Speaking out, hopeful, and waiting for change

Speaking out, hopeful, and waiting for change

Esther Harber. Courtesy photo.
Esther Harber. Courtesy photo.

.- Esther Harber says she was raped by a priest in 2010. Nine years later, through grace and her own courage, Harber’s story, and her life, are moving forward in hope.

Harber is not naive. She knows the story isn’t over yet. And for now, she’s waiting, and praying, for change.

In 2010, Harber was working as a lay missionary in New York City, focused on serving women and children in need.

Harber often went to Mass and confession at Holy Rosary Parish in the Bronx. Early that year, she told a priest during confession that she had been sexually abused as a child, and was struggling with bitterness as she worked through it.

The priest was Fr. Edwin Erhimeyoma, a Nigerian, in New York for doctoral studies at Fordham University.

“It was at that time that he tried to ‘baptize me in the Holy Spirit,’” Harber said, referring to a Catholic charismatic practice in which a person is prayed over, in order to “stir up” the graces of baptism and confirmation. This often involves placing hands on the person being prayed over.

“I was extremely uncomfortable and I kept asking him to back away, back away, and he finally did. And I was so shook up about it.”

She said that she told the parish pastor, Fr. Robert Quarato, about the incident. He promised, she told CNA, to speak to Erhimeyoma.

“From that point on,” she said, “I rarely spoke to him. And then at some point I started feeling a little guilty for having ‘ratted on him,’ or whatever, just for whatever reason I did. Looking back I can’t really understand my logic then, but I made some sort of peace with him.”

“And it was from that point that our relationship took a different turn.”

She said she began talking with Erhimeyoma after Mass occasionally, especially about spiritual healing. She said the priest encouraged her to make an appointment with him, and that they met around Easter in 2010.

They met in Erhimeyoma’s office.

“There were no windows. There was no one around.”

Harber said the priest again tried to pray over her.

“He had me close my eyes, and he was encroaching very much into my space and touching me in places that he shouldn’t have been.”

After that encounter, the two started texting. Harber said that the Erhimeyoma would sometimes text “I love you” and call her “sweetheart.”

“Part of me really enjoyed the attention,” she said. “I was really hungry for love at that point in my life…I was a pretty broken person at that point.”

Harber said they started talking more frequently.

In the autumn, Harber said, “things started to get more bold. He was a lot more aggressive.”

Erhimeyoma’s behavior, she conceded, likely fit a pattern of grooming. Such behavior, according to resources developed by the U.S. bishops’ conference’s Office of Child and Youth Protection, is “a pre-meditated behavior intended to manipulate a potential victim into complying with sexual abuse.”

Among the most common tactics used in grooming behavior is “emotionally blackmailing the victim into compliance.”

Over time, “the victim can become groomed to the point that he/she believes to be in an apparent ‘loving relationship’ with the offender,” the USCCB says.

Grooming behavior often targets individuals who are emotionally unstable, who have suffered abuse before, or who seem likely to be easily manipulated. Experts say those who would engage in grooming often recognize the subtle signs that a person might be particularly vulnerable to coercion or manipulation.

As a child, Harber was a victim of sexual abuse. Those who are sexually abused as children have a much higher likelihood of being abused as adults than those who are not, studies show. More than a third of those abused by a family member in childhood are abused by a partner or someone close to them in adulthood, according to one study.

Still, Harber told CNA she believes she bore some responsibility for the relationship. She said she knew she needed to define more concrete boundaries, but she didn’t. Studies show consistently that a person who suffers sexual abuse will struggle, often for life, to set appropriate boundaries in relationships.

Psychologist Veronica Lenzi told CNA that because sexual assault is a serious violation of a person’s dignity, it causes a profound level of trauma. That trauma can make it difficult to recognize inappropriate behavior in relationships. A person who has been sexually abused may have “cognitive dissonance” about what love, respect, and friendship ought to look like, Lenzi said.

