London Free Press
Saturday, March 28, 2015 8:42:48 EDT AM
Rev. Anthony Onyenagada, Nigerian Catholic priest.
She was a Southwestern Ontario church secretary. He was a visiting priest from Nigeria. She says he sexually assaulted her. He was charged, but not until after he’d left Canada. Then, under the noses of border security and police, he slipped back into the country. Her trust is shaken to the core.
More than 10 years ago, Nicole’s life became a hell on earth.
She says she was sexually assaulted and raped by a man who was supposed to live a life of piety, compassion and dedication.
It took 10 years for Nicole to get partial closure.
He’s facing eight charges that include four counts of sexual assault, two counts of forcible confinement, one of criminal harassment and one of committing an indecent act.
She reached an out of court settlement with the church on a civil suit. She’s still waiting for justice to catch up to the priest.
Nicole thought the Nigerian priest would never return to Canada, to avoid the charges.
But to her surprise, he did return in February 2013 to Canada and to a parish in Southwestern Ontario overseen by the Diocese of London.
These are allegations. He was never arrested and none of the charges has been proven in court.
This is Nicole’s story. This is the heavy price she and her family paid and continue to pay to this day.
The interview goes on for almost two hours.
That’s a long time to talk about one thing, by any standard.
To the woman telling the story, it probably feels like but a moment has passed.
Living what she lived through for those 10 years, to her two hours is but a couple of lines in a book that tells a story which, as yet, has no happy ending. She believes there will be no happy ending.
It’s a story of pain, betrayal, despair, dark thoughts and survival, just as it’s a story of courage and strength to go on. It’s also a story of love, a love that has kept a family together where most others would have been torn apart.
It’s a search for justice.
The woman had to compose herself several times. There were times when she felt physically sick, when her hands shook. There were times she would drift back to a time she never wanted to revisit.
Her husband sat at the table, occasionally adding a comment, listening to his wife disclose the most intimate of details, trying even now to understand how what occurred 10 years ago has taken over their lives.
She sat at the table with two plastic tubs of files, books and notes. Two more tubs were on the floor. If the files, books and notes were stacked one on top of the other, they would dwarf her.
After two hours, she’s done. But there’s more to the story. It’s a story that will never end.
“If I knew what we would have had to go through, I don’t think I would have had the strength to do it,” she said, worried about telling her story.
“Trust me,” I said, recognizing a second later how stupid that sounded.
She looked up with a rueful smile.
“Do you know how many people have said that to me?” she asked.
“Trust is the glue of life,” someone once said.
Your church, your family, the justice system, your friends, your co-workers; trust should be strongest, where one should feel safest, supported and understood.
If those institutions abrogate that trust, the sense of abandonment and loneliness is complete and devastating.
It was the summer of 2004 and Nicole had everything to look forward to.
She was beginning a new life with a new husband of less than a year. She’d started a new job as a secretary in a Catholic church in the London Diocese.
The parish priest had decided to take some holiday time. A visiting priest from Nigeria, Anthony Onyenagada was visiting local parishes and for a few weeks, he would take over some of the duties at the parish for a few weeks. He arrived July 15.
It was the day Nicole’s world changed forever.
“From the very first day he saw me, the first thing he said was that he never had such a pretty secretary,” Nicole said.
It was a strange comment, coming from a priest. But she didn’t see it as a warning of things to come. Nicole had faith and wouldn’t, or couldn’t, believe the comment was anything more than an offhand remark.
Both Nicole and her husband are well known in her Southwestern Ontario community, which she prefers not be named. They now have young children. But when the priest arrived, the couple had been married less than a year. They were deeply involved in the church, as was Nicole’s husband’s family.
The church was a safe, nurturing institution to turn to in times of trouble. Anything else was unthinkable.
Five days after Onyenagada’s arrival, the unthinkable happened. The visiting priest asked for computer help and while Nicole was helping, he allegedly grabbed her breasts,
Nicole was so stunned she didn’t know what to think. She wanted to believe it was an accident.
That night, she talked to the parish priest who had not yet left for vacation. He recommended she never be alone with Onyenagada.
Nicole talked to her husband. He felt maybe it was all a misunderstanding.
The next day, she talked to her co-workers about the incident. Nicole says the co-worker immediately called the Diocese of London, which oversees 131 Catholic parishes and missions in Southwestern Ontario, to report Onyenagada.
Her co-worker subsequently said she made the call days later, not immediately.
To Nicole, it was obvious that Onyenagada had singled her out.
She alleges Onyenagada would find reasons to be with her, to stand by her desk, to kneel by her computer and touch her thigh. He would ask her to do chores that were not hers to do.
