USA: Asylum case puts spotlight on nuns' allegations of sex abuse

The Dallas Morning News
Dallas Diocese aided woman who was fearful after accusing bishop.
ARLINGTON – Pauline Aligwekwe is a 66-year-old woman from a privileged family in Nigeria, fluent in three languages, with master's and doctoral degrees from the Sorbonne.
She worked for many years as a Roman Catholic nun – tending to soldiers and prostitutes and refugees, teaching school, writing a book about Africa's experience with Christianity and running a convent, among other things.

On her good days now, you might find her at a temp job in the Dallas suburbs, standing in a mailroom from midnight to 8 a.m. "In the U.S.," as she puts it, "I am nobody."

Dr. Aligwekwe has become a refugee herself, seeking asylum in the United States with an extraordinary argument: that her resistance to a Nigerian bishop's sexual misconduct prompted him to crush her ministry and led to a violent attack on her convent.

She has won some support from U.S. Catholics and triggered some unusual frankness about their church's ongoing struggle with sexual abuse.

Last year, for example, a lawyer for an American bishop's immigration counseling service told federal officials in a court document: "Although there is a long history of clergy sexual abuse of women in Nigeria, including of sisters, Dr. Aligwekwe (to her knowledge) is the first sister to openly and formally discuss and challenge such abuse – and she fears being injured or eliminated because of her 'audacity.' " Nigerian police and the Vatican have ignored her pleas for help, the court filing says. Today, her fate rests with a U.S. immigration appeals board, which could rule shortly.

The case personifies the abuse claims of nuns, which received a flurry of international news coverage in 2001 before being overshadowed by the church's child molestation scandal.

National Catholic Reporter led the coverage then, publishing memos that showed top church officials in Rome had been briefed for years on church leaders' allegedly widespread exploitation of Third World sisters. But the U.S. weekly paper's reports were short on details, naming no accusers and no one who'd been accused.

Dr. Aligwekwe's nemesis is Bishop Anthony Ilonu, who heads her home Diocese of Okigwe. In court filings, she says he sexually harassed her and committed other misconduct – including consorting with a woman who posed as a nun and allegedly trafficked in children.

In 2002, after Dr. Aligwekwe had confrontations with the bishop and the woman, several men ransacked her convent while she was away. A security guard said they searched for her in vain before slashing him with a machete.

Bishop Ilonu and his supporters say she's lying and is in no danger from them. But the Dallas Diocese's immigration counseling program found Dr. Aligwekwe believable and took on her asylum case for free in 2004, effectively pitting Dallas Bishop Charles Grahmann against Bishop Ilonu.

"It's extremely rare to see church officials in one diocese helping a victim who is challenging church officials in another diocese," said David Clohessy, leader of the internationally active Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "It's a healthy and encouraging sign."

Dallas Diocese staffers tried to ignore religious politics when deciding whether to represent Dr. Aligwekwe, said Vanna Slaughter, who heads the immigration counseling program.

"The facts of the case were just so striking," Ms. Slaughter said. And, she added, they were consistent with the reports she had read in National Catholic Reporter.

Her boss, Sister Mary Anne Owens, said she had heard similar accounts from nuns with experience in Africa and consulted them before taking the case. "They said this sounds credible," she recalled.

Sister Owens, who heads the diocese's Catholic Charities operation, said she never talked to Bishop Grahmann about it.

"We were doing what our mission calls us to do," she said. "My experience has been that Bishop Grahmann will support us in our mission ... He has a heart for immigrants and oppressed people."

Bishop Grahmann did not respond to interview requests left with his aides.

New evidence

The Dallas Diocese's legal work didn't persuade Immigration Judge Edwin Hughes, who said Dr. Aligwekwe lacked evidence that Bishop Ilonu had criminally harmed her or enlisted anyone else to do so. "This dispute," the judge wrote in March 2005, "is purely a private dispute between one man and one woman."

But since then, with the case on appeal, The Dallas Morning News has uncovered new threats against Dr. Aligwekwe.

Bishop Ilonu's supporters set up a Web site early last year, demanding "vengeance" against Dr. Aligwekwe. They called her a "whore" who had sexually abused girls and had "demonic powers" – all libelous attacks and evidence of continuing persecution, she says.

