Bishop Was Warned about Missing Priest Concern: Letter Cautioned of Potentially 'Inappropriate Behavior' Several Months before Girl Filed Suit Alleging Sexual Assault
By Roxana M. Popescu
McALLEN � Bishop Raymundo Pena was warned about potentially �inappropriate behavior� on the part of the Rev. Basil Onyia several months before a teenage girl filed a civil suit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, alleging that she had been sexually assaulted by the priest, documents obtained by The Monitor show.
In a letter to Pena dated Nov. 3, 2000, the Rev. Juan Nicolau, rector of the Basilica of San Juan de la Valle, in San Juan, where Onyia, a priest from Nigeria, worked, recommended that he be removed from his post as assistant to the rector. The letter cited several reasons for the recommendation, including allegations that Onyia had kept church donations for himself, acted belligerently toward other priests and inappropriately kissed and embraced female church staff members.
�I do strongly believe that my only recommendation would be that Fr. Basil be in fact returned back to the Dioceses of Nigeria without delay,� Nicolau wrote to the bishop.
Nicolau declined to comment, and Pena, who is in Honduras on a missionary trip this month, could not be reached.
Onyia finally was reassigned to a church in Raymondville, also in the Brownsville diocese, but only after new allegations surfaced that he had sexually abused and assaulted the 16-year-old girl who soon afterward filed the lawsuit. He fled the country, and officials believe he returned to Africa.
The Pharr Police Depart-ment began investigating the girl�s allegations in Feb-ruary 2001.
Fernando Mancias, the attorney representing the girl and her mother in the civil suit against the diocese, said he believes the letter casts a taint on Onyia�s personal record and shows that the church had failed to act on warnings about his sexually forward tendencies.
�This confirms the belief that the bishop was aware of Onyia�s conduct before the incident regarding the lawsuit I�m involved in,� Mancias said. �There was knowledge of Onyia�s practices.�
In his letter, Nicolau informed Pena that Onyia engaged in �inappropriate behavior toward the ladies in the administration office, and also towards one young lady who served as an altar server at the time.�
Church administrators contend these actions on Onyia�s part were not sexual in nature, but occurred as a result of cultural differences between what is acceptable in the United States and Nigeria.
�It doesn�t say the word �sex� in there anywhere,� David Garza, attorney for the diocese, said of the letter. �We do have a series of documents that we will be providing as part of the suit that reflect that there were some early complaints, not of actual sexual misconduct, that were brought to Nicolau�s attention, but complaints probably related to cultural differences � to getting used to the culture.�
Garza did not specify what type of cultural differences were at the root of the complaints, but said the allegations were appropriately investigated and dealt with. He said church documents indicate Onyia received a warning and corrected his behavior.
In a memorandum dated Feb. 3, 2000, Nicolau wrote:
�I advised him (Onyia) to be more careful in the manner in which he speaks and express�s (sic) himself towards the ladies here at the Shrine, which include kissing and embracing. Father Basil indicated to me that his behavior was acceptable in the African Culture � so he did not see anything wrong with it � He did indicated (sic) to me that he would not repeat this behavior.�
The Rev. Robert Maher, vicar general of the diocese and the official responsible for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse, added that it is important to accurately distinguish between �inappropriate behavior,� which he called a matter of personal or subjective discomfort, and concrete proof of sexual misconduct, which can be objectively tried in a court of law.
Regardless of how the allegations are viewed, Mancias contends the date of the letter is significant because it indicates that the diocese received concrete information about potential problems with Onyia�s behavior months before the teenage girl, identified only as Jane Doe in the suit, claimed she had been assaulted by him.
Once alerted to possible problems with Onyia, the diocese neglected to respond, Mancias alleges. That, Mancias contends, allowed Onyia�s alleged abuse of the girl to continue undetected and unhindered for three more months.
According to the girl�s suit, filed in April 2001, the abuse lasted from January 2000 until February 2001. In the suit, she alleges that the diocese �negligently hired and/or continued the employment of defendant Onyia � when it should have known of his dangerous sexual propensities.�
The letter may not be the first indication the diocese received about potential problems with Onyia�s behavior. On April 20, 2000, a 19-year-old woman from McAllen filed a police report claiming that Onyia, 34, kissed her in his office. She did not press charges. Then, on May 7, 2001, she contacted police again to begin civil action, records show.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the woman said she went to Onyia seeking his.
�I was talking to the priest and I was telling him that I was having all these problems, and I was crying,� she said. �He hugged me, and I guess he kind of saw me (as) vulnerable, and he just kissed my forehead. I didn�t think anything of that, until he started kissing my nose. And then he started kissing me. He tried French-kissing me.�
She said her ex-boyfriend called the diocese that day and left a message on an answering machine at the diocese�s offices.
�He left them a message on their machine of everything that happened,� she said, adding that that she did not follow up on the call or personally speak with anybody in the diocese.
That has led church officials to question the validity of her allegations. Maher said that if any church secretaries or receptionists had heard the message, they would have referred it to the bishop.
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