Brownsville Diocese to Settle Lawsuit with Victim Who Claims Ex-Priest Molested Her

By Sarah Ovaska
November 13, 2003
Valley Morning Star

EDINBURG — The Brownsville Roman Catholic Diocese will settle a lawsuit for an undisclosed amount with a female victim who claims a former Rio Grande Valley priest molested her as a teenager.

"It's time for healing," Edmundo Ramirez, the attorney for the diocese, said of the lawsuit filed against the diocese and former priest Basil Onyia. He added that the settlement does not indicate that the diocese admits wrongdoing.

The settlement amount will be covered by the diocese's insurance, according to a statement released by the diocese.

"Whatever he (Onyia) did, he did on his own," Ramirez said. "Obviously, the diocese does not condone this behavior."

The settlement comes on the heels of a trial scheduled to begin Nov. 17 in Judge Noe Gonzalez's 370th state District Court. Attorneys for the victimized women had previously indicated Brownsville Bishop Raymundo J. Pe´┐Ża would be deposed if the case was not settled. A deposition is an official fact-gathering interview conducted under oath.

The diocese did not follow policy in reporting the sexual abuse, said Juan Magallanes, an attorney for the victim and her mother, also a party in the lawsuit.

"It certainly was a big letdown in trust where you'd expect it be the last place for a letdown of trust," Magallanes said. "It was a pretty dismal failure for what was in place to protect."

The woman, who is referred to as Jane Doe in court documents, claims Onyia molested her from late 1999 to February 2001 when she was 16 years old. The woman claimed Onyia showed her an X-rated video, fondled her breasts and inserted his finger in her vagina, according to the plaintiff's second amended petition. The victim is not being identified because of a Monitor policy to withhold the names of victims of sexual crimes.

Described as mentally handicapped in court documents, the young woman was seeking spiritual counseling from Onyia because her father molested her at a young age.

Onyia came to the Brownsville diocese in October 1999 from his homeland of Nigeria. He served at the National Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle in San Juan, St. Joseph the Worker in McAllen and Immaculate Heart in Harlingen in the year and a half he served the Brownsville Diocese, according to court documents. Onyia left the country in February 2001, the same time charges of molestation began to surface publicly.

If he ever returns to the United States, Onyia has seven warrants out for his arrest in connection with criminal sexual assault charges filed by Pharr police.

The Brownsville Diocese has maintained that they do not know Onyia's whereabouts, according to previous published reports by The Monitor.

An attorney for the diocese indicated the settlement amount would be kept confidential while an attorney for the victim said he has made no decision of whether the settlement amount will be included in the public court record.

In a policy approved last year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, settlement amounts between the Church and victims will be public unless a victim requests the matter be kept secret, according to information provided by the USCCB.

The diocesan attorney said he received indication from the victim's mother to keep the settlement amount a secret.

"They want the matter to be confidential," Ramirez said. "We're honoring her wishes."

However, an attorney for the female victim and the victim's mother said the ultimate decision of whether or not to seal the settlement will be left up to Gonzalez. The judge is presiding over the lawsuit as well as a 2002 lawsuit two other victims filed against Onyia and the diocese.

"There's no indication that the court is going to keep it confidential," Magallanes said. "We're not going to be requesting that."

The settlement will be finalized once attorneys file the correct paperwork, according to court staff.

Negotiations between victims and the diocese were difficult, Magallanes said.

"It's been very, very difficult," Magallanes said. "It was a very touchy subject."

In coming months, the Brownsville Diocese will release the number of priests accused of sexual misconduct as well as the number of victims who were minors and settlements made to victims, the diocese announced last week.


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