The supporters were responding to a Web site she'd created in 2004 that details her allegations and alleges a broader pattern of sexual misconduct among African Catholic leaders.

"If the church feels she can do nothing ... to stop her, then let her be ready to face the insurgence of some determined soldiers of Christ," the supporters' site said. It urged other Nigerian bishops to defend Bishop Ilonu, "or the stones of the Earth will revolt and do it for you."

The site, run from the English city of Milton Keynes, disclosed no ties to the bishop. But when The News asked the site's registrant for information, he said he had donated it to "the church."

The registrant, Jude Ohuche Ukwu, said he had merely set up the site and was not familiar with its content. He said he would refer a reporter's inquiries to "one of the bishop's right-hand men," whom he would not identify. The request drew no response from Nigeria.

Mr. Ukwu identified himself as a former candidate for the priesthood in Nigeria and said he has a brother who is a priest there.

After The News began asking questions, the site was deactivated. Mr. Ukwu said he shut it down after unsuccessfully seeking information from Nigerian contacts.

Dallas lawyer John Wheat Gibson, Dr. Aligwekwe's appellate attorney, said the newspaper's findings could help her win her case.

"I think it would persuade a rational person" that she would not be safe in Nigeria, said Mr. Gibson, who is not affiliated with the Dallas Diocese.

U.S. immigration officials and Judge Hughes declined to comment.

The News also hired a journalist in Nigeria, who visited the Okigwe Diocese and verified basic details of Dr. Aligwekwe's past. The journalist tried to interview Bishop Ilonu and, when unsuccessful, left written questions with an aide.

A short while later, the newspaper began getting e-mails defending the bishop and criticizing Dr. Aligwekwe. The senders identified themselves as priests from Nigeria – and, in one case, a nun, who referred The News to the Web site that demanded vengeance.

One priest who wrote was the Rev. Hilary Ihedioha, a distant relative of Mr. Ukwu's whom Bishop Ilonu has loaned to the Diocese of San Angelo, in West Texas. His e-mail said the bishop had ordered him to tell the newspaper that Dr. Aligwekwe had "mental problems" and that her claims were lies.

"Bishop Ilonu is not chasing her," Father Ihedioha told The News in a short phone interview.

The newspaper also received a brief voice-mail message from a man identifying himself as Bishop Ilonu.

"She is just a liar, and nobody is threatening her in Nigeria," he said of Dr. Aligwekwe. "She is only afraid of the offenses she committed." The caller did not elaborate, nor did he leave a phone number or e-mail address.

Subsequent attempts by The News to contact the bishop were unsuccessful. Father Ihedioha said he didn't have a working phone number or e-mail address for him.

A rebel's roots

Dr. Aligwekwe came to Arlington in 2003 to take shelter temporarily with a nephew. Today, cut off from career, country, friends and most relatives, she lives alone in a tiny apartment.

Taped to the wall by her front door, in oversized type, is a printout of one of her favorite Bible passages – a reminder, she said, of her love for the church and why she resists its "bad elements."

In the passage, Jesus instructs his followers on how to deal with the hypocritical religious powers of their day: "You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say; but do not be guided by what they do; since they do not practice what they preach."

Dr. Aligwekwe said she has never conformed easily to the "blind obedience" sometimes demanded of nuns.

"I'm looking for saints," she acknowledged. "There are very few of them."

The chain of events that brought her to North Texas began 25 years ago, when Bishop Ilonu had just begun leading the Okigwe Diocese and she went to pay her respects. According to her immigration court filings, he took her on a private tour of his new residence and suddenly disrobed, prompting her to flee and to try to avoid him as much as possible.

In the mid-1980s, Dr. Aligwekwe left her Nigeria-based Immaculate Heart order of nuns. She worked as a university professor before forming her own religious association, which ran a school for children and a training program for prospective nuns.

Bishop Ilonu ordered her convent to disband in 1999 after she continued to resist his sexual advances, Dr. Aligwekwe said in court filings. He blamed her for protests that others had made about him to the Vatican and threatened her with violence, she added.

