A Nigerian priest, who is pastor of a Catholic church in Waterloo, counseled a troubled woman and then used sensitive details she confided in him to manipulate her into having a sexual relationship with him that lasted more than a year, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The lawsuit names the Diocese of Belleville as the lone defendant and alleges that church officials, including Bishop Edward K. Braxton, failed to act after being told that the Rev. Osang Idagbo had taken advantage of a woman who came to him for help and was thus unfit to counsel parishioners. The lawsuit seeks in excess of $50,000 in damages.
In a statement, diocesan spokesman Msgr. John Myler said, “The Diocese of Belleville takes seriously any complaint of impropriety. It is, however, the diocese’s policy not to comment on pending litigation.”
Idagbo, the pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, could not be reached.
The plaintiff, who was named in court documents at her direction, is Laura Merleau-McGrady, 51, who is “temporarily residing in the People’s Republic of China,” where she is teaching English, according to her attorney, Jessica Arbour of Chicago.
“Yes, she has opted not to be a Jane Doe so that other women can feel empowered to come forward or to reach out to her,” Arbour said.
The lawsuit, which does not allege any criminal behavior, states that Merleau-McGrady told Braxton and Vicar General Jack McEvilly that Idagbo took advantage of her by “exploiting his position as a trusted religious figure and counsel.”
“The diocese undertook no meaningful investigation or responsive action against Idagbo, and continued to give him unfettered access to vulnerable women who came to him for spiritual guidance and counsel ...,” the lawsuit stated.
Arbour said, “No criminal acts are listed in this civil lawsuit because Illinois does not recognize the behavior outlined in the complaint as criminal.”
The complaint alleges that Idagbo, “... Eventually engaged plaintiff in sexual activity on multiple occasions including, but not limited to, sexual intercourse.” The alleged sexual contact was said to have occurred at various locations between December 2013 and July 2015, including at the rectory (or priest’s house) in Waterloo.
The court papers stated that Idagbo and Merleau-McGrady met casually in 2008 when Idagbo came to Waterloo, and after both realized that the other was fluent in French agreed to regularly have conversations in French. But the relationship, which changed into long conversations about troubles between Merleau-McGrady and her boyfriend, her health and her desire to convert to Catholicism, eventually turned to sex at Idagbo’s urgings, the lawsuit alleged.
“During the course of the religious counseling sessions, Idagbo learned sensitive, private information about plaintiff that he later used to exploit and manipulate her into a sexual relationship,” the lawsuit stated.
During this time, Idagbo showed Merleau-McGrady how to install Skype on her cellular phone and both used the free service to talk after she married the boyfriend and while he was asleep in another room, according to the suit.
There cannot be genuine consent between a parishioner and a priest. It’s just like there cannot be genuine consent between a doctor and a patient.
David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests
The lawsuit stated they talked about many things, “... including the tumultuous relationship between plaintiff and her (then) boyfriend.” The documents said Merleau-McGrady divorced her husband after Idagbo assured her that divorce would not affect her spiritual standing in the Catholic Church.
The court documents stated Merleau-McGrady sometimes accompanied Idagbo on social occasions attended by other priests.
“Idagbo often brought plaintiff around his priest colleagues, including several other priests who were assigned to and working for the diocese. The circumstances surrounding these meetings with the other priests, including the times, locations and frequency, were red flags that should have, and likely did, alert these other priests that Idagbo’s relationship with plaintiff was inappropriate and should, at the very least, be reported to and investigated by the diocese.”
During their conversations, the lawsuit stated, “Idagbo himself told plaintiff about other women with whom he was engaged in sexual relationships during the period of sexual contact (with plaintiff), including one woman who made a report to the diocese. ...”
Dave Clohessy, director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, led a small demonstration in support of Merleau-McGrady on Tuesday afternoon outside the Catholic chancery office in Belleville.
He said there should be clear lines in state law that allow persons in authority, like a priest counselor, to be charged criminally when they take advantage sexually of a person seeking guidance.
“There cannot be genuine consent between a parishioner and a priest,” Clohessy said. “It’s just like there cannot be genuine consent between a doctor and a patient.”
In a written statement, Clohessy said, “Many overlook the horrific manipulation of vulnerable parishioners by priests. But it’s widespread and devastating. Bishops must suspend clerics who violate adults or children.”
Idagbo was ordained in 2005 in Nigeria and came to the Belleville Diocese in 2008, according to SNAP. Initially he lived for a month in Braxton’s home before being assigned to Waterloo. He has been pastor at Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic Church since 2009. He is one of a dozen African priests who have come to the Belleville Diocese.
In Nigeria, he was a chaplain to a girls’ grammar school and a hostel for female college students and an associate pastor, according to his official church biography.