Ex-seminarian accuses New Orleans archbishop of harassment in decades-long dispute

The Guardian [London, England]

December 2, 2022

By Ramon Antonio Vargas

Current archbishop of New Orleans denies claims from Lawrence Eghabor that date back to the 1990s

A former student at a New Orleans college that trains Catholic priests has claimed he was racially and sexually harassed there – including by the city’s current archbishop – as he parries counter-allegations that he is merely trying to extort money and a green card from church officials.

Over two decades, the dispute has drawn attention from Catholic officials at the highest levels in the US and worldwide. But it was not publicly known until it surfaced as part of a chapter 11 bankruptcy case the New Orleans archdiocese opened amid a wave of lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse by clerics across generations.

Despite never interviewing the ex-seminarian, Lawrence Eghabor, or the archbishop, Gregory Aymond, the global Catholic church’s leadership at the Vatican deemed Egbahor’s claims meritless.

Eghabor said the cursory investigation demonstrated the Catholic church’s inability to keep its repeated pledges to treat every claim of ecclesiastical misconduct seriously as it tries to regain many parishioners’ faith, shaken by the decades-old, global clerical molestation scandal.

He insisted church officials were to blame for his failure to become a priest, covering for one another and retaliating after he spoke about being teased regarding his African origins and touched inappropriately by Aymond in a private meeting. Eghabor has said he interpreted the alleged touching as a sexual pass. Aymond, who leads nearly 400,000 Catholics in and around New Orleans, vociferously denies ever touching anyone inappropriately.

When asked why he has pressed his claims for as long as he has, Eghabor said: “It’s not about [being] angry. I have the right to be angry, but … I [just didn’t] deserve this at all.”

Through spokespeople, Aymond – whose 228-year-old archdiocese is the second-oldest in the US and the country’s oldest to declare bankruptcy – said questions about the investigation should be directed to papal officials. But, a statement said: “We vehemently deny that the archbishop ever sexually harassed this gentleman or anyone else, and we would absolutely welcome any further investigation.”

A US papal ambassador who handled and ultimately dismissed the Eghabor investigation did not respond to calls, emails or a certified letter seeking comment.

Eghabor’s claim is the only one in the bankruptcy case alleging harassment against Aymond directly.

Eghabor moved to the US from Nigeria in 1993, after a New Orleans-based Jesuit priest recommended he study for the priesthood under sponsorship from a smaller Louisiana diocese. Eghabor said he seized the chance to study at Notre Dame seminary in New Orleans because he wanted to serve God and thought the diocese wanted more Black clerics.

But he said he was shocked by the culture at the seminary – which Aymond had been directing for seven years.

Though church officials strongly deny it was ever the case (and presented contemporaries who contradict him), Eghabor said his peers and other men at Notre Dame were having sex with one other. He made it known he didn’t want to engage in such activity, he said, because Catholicism considered it immoral and because priests take a vow of celibacy.

Eghabor said he became a target for teasing. Peers called him “16 Inches”, playing off a racist stereotype about the size of Black men’s penises, he said, adding that one peer took to groping his body, calling him an “African horse”.

Eghabor said he complained to Aymond – his rector – in three meetings from November 1994 to January 1995. Eghabor said Aymond put his hand on his lap, waist and buttocks, asking if that was what his peers were doing.

Aymond denies the touching. In a letter sent to the Vatican and later filed as part of the archdiocesan bankruptcy case, Eghabor insisted it happened and wrote that while soliciting his thoughts on homosexuality, Aymond attempted to massage his shoulders. Eghabor said the massage was unwelcome and in a separate interview with the Guardian recalled that he told Aymond: “You should tell me” what to think about that. “Are you not my teacher?”

Eghabor, in the interview, said he now wishes he had simply gone back to Nigeria. But he said he was scared to return to a country convulsed by sectarian violence against Catholics and had worked hard for his opportunity in the US. He resolved to stay, he said, suffering silently if necessary. But then, he said, something happened about which he could not stay quiet.

Someone at the seminary took his picture off a bulletin board and pasted it on to a newspaper article about a Black man wanted in connection with a local credit union robbery. Eghabor went to Aymond and demanded punishment for whoever was responsible. Eghabor recalled Aymond saying it was just a “joke”.

While Eghabor’s unwanted touching claims did not surface until years later, the newspaper episode did stoke controversy at the time. Rodney Anthony Ricard, a Black priest who has been the Catholic chaplain of the New Orleans Saints football team since 2000, wrote to Aymond, criticizing his handling of Eghabor’s complaint and broader alleged racial discrimination at the seminary.

“Lawrence’s pain from this incident and how you chose to deal with it also reminded me of how you seemed to disavow my feelings in return for the appearance of running a seminary with a ‘smooth’ multicultural facade,” wrote Ricard.

Contacted later, Ricard declined to discuss his letter.

Aymond in time wrote to Eghabor saying the seminary had reprimanded the seminarian determined responsible for what Aymond now called an “insensitive” prank. But Eghabor said he never considered the problem resolved.

Aymond, in handling the controversy, acknowledged problems at the seminary but said he was committed to multiculturalism.

Much more recently, after nationwide protests in 2020 that were ignited by the murder of George Floyd – a Black man – by a white Minneapolis police officer, Aymond founded a racial equity and justice committee to examine how the archdiocese could make progress on issues of race.

According to Eghabor, Aymond pleaded with him to not speak to outside authorities and offered extended counseling and an internship at a church outside New Orleans.

Records confirm that the seminary offered Eghabor an extended internship, which officials insisted was only to help him get the best shot possible at becoming a priest.

Church documents retained by Eghabor show some challenges that he had to endure during the internship. Some of his parishioners would say that they couldn’t understand him because of his accent. A local sheriff’s office deputy stopped and questioned him while he was on a night-time walk around his church because a neighbor called 911 to report him as suspicious.

Nonetheless, Eghabor’s supervisors commended him for persevering and demonstrating that he had “grown during the internship, both in faith and the ability to apply his studies to the ministry”.

“There is no doubt Lawrence is committed to the church, to his ministry and to his personal growth,” the supervisor wrote.

That mostly glowing evaluation from his supervisor wasn’t enough.

Eghabor said the internship ended abruptly in 1997, with a letter accusing him of having an attitude unbecoming of a seminarian. The bishop who signed that letter, Samuel Jacobs, explained that Notre Dame officials said Eghabor needed a longer study period at the seminary and didn’t recommend him for ordination.

When Eghabor learned that, Jacobs said, he demanded Jacobs disregard the recommendation. Jacobs found that to be disobedient.

Lawrence Eghabor’s fellow seminarian cut out his picture and put it over that of an armed robbery suspect in a newspaper article, purportedly as a prank. Photograph: Photo provided by Lawrence Eghabor

Eghabor said Jacobs never elaborated on why he found Eghabor to be so disobedient that he deserved termination from his internship. Eghabor asked a lawyer to assess his options, but before they took action, Notre Dame allowed him to get a degree, he said. Nonetheless, without a diocese sponsoring him for ordination, it was useless.

A letter provided by Eghabor contained an offer from Jacobs for a “one-way ticket back to Africa”, framed as an opportunity to see his mother, who was ill. Jacobs said he was also concerned Eghabor would be in the US illegally if he did not have a diocesan sponsorship.

Eghabor said he decided to take Jacobs up on an offer to try his luck at becoming ordained through another diocese. But Jacobs made clear he was required to explain to anyone who asked why Eghabor was looking to be placed elsewhere: he had not been recommended for the clergy.

Eghabor said he applied to more than a dozen dioceses across the US. None accepted him. At least one cited negative evaluations from Aymond and Jacobs.

Jacobs said he suspected Eghabor cared more about getting a green card granting US residence than being a priest. “This was a means to an end,” Jacobs said.

Eghabor, who denies that, said his lawyers advised him he had a compelling workplace harassment and retaliation case.

