the Catholic Church and the way it supports victims of sexual assault.|
Nine years ago, Esther Harber was sexually assaulted by a Fordham Alumnus. After years of attempting to resolve the issue within the Catholic Church, Harber has decided to make her story public with the goal of protecting others in the future. She hopes that, by sharing her story, necessary change will be made to the Catholic Church and the way it supports victims of sexual assault.
Harber says she was raped by the Reverend Edwin Erhimeyoma in 2010. At the time of the assault, Rev. Erhimeyoma was pursuing a doctoral degree at Fordham’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education, which he completed in 2015. According to Bob Howe, assistant vice president for communications at Fordham University, Fordham was never informed of the allegations against Erhimeyoma.
Harber shared in an interview with the Catholic News Agency (CNA) that she had met Erhimeyoma while she was working as a lay missionary serving women and children in New York City. Erhimeyoma was a priest at Holy Rosary Parish, a church in the Bronx, which Harber often visited. Over the next two years, the two engaged in what Harber calls an abusive relationship.
In early 2010, Harber attended confession at the Holy Rosary Parish, which Erhimeyoma presided over. In the Catholic faith, confession allows an individual to share their behavior, thoughts and emotions with a cleric in complete confidentiality. One is expected to confess, and be forgiven for their sins during the practice. As it exposes a very vulnerable side of the individual, the presiding priest is required to act with complete discretion and professionalism.
However, Harber claims that Erhimeyoma abused this emotionally vulnerable setting to take advantage of her.
Harber explained to the CNA that she had told Erhimeyoma about a sexual assault she experienced as a child. In response, Erhimeyoma suggested he should “baptize Harber in the Holy Spirit,” a Catholic practice that is supposed to cleanse and reinvigorate the spirit of someone who has lost faith.
The practice entails the person being prayed over, and Harber says that Erhimeyoma’s behavior was not appropriate. “I was extremely uncomfortable and I kept asking him to back away, back away, and he finally did. And I was so shook up about it,” said Harber about the incident to CNA.
In April 2010, a similar incident occurred after Erhimeyoma encouraged Harber to make another appointment with him. “He had me close my eyes,” Harber told CNA, “and he was encroaching very much into my personal space and touching me in places that he shouldn’t have been.”
After that encounter, Erhimeyoma continued to engage in an unsolicited romantic relationship with Harber. He sent her text messages, calling her “sweetheart” and saying that he loved her. Harber believes that Erhimeyoma’s behavior was likely an attempt to groom her into becoming emotionally dependent on him, a term used by psychologists to describe how abusers isolate their victims.
Harber also felt that Erhimeyoma treated her like a trophy, often calling her “vanilla” in reference to her race. She believes that he also had a “chocolate” at the same time.
Psychologists studying sexual assault and grooming behavior tactics believe that, while sexual perpetrators can target anyone, they often find victims who are isolated and have a fear of abandonment. This allows them to establish power hierarchies, where their victim becomes emotionally dependent on them and are less able to take action and end the abusive cycle.
“I do not use the word ‘predator’ lightly,” Harber told The Observer, “but that precisely describes his behavior.”
Due to the nature of their relationship in the Church, Erhimeyoma knew sensitive personal information about Harber, which she believes he used to manipulate her. “He just knew way too much about my psychological makeup,” said Harber, “because he played it perfectly.”
In October 2010, dealing with rejection from a religious community she had hoped to join, Harber went to see Erhimeyoma. Although she was nervous about unwanted sexual advances from Erhimeyoma, Harber says that she was desperate for a friend’s support after hearing the news.
At their meeting Erhimeyoma initiated sexual behavior. Despite the fact that Harber repeatedly asked him to stop, she says he forced her to have sex with him.
After the incident, Harber asked Erhimeyoma not to contact her for nine days while she prayed and fasted. Harber had unsuccessfully tried to break up with Erhimeyoma multiple times in the past; “I knew if I asked indefinitely he would have tried everything in his power to keep me close,” she explained.
Harber had to wait three weeks for an appointment with Monsignor William Belford, vicar of priests, and Fr. Thomas D’Angelo, the priest in charge of foreign priests, in order to report the assault.
Harber did not use the word “rape” in these meetings, but she believes that her emphasis on the abusive nature of the relationship and the lack of consent in the sexual encounter warranted serious concern. She now believes that the officials should have immediately assisted her in contacting the police.