One day he asked her to help him with a visa application, she said. After two hours of tedious work, they came to a question about whether he was married.
“’I hope you aren’t married?’” Nicole asked in frustration. “He answered, ‘I’m not but would you marry me?’”
“He was always hovering. He would ask me out to supper. He would send me flowers.”
Even Nicole’s co-workers would remind the priest that Nicole was married.
Onyenagada would take to locking the doors when he followed her into a room.
One day, Nicole alleges, he put her up against a wall in an upstairs room and locked the door. She fought him off.
The sound of the lock clicking shut began to cause a visceral reaction in Nicole, a reaction of fear and dread. Talking about it 10 years later makes her shake and shiver.
“I kept saying to myself that any day the diocese would show up and deal with it. But day after day, I waited and nothing,” Nicole said.
On July 29, Nicole went into the parish garage to take out recyclables. She realized Onyenagada had followed her into a small vestibule. She heard the click of the lock being turned.
“That’s when it happened,” Nicole alleges. “He had me on my back before I had a chance to realize what was happening. Then he raped me.”
Those who haven’t endured a rape still believe they can comprehend what is incomprehensible — they try to make order out of the chaos a rape propagates; they use conventional reactions and solutions to explain an extraordinary event; and they imagine they know how they would react in the affluence of pain, fear, humiliation and loss of control that stems from rape.
Nicole said she told no one about the rape. She kept it quiet for months.
When she got back into the office from the vestibule, she was numb. The day and night passed in a daze.
The next day, she went back to work.
“I knew I still had to work,” she said. “As soon as I saw him, I started vomiting. (Onyenagada) was standing there, just looking at me. I was throwing up. I couldn’t stop. (My husband) came and got me. All I wanted to do is go home and be dead.”
The alleged rape accelerated Nicole’s spiral into a personal inferno. Years later, she would look back and question the decisions she made afterward — whether she should have done things differently, whether she should have reported it immediately.
She says now if she had to do it over, she would have gone to the police immediately.
“But we had called the diocese,” Nicole said, still trying to reason out what happened. “I kept thinking ‘This couldn’t get worse. People from the diocese are going to come tomorrow. He’s done this. This is going to stop.”
The diocese finally did call her on Aug. 3rd, more than two weeks after the first alleged attack. Onyenagada was scheduled for a parish in Leamington the next day.
The diocese investigation was handled by three people. It was a difficult decision for Nicole, but she didn’t tell the investigators she’d been raped.
“I’m thinking, ‘I have to tell them everything.’ But at one point they talked about how horrible the things he’d done were and they said ‘he will be dealt with harshly,’” Nicole said. “I understood he was not going to be around any other women. He wouldn’t hurt any other women. So I told them the bare minimum of what happened to get him dealt with. From what they told me, he would be defrocked. He would never be a priest again.
“If I tell them about the rape . . . here, I have a well-known husband trying to work in a new business. I worry about my husband’s reputation, my job, my husband’s family who are Catholic. When I thought (the diocese) was going to make sure he wasn’t going to be a priest or hurt other women, I thought that was enough.”
By the middle of September, Onyenagada had gone back to Nigeria.
The diocese investigation determined that Nicole’s story was believable. Bishop Ronald Fabbro sent a letter to Onyenagada’s bishop in Nigeria that concluded the priest had violated the church’s policy on sexual harassment.
After a meeting with Fabbro, in which Nicole disclosed even more details about Onyenagada’s actions, Fabbro sent a second letter to Nigeria indicating Onyenagada would not be allowed to minister in any of the diocese’s parishes.
“I was waiting to hear that he had been defrocked,” she said.
She continued to wait.
The year 2004 stretched into 2005. Nicole continued to press for some sort of resolution.
She deteriorated physically and mentally. Her marriage was falling apart.
“I was suicidal,” Nicole said.
The one thing that kept her going was the hope the church would remove Onyenagada.
But in late March 2005, at a lunch meeting, one of the church investigators told her there was nothing more that could be done for her.
“I went into the bathroom at the restaurant and threw up,” Nicole said.
With her life tumbling out of control, with her trust in the church gone, Nicole only had one other option in her search for justice.
Nicole went to the police on March 21, 2005.
She told them the whole story. Nine months after she said she had been raped, her husband finally found out the secret that was tearing his wife apart.
Nicole talked about how alone she felt, how she didn’t feel supported by anyone including her husband. Her life was consumed by what happened while those around her went about living their normal lives.
“I was angry at (her husband), but really what did he know?” she said. “I used to take three showers a day. You would think he would say ‘What’s with taking three showers a day?’”
Woodstock police charged Onyenagada with the eight offences after he left for Nigeria.
Nicole was broken. She took a leave of absence from her parish job in August 2005 and in January 2006 she was terminated.