Harber, though, did begin to realize her relationship with Erhimeyoma fit an unhealthy pattern, and she tried several times to end the friendship. She struggled to do so.

“It was very spiritualized,” she told CNA, adding that the priest used knowledge of her past, and her faith, to manipulate her in their friendship.

“He would tell me, ‘I just want you to be free with me,’” she said.

“As time went on,” she said, “and I tried more and more frequently to kind of get away from him...it was like an addiction...You know it’s destructive, you know it’s bad, but you can’t leave. And I was just caught in this cycle.”

In October 2010, things escalated.

In that month, Harber, who had been discerning religious life, learned she would not be accepted into a religious community she’d hoped to join.

“I was pretty crushed,” she said.

She said she texted the priest to share with him the news, and he responded: “Don’t worry, honey, I still need you.”

That evening, he asked to spend time with her. She suspected he might want to be sexually intimate, but, she said, “I thought he just wanted to be there for me as a friend. I guess in my heart of hearts I knew that wasn’t true.”

“I didn’t want to have sex with him. I didn’t have sexual feelings,” she said, telling CNA she was resolved not to succumb to any advances he might make.

Still, she said, she didn’t want to be alone. And, though she now says it was a mistake, she agreed to meet him at a church. She hoped the sacred setting would be enough to deter any inappropriate intentions on Erhimeyoma’s part.

When Erhimeyoma arrived at the empty church narthex, she says he told her, as he had before, “I just want you to be free with me.”

“I told him I just needed a hug.” But Harber said that when they embraced, the priest began to kiss her forcefully.

Harber said she pulled away. She said the priest told her he would leave, if she wanted him to.

“So part of my story is that I was also abandoned many times growing up. So it’s like a huge fear of mine, is abandonment. And he knew that. And he was playing into that. He just knew way too much about my psychological makeup. Because he played it perfectly.”

Harber said she felt emotionally stuck in her conversation with Erhimeyoma. She wanted him to leave, but she didn’t want to be alone.

A person who has suffered abuse can “perpetuate paradoxes of woundedness,” Lenzi told CNA, feeling panicked and trapped even in situations that she knows could be dangerous.

Harber said she asked the priest not to leave. But he began to kiss her again. Eventually, she said, he began to disrobe her.

“I was like ‘No. No. No No.’”

“He said, ‘You are so lucky. Any other guy wouldn’t have stopped right now.’ And I just felt a pit feeling in my stomach. I just felt trapped. I didn’t feel like there was any way for me to get out.”

“I can’t even begin to express the power differential in the relationship. I was in such a way that I couldn’t say no again.”

Harber said Erhimeyoma instructed her to perform a sex act, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She told CNA she was paralyzed with fear.  

“I was just so frozen,” she said.

“The next thing I know, I was flipped over, my face was on the floor.”

The priest raped her, Harber said.

Harber told CNA she had no idea what to do next.

She said she went to the restroom, and “I come back, and I’m just, like, shaking. This is so sickening for me to say now, but I asked him to, just, hold me for a minute-- and I can’t believe I asked that from him, but he was so annoyed with the request.”

“We went into the nave, into the pews, and he looks up at the tabernacle, and he’s like ‘Isn’t it amazing, we’re in the presence of God.’ And I just felt my whole self crumble at that moment.”

“He made God a co-conspirator, you know?”

Harber said she soon told her therapist and then her pastor. She said she showed him text messages between her and Erhimeyoma.

After having to wait three weeks, she had a meeting with officials of the Archdiocese of New York: Monsignor William Belford, Vicar for Clergy, and Fr. Thomas D’Angelo, who was coordinator of international priests.

“It was very intimidating for me,” she said of the meeting.

She said she told Belford and D’Angelo that she was intimate with the priest, and that she emphasized twice that she had not consented to their sexual encounter. It would be years, she said later, before she could use the word “rape” to describe what had happened.

But, Harber said, because she emphasized that she did not consent, the Archdiocese of New York should have assisted her in contacting the police.

