Vatican investigates retired bishop in French Guiana over abuse allegations

La Croix International [France]

April 7, 2021

By Héloïse de Neuville

Bishop Emmanuel Lafont, who resigned last October on his 75th birthday, has been accused by several young men of demanding sex for favors

Police in Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana, received a strange Sunday evening phone call last October 18th.

It was from Bishop Emmanuel Lafont, the Catholic spiritual leader of the some 295,000 inhabitants of this overseas French department located on the northeast coast of South America.

The bishop told the officers he had been physically threatened by a young undocumented immigrant who was living at the bishop’s residence.

A few minutes later, the police arrived on the scene and arrested a 27-year-old Haitian man whom we’ll call “José”.

Lafont reported him for “degradation and violent theft against a vulnerable person”.

The Cayenne prosecutor’s office opened a preliminary investigation the next day.

The bishop and the young man were questioned, but their versions of the incident and the nature of their relationship diverged radically.

José asserted that Bishop Lafont offered him lodging and assistance in getting residence papers in exchange for sex.

But the Paris-born bishop vehemently denied this.

The young man had spent a day-and-a-half in police custody and, upon release, was in an irregular situation. But once he was able to obtain asylum, he lodged a complaint against Bishop Lafont “for abuse of weakness”.

For some Catholics in Cayenne, it was “one case too many”

Just one week after reporting José to the police, Lafont celebrated his 75th birthday and, as is customary for Catholic bishops when they reach this age, he submitted his resignation to the pope.

Francis accepted the resignation with immediate effect.

Meanwhile, the altercation at the bishop’s residence had been reported by local media and was causing a stir in the Catholic community. For some of its members “this was one case too many”.

They refused to allow Bishop Lafont to use one of the parishes for his farewell ceremony. They even went so far as to change the locks of the facility!

Priests boycotted the bishop’s final Mass in the cathedral. Behind the bright, sunny yellow façade, the celebration had left a bitter taste.

Shortly after stepping down from the post he had held since 2004, Bishop Lafont moved to the heart of the Amazonian forest.

He took up residence in the Amerindian village of Camopi, located on French Guiana’s border with Brazil.

Thus ended his more than 16 years at the head of the department’s only diocese, which he left divided and hurting.

Then on April 2 — Good Friday — the papal nuncio to the Antilles, Archbishop Forunatus Nwachukwu, announced that he was opening “a thorough investigation into the accusations brought against Bishop Emmanuel Lafont”.

A bishop with a remarkable career

When the then-58-year-old Lafont arrived in French Guiana in 2004 to be ordained bishop for the Catholics of this isolated department some 7,000 kilometers from his home in France, he enjoyed a solid reputation.

He had spent 13 years in South Africa during apartheid. And as a former “parish priest of Soweto”, he came with impressive credentials.

The new bishop, who had been a member of the Young Christian Workers, captivated the Guyanese by his ascetic simplicity, his closeness to the faithful and his virtuoso mastery of biblical texts.

“Ti mano”, his affectionate nickname in Creole, became the herald of the Amerindian peoples and engaged in major local ecological struggles.

He was a member of the Synod of Bishops’ Assembly for the Amazon Region, which took place in 2019 in Rome. And he even wrote the preface for the French edition of Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation,Querida Amazonia.

Bishop Lafont embodied the image of a welcoming Church that was close to the people. This won him many admirers and supporters, both in the media and at the Vatican.

“A parade of young men at the bishop’s residence”

Shortly after he arrived in Guyana, the bishop claimed to use his residence to give lodging to people in need of help.

Sometimes families in precarious situations were given hospitality in the beautiful Creole-style building, which welcomes visitors with a large portrait of Nelson Mandela that graces the entrance.

Numerous witnesses claim that most of the people the bishop took in were young men who were migrants without proper documents.

“Bishop Lafont has a bit of the developing world in his spirit,” said Patrick Goubeault, the diocese’s former business manager.

“There was a constant parade of young men at the bishop’s residence, but I always saw him with his heart on his sleeve with them,” he said.

“It was imprudent. But, to me, this was a man blinded by his own charity,” Goubeault opined.

“Once in the bishop’s house, I had to obey him”

But others tell a much darker story.

