Fugitive Is Home, Free As Warrant Languishes S. Texas DA Says He Doubts He Could Find Nigerian Cleric
Second of three parts
By Brooks Egerton
Dallas Morning News
December 6, 2004
PHARR, Texas - The mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed incest victim says the priest has been sexually abusing her. The girl's mother alerts church leaders, who confront Father Basil Onyia.
He, in turn, barges into the family's small home in this sunburned town near the Mexican border. This is what the witness sees next:
"I have betrayed you," Father Onyia cries to the mother, who had trusted no one else outside her family to counsel her troubled daughter. "The devil got into me and made me do it."
With the teenage victim hiding in another room, the priest falls to his knees, grabs the mother's blouse, begs for forgiveness and receives it. Then he falls to the floor and thrashes about.
"God," he cries, "why have you forsaken me?"
For a little while after all this came tumbling out, in early 2001, it looked like Father Onyia might be on the fast track to prison. The witness was a crisis counselor, who summoned Pharr police and wrote down what she had seen.
But if God had forsaken Father Onyia, Catholic bishops did not. And the Hidalgo County district attorney's office did little to challenge any of them.
The priest left the house before officers arrived and fled to his native Nigeria a few days later. Police soon obtained an arrest warrant, but prosecutors have not tried to force Father Onyia back for trial.
Police say District Attorney Rene Guerra's office also discouraged them from investigating church officials' dealings with the priest. Among detectives' questions: Did Brownsville Diocese leaders tell Father Onyia to flee? Did they help him? Did they know where he was?
Mr. Guerra said that he didn't handle the case personally and that investigators never complained to him about the assistant prosecutor on the case.
"That's a bunch of baloney," Mr. Guerra said of the police concerns. "If you can talk to me, any stupid police officer can talk to me."
He also expressed doubt about whether it would be illegal to keep silent about Father Onyia's whereabouts.
"Let's say a church official knew where this guy was," Mr. Guerra said. "What crime is the church official committing?" He did not answer his question.
Texas law forbids hindering a suspect's apprehension, whether by concealing him, helping him escape or warning him of impending arrest.
Mr. Guerra said his office generally doesn't seek indictments of fugitives but did so against Father Onyia because police submitted the case "and somebody said, 'Let's take this to the grand jury and indict it so that we won't be accused of impeding justice.'"
Charging fugitives, he said, "is a time bomb on my hands because we have to show due diligence that we're looking for the guy." Otherwise, a judge could dismiss the case for failure to prosecute promptly.
"If I'm forced to dismiss it, what are you going to say?" Mr. Guerra asked. "'Another example of Guerra letting a priest off the hook.'"
Mr. Guerra referred to Father Onyia while discussing his refusal to prosecute in another clergy scandal: that of ex-priest John Feit, the prime suspect in the rape and murder of a young schoolteacher who vanished in 1960 after meeting him at a McAllen church residence.
Police reopened that case in 2002 and found two witnesses who say he admitted involvement in her death. That bolstered the circumstantial evidence that has long pointed to Mr. Feit.
Mr. Guerra has termed the old evidence contradictory and dismissed the witnesses as unreliable, which McAllen's police chief calls baffling. Mr. Feit has denied wrongdoing and recently declined to answer questions from police and a reporter.
Some of the victim's relatives and one of the witnesses have said they think Mr. Guerra, who is Catholic, isn't prosecuting for religious reasons.
The district attorney rejected the criticism and said the Onyia case shows he is willing to target a prominent representative of his faith. "I support him coming back," he said.
So why isn't he demanding the priest's return?
Mr. Guerra blamed a lack of resources.
"You tell me I'm going to find a guy who can blend in in Nigeria, who I don't suspect is a practicing Catholic priest over there?" he asked. "Go find him for me and I'll bring the sucker back. What can I do? My county's broke."