She sued the diocese in June 2006 for what the priest allegedly did.
Nicole wasn’t quite done getting kicked around, though. The church lawyers would now deconstruct her life.
She saw people she trusted change their statements. She saw every intimate detail of her life from childhood to the present, laid bare.
As for how the couple’s families reacted to the allegations and lawsuit, “We now have no family.”
Nicole held up a binder, about two inches thick, dealing strictly with her life. It’s the legal discovery paperwork done by the church’s lawyers.
“This much was about the rape,” she said, holding up less than a quarter-of-an-inch worth of the pages.
The victim became the target.
The suit never went to trial. It was settled in September 2014.
But the damage was done.
“The process has destroyed me,” Nicole said.
She claims she’s not a good mother, although her husband disagrees. She says she’s ruined his life, that she’s not a good partner, not a good friend.
Every day continues to be a struggle for both. Nicole says the marriage should have been over long ago but they continue to try to repair the damage for their kids and for themselves.
Her husband is a good man, but it’s virtually impossible for a man to fully understand what rape takes from a woman.
“There are times when I just can’t deal with this. I can’t deal with marriage, the church, children, getting raped. I can’t deal with it,” Nicole says.
“No one talks to me about my rape, although many of these same people know about it. Most days when I am having a bad day, I just put on my happy mask and suck it up, when really I want to tell people how it really feels to be so scared and so sad and heartbroken. But in my head I hear, ‘Why can’t I be over this already?’”
But the system and church were failing her yet again.
In August 2013, while surfing the Internet, Nicole came across an announcement of an event at a parish in Forest. The event had taken place in February of that year. A priest visiting from Nigeria was looking to raise funds to help women start their own businesses in his country. The priest was Onyenagada.
It was the proverbial straw that broke the victim’s back.
The visit was published in a church bulletin and on the church’s website. A link to the church also appeared on the diocese’s website.
A notice sent to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops by Fabbro in April 2005 said Onyenagada “will not be permitted to return to the Diocese of London.”
There was plenty of egg to go around, especially for the Canadian Border Services Agency.
The federal government sent a letter to Nicole, apologizing for having missed Onyenagada and reminding her if she ever heard of the priest returning to Canada to call the CBSA hotline.
Another agency, another failure.
“There is something wrong with the system,” she said. “There is something wrong with a system that tears me apart, that attacks me while (Onyenagada) doesn’t have to answer for anything.”
The Diocese of London says it was not aware of the rape allegation until after Onyenagada had left Canada. The diocese didn’t respond to a Free Press question about why it failed to act on the other allegations Nicole made while the priest was still in Canada. Nor did the diocese respond to a question about Onyenagada’s status with the church now.
The diocese said it doesn’t comment on a victim’s story.
“It is a victim’s choice if they want to speak publicly about the details about their case or experience,” said Mark Adkinson, a diocese spokesperson.
Adkinson did comment on Onyenagada’s return to the diocese in 2013.
“We found out about Father Onyenagada’s presence well after the event,” he said. “It was demoralizing. We followed up with the pastor who quickly realized the seriousness of his oversight and was understandably quite upset about the news.”
The diocese said that events are not posted on diocese websites, but that parishes update and take care of their own websites.
“The pastor of that parish, unfortunately, failed to follow our protocols in this instance,” Adkinson said. “If he had, a flag would have been raised during the process for granting permission and Father Onyenagada would not have been allowed at any of our churches.”
The diocese says there are screening procedures and protocols for any priest from outside the diocese, “even if they are just celebrating mass. Our priests are reminded regularly about the need to follow this process,” Adkinson said.
The Free Press sent several e-mails to Onyenagada’s personal and charity addresses, offering him a chance to respond to the allegations. There had been no response.
Nicole isn’t sure she’ll be able to ever attain some level of normalcy. She doesn’t know if she can ever trust again.
“You go to your lawyer and you trust in your lawyer and you surrender your control to him or her and trust they are going to do their job,” Nicole said. “You surrender your control to the police and trust that they are going to do their job. You surrender your control to the priest, the church and the faith and trust they are going to do their job. All the organization except for the police has tumbled. Who, at the end of the day, can we trust?
“I wish I could take this part of my brain out and never have to deal with it again.”
It’s the part of her brain that remembers every moment of the alleged assaults, the rape, the broken trusts, the pain and the suffering.
“In the one moment, I lost everything,” Nicole said.
It’s but one moment, a moment in time, a measurement that seems so insignificant for most of us. It is but a sweep of the second hand on a clock. But for women who live the torment of rape and abuse, the second hand doesn’t move. It remains motionless on one spot. It’s the moment that lasts a lifetime.