Instead, the Archdiocese of New York focused on removing Erhimeyoma from the parish and recommended that Harber stay away from the parish until Erhimeyoma had left. Erhimeyoma did admit to the encounter to Monsignor Belford, and the Archdiocese of New York withdrew his facilities and told him he would have to return to his home country.
After she reported him, Erhimeyoma contacted Harber via Yahoo SMS chat asking her to tell the Cardinal that she had lied about the assault. The Observer reached out to Erhimeyoma but did not receive a comment. He told CNA that he never assaulted Harber, and has “forgotten about those things.”
In 2013, Erhimeyoma returned to New York. Harber found out about his return via social media.
Bob Howe of Fordham University confirmed to The Observer that the allegations against Erhimeyoma were not shared with Fordham University until the CNA interview. He also confirmed that there were no breaks in Erhimeyoma’s time at Fordham and the program Erhimeyoma was enrolled in allowed him to continue his work from Nigeria.
Over the next few years, members of the Archdiocese of New York continued to provide support for Harber, but never pursued any legal action against Erhimeyoma. Reflecting on the incident and the way it was handled by the Archdiocese, Harber believes that the clergy members seemed uncertain about how to appropriately address the assault or how to engage with her.
In the Summer of 2018, Harber, living in Cincinnati, decided to take up the allegations again. She does not believe that she will ever achieve justice, stating that there is no way to return what Erhimeyoma took from her. “My goal is not justice but rather to protect others from falling prey to this predator,” she said.
Harber had seen the Theodore McCarrick sexual abuse scandal, when McCarrick was removed from priesthood after sexually abusing children and adults over the course of decades, and felt that she needed to stand up for others.
Wanting to take action, Harber wrote to her archbishop in Cincinnati, and he forwarded the letter to the Archdiocese of New York. However, third-degree rape charges have a statute of limitations of five years, meaning that Harber’s case expired in 2015.
In the months after receiving the letter, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the current archbishop of New York, reached out to Harber for a meeting. Harber says that this was the first moment she began to feel hope that the archdiocese could learn from her experience and better protect people in the future.
During their meeting, the Cardinal directly apologized to Harber for the way that the Archdiocese handled the case in 2010. Harber says that the Cardinal’s apology for not only Erhimeyoma’s actions but also on behalf of the Archdiocese was incredibly meaningful to her.
Yet, Harber only considers the meeting only a partial success.
In their meeting, Harber raised her concerns that the Archdiocese of New York does not subject foreign-born priests to the rigorous psychological screenings that are routine for U.S.-born priests who want to serve. If the screenings had been in place, “I may not have been raped,” said Harber, believing that this decision was a “grave error on the part of the diocese.” Harber believes that Dolan “brushed over” this point during their conversations.
Further, Harber noted that although the church takes sexual crimes committed against children seriously, there is not an appropriate avenue for adults seeking justice. Dolan told Harber that he planned to discuss this at the annual United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s conference.
At the conference, which took place on June 11 2019, bishops did vote for the creation of a third party service for survivors to report abuse and passed three more protocols aimed to increase bishop accountability.
While Harber is glad to see these changes, she believes that the Church missed the opportunity to prevent individuals from falling subject to the power dynamics in these relationships. She noted how psychologists who have sex with their patients permanently lose their licenses due to the inherent power hierarchy of the relationship. “How much more of a power differential is there between a priest and a parishioner,” asked Harber, “to whom the priest represents a spiritual father and stands in the person of Christ?”
She believes that the Church’s decision not to discuss this power violation is representative of how little is truly changing within the Church, despite the new policies being put into place.
After Harber’s meeting with Dolan, the Cardinal promised to contact Erhimeyoma’s priest in Nigeria and to further assist with the cost of her therapy.
According to the diocese of Warri, Nigeria, Erhimeyoma is currently under investigation for these charges — yet Harber says it is unclear what this means. Although the diocese told CNA that Erhimeyoma is not a pastor, their website still lists him as an active pastor and dean. The Diocese of Warri did not respond to The Observer for a comment.
Harber says that she has forgiven Erhimeyoma and does not want to seek punitive measures, but that she does want to ensure the protection of others in the future. She wants Erhimeyoma to be removed from the clerical state and to come to repentance.
Now, even after this experience, Harber emphasizes that she still loves the Church. She says she tries to remind herself that the Church, and that Christ, is much bigger than any cardinal, bishop or malfunction.
Harber believes that the Church was founded by Jesus, and by abandoning the Church, she would be abandoning Him. “We need the Church,” said Harber, “and the Church needs us.”