Instead, she told CNA, archdiocesan officials seemed focused on removing the priest from the parish, but not on her well-being. She said she was told it would take a while for the priest to be removed from the parish, and that she should stay away from her parish until that happened.

She said she felt interrogated in the meeting, especially by Belford.

“I felt like a piece of meat, and just a problem they wanted to go away.”

The Archdiocese of New York told CNA that in 2010 a woman, whom it declined to name for privacy reasons, came forward “claiming that she and Fr. Erhimeyoma had had a sexual encounter after several months of a growing relationship, and that she was feeling upset by it.”

“When confronted by our Vicar for Clergy, Fr. Erhimeyoma admitted the encounter, and, as a result, was told that his faculties were withdrawn, he could no longer serve in New York, that we would not be able to provide him a recommendation to any other diocese in the country, and he would have to go back to his home diocese. His bishop was informed of the reason why he was no longer permitted to serve in New York,” the archdiocese said.

Erhimeyoma told CNA he had admitted a relationship with Harber, but he declined to respond to questions about whether the relationship was sexual.

“I didn’t sexually assault her, ever,” he told CNA. He declined to respond to additional questions.

“I have forgotten about all of these things,” Erhimeyoma added. “I do not wish to go back there anymore.”

Though Erhimeyoma left the Archdiocese of New York, and apparently forgot what had happened, Harber said she did not forget.

In June 2013, Harber heard on social media that the priest was living in New York City to continue his graduate studies.

She emailed Ed Mechmann, director of the Safe Environment Office in the Archdiocese of New York. She recounted her experience with the priest, and asked if he was back in New York.

Mechmann told her by email he had read her account “with great sadness,” and that he had not found any evidence that the priest was in active ministry in the archdiocese.

Mechmann and Harber continued corresponding. The archdiocese helped Harber find and pay for a therapist. She saw a social worker nearby for a while, but he seemed unqualified to deal with her trauma. She struggled to find a qualified therapist in the Dayton area, where she was then living. Eventually she began driving an hour to see a therapist in Cincinnati.

In one 2013 correspondence with Mechmann, Harber wrote that she did not consent to the sexual act with Erhimeyoma.

“I just zoned out and let him go,” she wrote. “I did not fight, but I did not consent. I don’t know if I personally could call it rape- although, I know some definitely would. I do know it was an extreme violation to my person.”

The police were not contacted in response to Harber’s disclosure. A spokesman for the archdiocese told CNA that “at that time, she was still ambivalent about the encounter,” adding that “her correspondence with the archdiocese mainly focused on whether Father Erhimeyoma was in the country (he was not) and assistance for counselling.”

Years later, in a 2018 email, Mechmann explained to Harber that “based on the information that was available to me in 2013, I concluded that the conduct did not satisfy the legal definition of rape, and that is why we did not refer the matter to law enforcement at that time. I understand that the Assistant DA has now concluded that Fr. Edwin’s conduct could have been prosecuted as Rape in the Third Degree.”

In another 2018 email, Mechmann wrote that when he was in contact with Harber in 2013, he was unaware of the violent nature of the sexual encounter.  

“I was not aware of your more detailed explanation of what happened,” Mechmann wrote, referencing a description of physical force Harber had recounted to him only in 2018.

“If I had known that, I would have come to a different conclusion, because that is clearly the use of physical force to overcome your spoken opposition. But at the time, our correspondence dealt with the questions of whether Fr. Edwin was still in active ministry (and I discovered he was not) and how we could arrange for therapy for you (which was the main subject we discussed). We never got into the details of the assault. Looking back I wish we had,” Mechmann wrote.  

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York told CNA a policy for handling complaints regarding non-consensual sexual relationships, or those that violate pastoral relationships, was promulgated by Cardinal Timothy Dolan in 2016.

But, the archdiocese said, an “older policy was in effect when the complaint against Fr. Erhimeyoma was sent to us.”