José, the man Lafont filed a complaint against, said he arrived in French Guyana illegally in 2019 and was introduced to the bishop by an immigration official.

He claimed the bishop immediately offered to help him, but only “in exchange for sex”.

“He told me that if I agreed to sleep with him, he would give me papers, a place to live. I accepted, because I was about to be homeless,” the young Hatian said.

“Once I was settled, I had to obey him. He would get angry when someone said no to him for a sexual relationship or favor,” José explained.

He said several times a week the bishop would demand that he perform oral sex on the prelate as he watched television.

“But as soon as he heard someone punching in the code for the front door of the residence, everything stopped,” the young man claimed.

He said he also received several gifts from “Monsignor”, like brand name T-shirts, a pair of Nike shoes, a used iPhone for €200 and money to help him buy a scooter.

Josè said the altercation on October 18 took place after the bishop told him to pack his things and get out.

But José said he refused and threatened to tell everything about their relationship, as well as the relationship Lafont had with another young man staying in the bishop’s residence.

“Nothing requires an innocent person to appear before the court of the media”

Bishop Lafont has strenuously denied the accusations.

“It is false, simply false. I did not have any sexual relationship in exchange for anything,” he told La Croix.

After consultation with his lawyers, he has refused to comment on the accusations.

“Nothing requires an innocent person to appear before the court of the media rather than before the judicial institution. I will therefore reserve my answers for the representatives of justice, if proceedings are opened,” he said.

José did not officially file a complaint against the bishop (for “abuse of weakness”) until this past March 18, at which point the Cayenne public prosecutor’s office opened the preliminary investigation.

The enquiry is underway, while the bishop is presumed to be innocent.

But the evidence does not look good for him.

“With Bishop Lafont, there was a great discrepancy between words and actions,” said the Reverend Aristide Bré, a Congolese priest who lived in the bishops’ house for a year between 2019 and 2020.

“Living there, I quickly understood what was going on. At first, one believes that Bishop Lafont is social and fatherly, but, while observing his behavior, I said to myself: ah my God, it is just bait!” the priest said.

“I got confirmation of this since young José confided in me about his relationship with the bishop. But what did you want me to do? You don’t straighten a baobab tree! The bishop had already been denounced before and the investigation had been closed without any follow-up,” the Reverend Bré pointed out.

Red flags already in 2008

In fact, as early as 2008 at least five priests — including the vicar general and the chancellor of the diocese — raised red flags at the Vatican in a letter sent to the apostolic nuncio in the Antilles:

“After praying and reflecting, we realized that we can no longer remain silent. It is a question of the financial, pastoral and sexual conduct of our bishop,” they said in a letter to the papal nuncio at the time, Archbishop Thomas Gullikson.

The priests said the diocese had been shaken by Bishop Lafont’s behavior.

“Fewer and fewer Catholics are committing themselves to the service of the Church. Those already committed are resigning. The revenues of the diocese are falling sharply,” they said.

“Priests are divided, as some believe the rumors, others refuse to believe despite the testimonies of people directly involved in these affairs,” the letter writers charged.

The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican office that deals with this region, sent Bishop Jean Bonfils SMA to look into the matter.

He was already three years into retirement, after having served as bishop of Nice (France) from 1998-2005, when the Roman authorities gave him the delicate assignment.

“I was surprised that I was asked to do this investigation, because the bishop is a friend,” recalled Bishop Bonfils.

He said he spent 11 days in the diocese and interviewed 44 people, some of whom defended Lafont.

“I did not come to a definitive conclusion,” said Bishop Bonfils, who is now 91 years old.

“It felt like he was being set-up, but I still came away with questions. One cannot remain insensitive to what one has heard,” the elderly bishop said.

When asked what he means by that, Bishop Bonfils replied, “If there were things that shocked me, I entrusted them to the Lord.”

Holy Savior Cathedral in Cayenne, French Guiana, in July 2013. (Photo by JEAN-MATTHIEU GAUTIER/CIRIC)   Read more at:
Holy Savior Cathedral in Cayenne, French Guiana, in July 2013. (Photo by JEAN-MATTHIEU GAUTIER/CIRIC)  Read more at: