Depositions to Be Used in Priest's Sexual Assault Case

By Sarah Ovaska
The Monitor
December 7, 2002

EDINBURG — Videotaped depositions of Bishop Raymundo Pe�a and Monsignor Juan Nicolau will be used in a lawsuit against Basil Onyia, a former Rio Grande Valley priest accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl.

Depositions were originally scheduled for earlier this week but were postponed until later this month or early January, said Fernando Mancias, an attorney for the girl.

"It will be our concern to disclose how much (Pe�a) knows about allegations of sexual abuse and what he's done to remedy it, if anything at all," Mancias said. "There are going to be a lot more cases coming forward in the future."

The jury trial of the case was postponed until March 10. The case, being heard by state

District Judge Noe Gonzalez was originally set for a January trial date, Mancias said.

Pe�a, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, has been named in the lawsuit. Nicolau is rector of the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan Del Valle National Shrine.

Diocese spokeswoman Brenda Riojas said the diocese had no comment on the depositions except that the diocese will support the civil process and proceed with the legal system.

"I know for sure that I'm going to be deposed, but I don't know when," Nicolau said.

A minor and her mother, identified as Jane Doe and Mrs. Jane Doe, are suing Pe�a and the Diocese of Brownsville. The lawsuit was filed in April 2001.

Onyia was asked to leave the diocese in February 2001 by Pe�a.

According to court records, the 16-year-old girl, a Catholic, is mentally handicapped and emotionally disturbed. She was seeking counsel from Onyia, a Nigerian priest who was working at the Basilica. The girl had been sexually abused by her father at a young age and was seeking counsel on the matter, according to court records.

Onyia has been accused of sexually abusing her in several incidents from December 1999 to February 2001, according to court records.

He worked at the Basilica for five months, from November 1999 to April 2000.

Onyia has been accused of fondling the girl's breasts, penetrating her genitalia with his fingers and showing her a pornographic video, according to court records.

Onyia has not responded to court requests to appear in court and a warrant has been issued for him, Mancias said. Suspected to be in Nigeria, he will be arrested if he enters the United States, Mancias said.

Onyia was transferred from the Basilica to Saint Joseph the Worker Parish in McAllen in April 2000.

He left Saint Joseph and was moved to Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Harlingen in August 2000, according to letters from Pe�a to Onyia in court records.

Pe�a, the diocese and the Basilica have been named in another lawsuit handled by Mancias.

In that lawsuit, two different females have accused Onyia of sexually assaulting them while he was a priest at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Harlingen in the fall of 2000.

Letters found in court records show that complaints about Onyia had been forward to high diocese officials.

A letter from Nicolau and Pe�a and two memorandums from Nicolau in court records of the two cases indicate that Nicolau brought up concerns about the priest a year before Onyia was asked to leave the diocese.

"I have a growing concern over Rev. Basil Onyia's behavior towards the ladies in the administration office and now towards one lady who is an altar server." Nicolau wrote in a Jan. 31, 2000, letter to Pe�a.

Nicolau described three incidents involving three women in the letter.

In two instances, Nicolau wrote about women feeling uncomfortable when Onyia held handshakes too long and asked the women to go to Africa with him.

A third woman, described as a "young lady," complained about Onyia hugging her and caressing her knee.

At the end of the letter, Nicolau asked for advice from Pe�a on what to do about the situation.

"Bishop, please advice on how to proceed with the situation," he wrote.

Two other memorandums from Nicolau were in court documents.

One, written on Feb. 8, 2000, described a meeting with Nicolau and Onyia to discuss Onyia's behavior with women on the Basilica staff.

"I advised him to be more careful in the manner in which he speaks and expresses himself toward the ladies here in the Basilica, 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," Nicolau wrote.

"I again advised him that it was not acceptable in this culture, to stop it and be more careful with this kind of behavior, because this could create grounds for legal action against him and the Basilica," Nicolau wrote.

The memorandum from Nicolau is an April 3, 2000, report on Onyia's behavior, indicated that no further inappropriate behavior had been reported.

Onyia was moved to McAllen's Saint Joseph the Worker parish later that month.

Less than a year after Nicolau's first letter questioning what to do with Onyia, Pe�a wrote to ask that Onyia be removed from the Brownsville diocese.

A Jan. 2, 2001, letter from Pe�a to Bishop Vincent Ezeonyia, from the Aba diocese in Nigeria, asked that Onyia and another Nigerian priest named Donatus Ironuma be returned to Nigeria. Priests in Ironuma's parish had complained that he was unable to adapt to the local culture.

"Father Basil � seems to have difficulty in the areas of fiscal responsibility and relationships with women," Pe�a wrote. "Given these factors, I deem it advisable for Your Excellency to recall them to your diocese, for ministry among their own people. This would prevent the possibility of scandal in this diocese, and avoid hurting them in their ministry in the long run."

Ezeonyia responded to Pe�a, writing that the two priests would be accepted back in Nigeria but requested that the two be sent to obtain a degree at a university.

Pe�a denied Ezeonyia's request for Onyia's further education but gave Ironuma a $5,000 scholarship to study in San Antonio.

A month and a half later, Pe�a wrote Onyia to terminate Onyia's work with the Brownsville diocese.

"With great disappointment and sadness and with genuine concern for your spiritual welfare as well as the spiritual and mental welfare of those whom your alleged actions may have harmed � I revoke the priestly faculties granted you," Pe�a wrote. "I deny you permission to reside in the Diocese of Brownsville except for the purpose of responding to any requirements of the criminal and civil courts of this state."

Mancias said the lawsuit should not be seen as an attack against the Catholic Church.

"When someone gets abused, it's not allegations against the Church, it's allegations against an individual," Mancias said.


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