Still, “had she described the encounter in 2013 in the way she described it in 2018,  it would have led to different action being taken by the archdiocese, including notifying law enforcement,” the spokesman added.

Harber told CNA archdiocesan officials were not experts in sexual abuse or coercion, and often seemed uncertain about how to engage with her, or understand why she had difficulty telling her story.

While Harber said it was obvious Mechmann was trying to help her, and she praised him for being the first person to apologize to her for what she experienced, she sometimes wondered whether other decision-makers made similar efforts to help her, or understood how.

She also wondered why the archdiocesan process for addressing allegations of child abuse seemed so different from the process from addressing claims from adults, she said.

Harber said she wonders why her claim couldn’t have been handled in the same way that claims of child sexual abuse are: through a diocesan review board, composed of psychological experts with specific training related to sexual assualt, along with law enforcement officials, and other experts in understanding sexual abuse, and its aftereffects.

She also said it was not until later in 2013, or in 2014, that “I was finally able to say for myself that this was rape.”

“Before then, it was so complex and it carried so much guilt that even though I knew logically ‘no means no, and that’s rape,’ it wasn’t until much further along that I had the emotional strenth, and got proper therapy, to say ‘this really was rape.’”

Harber’s experience, in that sense, is not uncommon. Psychologists say that victims of sexual assault often minimize their experience, find ways to presume responsibility for it, or deny it outright. It can take years for victims of sexual assault to be able to fully articulate their experience.

Lenzi told CNA that some victims of sexual assault or other kinds of trauma minimize or deny experiences to protect themselves from by being retraumatized. “When you start feeling that violation of yourself again, the body seizes up, and you go into denial.”

“Denial and minimization are surface things,” Lenzi said, “but what’s happening underneath is panic.”

Self-blame, Lenzi said, is also a common response to sexual assault and other kinds of trauma, and often requires extensive therapy to overcome.

Harber said she wrote to Erhimeyoma’s bishop in Nigeria in 2014, but received no reply. The Diocese of Warri told CNA it did not receive that letter.

The priest remained in ministry. Harber moved on with her life. By 2018, she was married, and had a child.

In the summer of 2018, after the Theodore McCarrick sexual abuse scandal began, and after the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing clerical sexual abuse and cover-up, Harber felt again that she needed to speak out.

“I saw these two women on the TV, and they were crying, and I just saw the anguish on their face, and I got so mad. I was like ‘Lord, why did no one speak up for them?’ And then it was like a light bulb- ‘Edwin could be doing this right now, and you’re not speaking up for them.’”

She wrote to her own bishop, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati. She stated directly that she had been raped by Erhimeyoma. Schnurr forwarded the letter to the Bronx District Attorney, and to the Archdiocese of New York.

As soon as it received that letter, “the Archdiocese of New York reached out to Fr. Erhimeyoma’s bishop in Nigeria once again, relating this new information, and making clear how serious the allegation was,” an archdiocesan spokesman told CNA.

By the time the matter reached a prosecutor, the statute of limitations in the case had expired.

After it received Harber’s letter, the archdiocese, and Cardinal Dolan in particular, reached out to Harber for a meeting. This, she said, eventually gave her a sense of hope. She said she started to believe that the archdiocese was willing to learn from her experiences.

Harber and Dolan met at the beginning of April.

Harber told CNA she had four goals for that meeting:

She wanted the archdiocese to assist her financially with her therapy expenses; she said that initial financial assistance covered less than 20% of her therapy bills.

She wanted assurance that Dolan had contacted the priest’s bishop.

She wanted the archdiocese to initiate a process for psychological examinations for all foreign priests.

And she wanted the archdiocese to develop a process for adults to report instances of clerical sexual abuse or coercion, for a diocesan review board to hear sexual abuse or coercion cases involving adults, and for the archdiocesan Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program to be opened to adult victims of clerical sexual abuse or coercion.

