A Belleville Catholic Diocese parish in southeastern Illinois is without a priest following a controversy involving a church laptop computer that was found to have pornography on it, according to a parish leader.
The Rev. Bernardine Nganzi, who is originally from Uganda, has not been at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Lawrenceville for several months, parishioners said.
The computer was removed from the priest’s office in the church rectory, or living quarters, by local church officials as part of an investigation, according to Larry Pulleyblank, president of the St. Lawrence Catholic Church parish council. Pulleyblank said he was told by a representative of Bishop Edward K. Braxton that the investigation of the computer turned up no child-related sexual images. It was turned over to the diocese and examined by the FBI in October or November.
“There was no child pornography,” said Pulleyblank. He said he personally saw icons on the screen that indicated there was pornography on the computer, but did not view the videos.
Nganzi, whom Pulleyblank said is residing at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Flora, about 45 miles west of Lawrenceville, could not be reached.
Braxton declined to answer written questions submitted by the News-Democrat. In a statement, the bishop’s assistant, the Rev. John Myler, said the laptop was not the personal property of Nganzi. He said the computer was available to others in the church office and was kept “on a table in an unlocked office” with the password posted on a bulletin board.
Professionals carefully checked the computer and found no evidence of child pornography.
The Rev. John Myler, assistant to Bishop Braxton
“Professionals carefully checked the computer and found no evidence of child pornography,” Myler wrote. “Nor has it been determined who used the computer inappropriately. There is evidence to suggest that on several occasions this may have happened when the priest parish administrator was in the church celebrating Sunday Mass.”
Dave Clohessy, executive director of the St. Louis-based Survivor’s Network of Those Abused by Priests, said a St. Lawrence Church parishioner called him about the pornography. He said the caller told him that the pornography consisted of graphic sex depicting teenage girls, including videos with the titles “Asian Teens Having Sex” and others.
Clohessy said he called Special Agent Joe Murphy at the FBI’s Fairview Heights office about the images last fall and related the telephone description of the pornography at length.
“The caller made it crystal clear that these were girls. These were young females. Teen age Asian girls,” said Clohessy, who said his information came solely from the caller. He said the caller gave a name and phone number. He declined to identify the person.
“The one thing you can tell from the titles of the videos is that whoever was searching for them was searching for pornography and teen girls,” Clohessy said.
Jim Porter, acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, said he could neither confirm nor deny that an investigation had taken place.
Who downloaded the pornography?
According to a former personal secretary to Nganzi, the priest considered the laptop to be for his exclusive use.
“I never saw anyone else use his computer except when he asked for help because he had a (computer) problem,” said Joyce Brunson, a church member and volunteer who served for a year as Nganzi’s unpaid secretary.
“We all knew it was his personal laptop. We in the office had access to another computer that was for our use,” Brunson said.
Pulleyblank also said the computer was considered to be Nganzi’s.
A notice on the bulletin board in the lobby of the church in Lawrenceville, posted by a church financial official, stated that after the laptop was taken, Nganzi insisted that the parish buy him a replacement. One was purchased for $1,300, according to the public notice. The new computer was not present last week when a reporter toured the office, which also served as the rectory.
As for the first laptop, Pulleyblank said, “We were told to do nothing with it and send it to Belleville as soon as possible, and that’s what we did.” The chancery, or diocesan headquarters, is located in Belleville.
Pulleyblank said he and Deacon Steven Andrews first took the laptop to a computer store in Albion that made a written record of the titles found on the hard drive. Pulleyblank said he did not have a copy of the written computer record.
Andrews declined to comment.
Pulleyblank said that after the computer was taken from Nganzi’s office, Nganzi called and insisted that it be returned to him. He said the laptop recently was returned to the parish.
“But the hard drive has been stripped,” he said.
This is the second recent controversy involving a Catholic priest from another country in the Belleville Diocese.
Another Belleville Diocese priest, the Rev. Peter Balili, was removed recently and sent home to the Philippines, according to a U.S. Conference of Bishops notice and the Associated Press.
Balili was the former pastor of St. Andrew Catholic Church in Christopher and St. Mary Catholic Church in Sesser, near Rend Lake. The diocese has declined to say why he was removed. Before arriving in Illinois, he was dismissed from a parish in Northern California over improper Facebook contact with students.
Computer addressed at closed meeting
Braxton earlier addressed the computer issue in a letter read by a local priest during a closed-door meeting for parishioners Dec. 10 at the church in Lawrenceville.
Prior to the meeting, while a News-Democrat reporter was en route to the parish about 145 miles east of Belleville, a diocesan representative called the newspaper’s newsroom and said that if the reporter showed up at the meeting, it would be canceled. Parishioners had been told that Braxton would be at the meeting, but he did not show.