At that point, Dr. Aligwekwe's correspondence records show, she began asking the Vatican to let her convent reopen. It declined, citing a technicality: She had never received the needed written authorization for it from Bishop Ilonu – only his oral encouragement.

"You ... have only yourself to blame for any injustice perceived," wrote Cardinal Jozef Tomko, at the time the head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples.

He told her that she should not use the title "sister" – that she had ceased to be a nun when she left the Immaculate Heart order. Yet other records show that many in the church, including some of its leaders, considered her a nun all along. Many still call her Sister Pauline.

Cardinal Tomko's letter also shows, without giving details, that Pope John Paul II previously had sent a special investigator to Bishop Ilonu's diocese.

Cult connection?

About the time that Dr. Aligwekwe was appealing to Rome, Bishop Ilonu began an intimate relationship with a woman who was "a member of a satanic secret cult," according to her court filings. Dr. Aligwekwe said the woman frequently was seen at the bishop's house, and talked of being haunted by evil spirits and taking babies from unmarried mothers.

"I realize that to American people this concept of a ... cult may sound somewhat strange," Dr. Aligwekwe wrote in a sworn statement. "However, in Nigeria and other parts of Africa, these cults are an unfortunate part of life."

Dr. Dayo Abah, who has a master's degree in theology from Southern Methodist University and grew up in Nigeria, agreed. She said many highly educated people there profess Christianity while also engaging in cult practices.

Furthermore, "Catholic priests and their sexual relationships with women is a common phenomenon," said Dr. Abah, who is a journalism professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and does not know Dr. Aligwekwe. "It is a fact in Nigeria."

Dr. Aligwekwe has provided U.S. officials a "wanted person" notice in which Nigerian state police said they were searching for the alleged cult member, who "claims to be a reverend sister" and was accused of having "duped some persons." The notice appeared in the Nigerian newspaper The Punch and had a picture of the woman dressed in a nun's habit.

Dr. Aligwekwe also has provided documents – a brochure and form letters – in which the alleged cult member says she is starting an orphanage. The documents contain what appears to be Bishop Ilonu's signature.

In 2002, Dr. Aligwekwe said, she challenged the woman and tried to confront the bishop, who angrily refused to see her. A few weeks later, when she was away, seven armed men ransacked her convent but stole nothing.

"I told them that Sister was not home, and they said if I lie they will kill me," security guard Marcellus Okoro told The News. "They cut my hand with machetes, and I almost bled to death."

Dr. Aligwekwe said she suspects, but cannot prove, that the bishop was behind the attack.

She went into hiding, first in Nigeria and later the United States, while seeking help from the Vatican and police officials in her home country. For the first time, she sent the Vatican a written account of her sexual allegations against Bishop Ilonu.

Nigerian police would not talk to The News, and the Vatican did not respond to a written request for information.

Dr. Aligwekwe lived with a group of nuns in New York City until the Vatican embassy in Nigeria told U.S. bishops that she might be improperly trying to raise funds for religious activities. That was untrue, she said, but led the New York Archdiocese to declare her ineligible for hospitality.

She left behind some supporters in New York, however.

"You don't want to believe it," said Sister Maria Goretti, superior of the New York nuns. But "I thought she was credible."

The Rev. James Healy, a New York priest, concurred. "I have been attempting to help her as much as I can," he wrote in a sworn statement to the immigration court.

Several months ago, without explanation, the Vatican named a successor to Bishop Ilonu even though he was several years from retirement age.

Sister Owens, the Dallas Catholic Charities leader, said Dr. Aligwekwe's case "may have played some role" in the appointment, along with the previous Vatican investigation. "Maybe," she said, "they got tired of hearing about this guy."

Mr. Ukwu said his associates in Nigeria also believe that the Aligwekwe matter contributed to the move.

For now, Bishop Ilonu remains on duty, with his successor governing alongside him. Dr. Aligwekwe said his departure wouldn't help her.

"My life is more unsafe now," she said, citing the great esteem that a bishop's clansmen accord him. "Anybody who would be the cause of him losing that position – they would not allow that person to live."

Special contributor George Osodi reported from Nigeria for this story.

10:30 PM CST on Monday, March 6, 2006 By BROOKS EGERTON / Staff Writer E-mail