Harber said she wanted more than just to be heard at the meeting.

“I can feel heard, and that might be a healing thing personally, but this isn’t just about me.”

“My therapist hears me. My husband hears me. If you really want to show me as a victim that you care, do something. Stop being afraid of this scandal and bring it to light.”

“The fear of scandal is what caused the perpetuation of this abuse,” Harber said.

“When the rubber meets the road, is he going to care for his flock?” she asked, regarding Dolan.

CNA spoke with Harber after she met with Dolan. She said it was “a very positive meeting.”

“He really acknowledged, I believe in a very genuine way, and I was surprised with how much he shared with me, and how open he was.”

She told CNA she was encouraged when Dolan apologized to her for her experience, and for how the Archdiocese of New York handled her case.

“The fact that he apologized for both what Edwin had done but also for how the diocese handled it. It made such a difference because it was like, ‘Ok, at least you see your mistake.’”

“I think the directness with which he apologized to me made a difference.

Esther said it mattered to her that “he called it a rape” while diocesan officials previously had not done so.

“It was very clear to the cardinal that it was rape,” she said. It also mattered to her that he recognized that “it was not handled well by the diocese.”

While positive, she deemed the meeting a partial success.

“I had four goals going in there, and two of them were met, one of them was listened to, and one of them was kind of brushed over,” she told CNA.

Dolan agreed that the archdiocese would further assist Harber with her therapy bills, and that he would contact Erhimeyoma’s bishop.

In fact, a spokesman for the Diocese of Warri told CNA that Bishop John ’Oke Afareha first received a letter about Erhimeyoma from the Archdiocese of New York in January 2019. At that time, the spokesman said, Afareha restricted Erhimeyoma’s priestly ministry, and began a canonical investigation into the matter.

That investigation is ongoing, the spokesman said, and Erhimeyoma, “does not have charge of a parish at this time.”

Harber said Dolan also assured her that “he is working on a process for adults to report such things,” and that he expects June’s U.S. bishops’ conference meeting to develop protocols on the subject.

New York’s archdiocesan spokesman told CNA that Dolan has asked Judge Barbara Jones, whom he appointed to review archdiocesan handling of abuse allegations, “to also examine how we respond to allegations of misconduct with adults, to see if there are ways we can improve our response.”

But Harber said Dolan did not respond to her request that all foreign priests be subject to a psychological examination before being permitted to minister in the U.S. Nearly one-quarter of priests serving in the U.S. are foreign born, and Harber told CNA she is concerned, because they are not all subject to the rigorous psychological screening that is typical in U.S. seminaries.

Dolan, she said “just acknowledged that there is no process of psychological screening for foreign born priests. So that part was a little underwhelming. I don’t know if that is part of his plan of action...I just don’t know.”

Harber told CNA she is now waiting to see how Dolan will follow through on his assurances.

“We have seen that there is a lot of talk but not a lot of action. It remains to be seen how things progress.”

“I expect him to begin to put in a solid practice for adults, and to make the point that adults can not have a consensual relationship with a priest because of the power differential. I hope that there would be something in place to protect people from priests who break their vows or promise of celibacy,” she said.

While she remains faithful to the Church, she said, she is struggling to trust.

“I wouldn’t say that my faith hasn’t wavered. There have definitely been times of desolation and there have been times when it has hurt very badly, because I feel betrayed not only by the priesthood, but by the leadership of the Church..”

Harber said she told Dolan she continues to struggle to trust priests and Church leaders, and that she has grown cynical.

“While that’s something I need to work on, I have a deep love for the Church. And that’s something I need to remember, and that we all need to remember, that the Church is much bigger than any cardinal, bishop, priest, or any sort of malfunction thereof. That Christ is bigger than that.”

“What I need is action. What the Church needs is action. And my hope is the Cardinal Dolan will take action. Because when he acts, the Church will listen.”

Tags: Catholic News, Archdiocese of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Clerical sexual abuse