In the ministry
Locating Father Onyia turns out to be a pretty straightforward task. For he has remained in ministry, like many other clergymen The News found during its yearlong investigation of accused priests' international movement.
And Father Onyia's bishop in Nigeria - who had loaned him to the Brownsville Diocese - put him right back to work in parishes. The priest even made national news there in July, because he had been named to a state government panel investigating misconduct allegations against a prominent politician. (The coverage said nothing about the U.S. charges against Father Onyia.)
The News recently hired a Nigerian journalist to interview the 38-year-old fugitive, who denied wrongdoing.
"I am just a victim of circumstance," Father Onyia said, speaking at his church, St. David, in the village of Uratta. "There was nothing like molestation, assault or sexual abuse of any kind."
He also spoke to investigators' suspicions about church officials' conduct.
"My bishop advised me to go back home," he said, referring to Bishop Raymundo Pe�a, who heads the Brownsville Diocese. He added that other Nigerian priests working in the United States gave similar counsel.
They all told him, he said, that "here in America, once you are black, the case is against you."
"All this put fear in me," Father Onyia added, "so I left all my property and escaped to Nigeria." He said he paid his own way.
Bishop Pe�a declined to speak with The News. In written responses to the newspaper's findings, he did not confirm or deny that he had advised Father Onyia to flee.
Diocesan lawyer David C. Garza, in a February 2001 letter to police, said he and Bishop Pe�a learned from Pharr officers that the priest had fled a few days earlier.
"We had no information that he had left or was going to leave," Mr. Garza wrote to a detective. "As I told you, the diocese is willing to and has cooperated fully on any investigation that you are conducting."
The Pharr girl's mother doesn't buy it.
"I think they all knew how to protect him," she said, "so he wouldn't be there to answer questions."
Police, church clash
Pharr police were suspicious of church officials from the early days of their investigation. They said the bishop failed to notify them immediately of the abuse allegations, as state law requires, and instead sent Father Onyia to live at a parish in another South Texas county.
The delay took about a week, they said, and gave the priest time to flee. They said they would have arrested him immediately if they had known of the reassignment.
Police also were frustrated because the diocese insisted that they send all information requests to Mr. Garza's law office. Investigators eventually told a local newspaper, in 2002, that the church was not cooperating.
Tensions escalated. Pharr's mayor and the man who was police chief then recently described for the first time what happened next:
Bishop Pe�a called Mayor Leo "Polo" Palacios to a private meeting at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle and complained that police weren't telling the truth about him. Officers refused to retract their statements.
"We couldn't do that," said Jesse Medina, the former chief. "They did not cooperate. This guy got away because they did not cooperate."
Mr. Medina, now head of Pharr's international bridge office, said the bishop's contact with the mayor was "just another attempt to stonewall the investigation." He added: "It could all be evidence of obstruction of justice."
Mr. Palacios said Bishop Pe�a insisted that "he did what he could and he would not harbor the guy and he did not know where he went. And he didn't appreciate the police department just bringing it out all over the newspaper.
"His concern was getting his name in the news media."
In his written statements to The News, Bishop Pe�a confirmed that he had called the mayor.
"The Pharr Police Department never called me directly, nor did they say how I failed to cooperate," the bishop wrote. "I was just as eager as they were to bring [Father Onyia] to justice."
Mr. Medina also questioned whether Mr. Guerra - Hidalgo County's district attorney for 22 years - was "too Catholic for the case."
He said his concern was underscored by the prosecutor's handling of the McAllen police case against Mr. Feit, the murder suspect.
"The Catholic Church is very strong down here," Mr. Medina said. In the Brownsville Diocese's four-county region of far South Texas, 85 percent of the approximately 1 million residents are Catholic.
The former Pharr chief suggested that Bishop Pe�a might have used his influence with Mr. Guerra.
"If he called the mayor," Mr. Medina speculated, "he would've called the DA."