In a series of often sharply worded letters, Eghabor or lawyers representing him asked for as little as $40,000 and as much as $1.5m. They also demanded help with completing the green card process, removal of any blemishes on Egbahor’s academic record and a halt to the sharing of negative evaluations with potential employers.

Church officials portrayed such demands as extortion. They provided letters in which Egbahor spoke glowingly of Aymond, called him a good man despite the allegedly sour seminary experience, and reflected on how he needed to avoid things distracting him from his academics.

Eghabor said he was particularly concerned about the green card because it had already been partly approved. At one point, he recalled, he followed legal advice to file a formal police complaint, in hopes of obtaining an immigration visa given to crime victims. There is no evidence New Orleans police ever wrote a report on his case, though he provided a complaint number he said officers assigned him.

Eghabor eventually became a pastor in the Pentecostal church and found work at a home for adults with developmental disabilities near Washington DC. He now lives in Colorado. He provided the Guardian with a letter from a former supervisor that called him compassionate and effective – qualities he says would have served him well as a priest.

Even amid the flurry of legal letters, Eghabor said he would only tell his full story if attempts to settle amicably failed.

In one lengthy 1999 communication making demands of Aymond, Eghabor mentioned having been “violated” at the seminary. Much lower in that letter, Eghabor wrote: “There are things you did to me which I will bring up later if I need to.”

Spokespeople for Aymond have said Eghabor’s evolving story is a reason to doubt him. Eghabor countered that his story had actually been consistent, and that “there are things you did to me” was an early reference to the unwanted touching claim.

By 2010, the year after Aymond was appointed New Orleans archbishop, Eghabor was in therapy. His therapist wrote that Eghabor was receiving treatment for prolonged sexual abuse, harassment and abandonment at the hands of Catholic officials. Aymond was singled out by name.

The most significant step Eghabor has taken against Aymond was to accuse him in writing to the papal ambassador in Washington DC in November 2018, almost four weeks after Aymond released a list of clergymen in New Orleans credibly accused of molestation.

Eghabor demanded that Aymond apologise and requested help with attaining his green card. “Only God, you and others can fix this evil,” he wrote.

He said he never received a response. But sources familiar with subsequent communications said the papal ambassador – or nuncio – wrote to Aymond within five days. While dismissing Eghabor as disgruntled, the ambassador also told Aymond there seemed to be more to the situation, the sources said, and the ambassador needed a response from Aymond to determine “a proper disposition of the matter”.

Aymond’s representatives said neither he nor the archdiocese ever received that letter, so he never responded. Eghabor said he never heard back from anyone connected to the Vatican. He also said he could hardly believe what ensued.

The clergy abuse list released by Aymond spurred a wave of lawsuits against the New Orleans archdiocese, which filed for bankruptcy in May 2020. That left anyone alleging harm at the hands of the archdiocese or its clergy facing a March 2021 deadline to come forward or forever lose the right to demand compensation.

Eghabor filed his claim against Aymond – the only one of this nature against him in the bankruptcy case – five days before that deadline. Eghabor attached his 2018 letter to the papal nuncio.

Spokespeople for Aymond say that was the first time the archbishop became aware of Eghabor’s complaint to the nuncio. Aymond contacted the nuncio and asked what had come of Eghabor’s accusation.

Within days, the nuncio wrote with good news. Despite having never heard from Aymond or spoken to Eghabor, the official in charge of the Vatican department which supervises bishops found Eghabor’s claims to be “frivolous” and lacking “even a semblance of credibility”, the letter said.

“I trust that this letter will be of some comfort and assistance to Your Excellency,” the nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, wrote to Aymond.

Claims through the bankruptcy are sealed from public view. Eghabor provided a copy of his claim and agreed to discuss it, citing his free speech rights. Spokespeople for Aymond then agreed to discuss aspects of the dispute and defend the archbishop.

Eghabor said it was appalling the church could find him lacking credibility without speaking to the principal figures in his case. He was worried, he said, about whether he would be treated fairly in the bankruptcy proceeding, which remains pending.

“It is human nature to defend your reputation,” Eghabor said. “But my mind is so clear about what happened.”