Mr. Guerra declined to take questions on this and other points after The News' Nov. 21 article about the murder case. His only comment before hanging up on a reporter was, "If they make an arrest [of Father Onyia], we'll do whatever's necessary."
Bishop Pe�a wrote that he has "had no direct communication from the district attorney's office in regard to this case. I will certainly cooperate with that office in regard to this or any other criminal investigation."
The criminal investigation of Basil Onyia followed months of other misconduct allegations against him, most of which came to light only because the Pharr family sued the Brownsville Diocese and won a fight for church records. State child-welfare authorities say in a court filing that the allegations involving minors were not reported to them.
Sexual harassment complaints against Father Onyia started in late 1999, soon after he came to Texas as a visiting priest and was made an assistant pastor at the basilica. Two church employees told a supervisor that he would clasp their hands and not let go; one said he asked her to go to Africa with him, and the other said he asked her out to dinner. Then an altar girl complained of unwanted touching.
The priest, when confronted, said his behavior was acceptable in Nigeria but agreed to stop, according to the church records.
Next, a 19-year-old woman who sought spiritual counseling told police that Father Onyia hugged her, licked her face and tried to French-kiss her.
Bishop Pe�a transferred Father Onyia to a Harlingen parish, where he was accused in late 2000 of taking two girls to his bedroom and telling them "that it was OK for priests to have girlfriends."
The basilica's head priest warned that Father Onyia was still claiming to work at Our Lady of San Juan and improperly soliciting donations for himself. Monsignor Juan Nicolau also reminded the bishop about the sexual harassment and added that a woman had regularly visited the priest's bedroom at San Juan.
"My only recommendation," wrote Monsignor Nicolau, "would be that Fr. Basil be in fact returned back to the dioceses of Nigeria without delay."
Finally, in January 2001, Bishop Pe�a wrote to his counterpart in the Diocese of Aba, Nigeria, asking him to recall Father Onyia to "prevent the possibility of scandal in this diocese." While awaiting an answer, he left the priest on duty.
That allowed Father Onyia continued access to the Pharr girl, whose mother had asked him to help her with school-related problems. And he allegedly continued a pattern of sexual assault and abuse that had started several months earlier.
In his interview with The News, Father Onyia denied it all and suggested that he was the victim of a plot between Monsignor Nicolau, whom he called a racist, and the girl's family, who he said might have financial motives.
He described the girl as "melancholic" and said he had helped her.
"She began opening up to me as she started getting used to me," Father Onyia said. "I took her out to watch movies and shopping and so many places just to make her feel OK."
He said he didn't communicate with his bishop in Aba, the Rev. Vincent Ezeonyia, until he returned home.
"He knows my record from the seminaries, and he knows that the story against me is not true, having lived in America for years himself," Father Onyia said.
Bishop Ezeonyia could not be reached for comment in person or by phone, and his office did not respond to an e-mail.
He also didn't respond to Bishop Pe�a's request for information about Father Onyia's whereabouts, Brownsville Diocese spokeswoman Brenda Nettles Riojas said.
"I have, therefore, not continued to deal with him in any way," Bishop Pe�a wrote The News.
Yet he continues to employ two of Bishop Ezeonyia's other priests.
In his written statements, the Brownsville bishop also said he had not known Father Onyia was working as a priest in Nigeria.
Court records show that Bishop Pe�a wrote to the fugitive in Aba, shortly after he returned there. The letter criticizes him for fleeing and terminates his permission to minister in the Brownsville Diocese, then adds:
"I pray that your service to the Church in Aba, under the direction and supervision of the bishop, be for the glory of God and the welfare of God's people."
The Pharr girl's mother said a financial settlement of her lawsuit, in which the Brownsville Diocese admitted no wrongdoing, hasn't helped them much. Her daughter, she said, is still haunted by Father Onyia. And it's hard to move on because the criminal case is unresolved.
"I hope he's not serving the church over there as a priest," she said, "and hurting his own people."
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.