The reporter was not allowed inside, but was given permission to stand in the church lobby and ask questions of parishioners afterward. Andrews, the deacon, said the meeting was closed “on orders of the bishop.” He declined further comment.
The Rev. Clyde Grogan, a retired priest who resides in Belleville, and the Rev. George Mauck, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Carlyle, both said they attended the closed session and took notes.
Afterward, the priests consolidated their notes and provided a copy to the BND. There were 113 parishioners at the session, who were told the bishop was on his way. Instead, the Rev. Mark Stec, the pastor of Holy Cross Church in Newton, read a statement from the bishop that, according to Grogan and Mauck, stated that the computer was in a public place where anyone could have used it to search for pornography. Stec said he could not answer questions and could not allow the bishop’s letter to be copied. He did allow parishioners to make comments during the meeting.
According to the priests’ notes, Braxton wrote that “nothing could be proven from the computer to connect Father Bernardine Nganzi, since the doors in the rectory are not locked, (and) his password was on the bulletin board.”
On March 3, when a reporter went to the rectory and offices at the church, the door was locked. A receptionist allowed entry. Inside was a small lobby with a surveillance camera and in Nganzi’s office, which was just past a receptionist’s desk, another surveillance camera was mounted over the priest’s desk. The password had been on a small bulletin board in Naganzi’s office that was concealed when the door was opened. The receptionist said all doors to the rectory, which also contains the priest’s living quarters, were routinely locked during all hours and have been for years.
The laptop was removed sometime in September or October. A copy of the parish council minutes obtained by the News-Democrat from Oct. 20, after the computer was removed, reads, “Rectory is being re-keyed to put new locks with electric code on doors.” Parish council meetings are closed to the public and the minutes are confidential.
Gay Kavanaugh, who said she has been a member of St. Lawrence Church parish for 40 years, said she attended a meeting in January at the church while Braxton was there to say Mass. She said Braxton told parishioners, “If you’ll stay, we’re going to have a talk.” Kavanaugh said about 30 or 40 parishioners stayed for the session, which turned out to be about the computer.
Kavanaugh said she voiced a number of complaints involving Nganzi and other matters, and told Braxton that she was concerned about $50,000 in church expenses for which there did not appear to be any accounting.
“I told him I called the chancery but it was like a broken record. I was told again and again, ‘Mrs. Kavanaugh, we understand your concern, but no further action will be taken.’”
Kavanaugh said she asked Braxton that if the chancery would not act, “Where do we go with our problems?” She said he did not respond.
Bishop Braxton made it abundantly clear that if we did not accept Father Bernie, we do not have another priest for you.
Gay Kavanaugh, longtime parishioner
“When people asked him about the computer, he tried to turn it against them. He said, ‘You saw this? You heard this?’ He tried to make it seem like it was their fault,” she said.
At one point, Braxton saw a man taking notes and asked him to leave, Kavanaugh said. “He said he wouldn’t allow any reporters in the meeting but the man said that he wasn’t a reporter and was just taking notes for himself, and was allowed to stay,” Kavanaugh said.
“Bishop Braxton made it abundantly clear that if we did not accept Father Bernie, we do not have another priest for you,” Kavanaugh said. “I hope Father Bernie doesn’t come back. No priest is better than him.”
Dixie Reyes, who said she has been a member of St. Lawrence Church for decades, said she attended the Dec. 10 meeting where the bishop’s letter was read.
“I said I was tired of being talked down to and was not going to be told by the bishop or anyone else that I can’t talk about matters that concern the parish. I said Father (Nganzi) was not there when he was needed pastorally and would not be accepted if he should return.”
Grogan, the retired priest, said dozens of people stood up during the December meeting and made critical comments concerning Nganzi, but only one person said she supported the priest.
“She was the only one who said something that was met by silence instead of applause,” Grogan said.
Statement of the Diocese of Belleville
March 7, 2016
The Diocese of Belleville is vigilant in its concern for the welfare of the Faithful. When there is clear evidence that someone ministering in the Diocese has used their computer for the purpose of viewing pornography, the matter is addressed promptly.
The computer in this case is not the personal computer of the Priest Parish Administrator. It belongs to the parish. It was kept on a table in the unlocked office of the Priest Parish Administrator and the password was posted on a nearby bulletin board. Hence, several people had access to the computer and to the password.
Professionals carefully checked the computer and found no evidence of child pornography. Nor has it been determined who used the computer inappropriately. There is evidence to suggest that on several occasions this may have happened when the Priest Parish Administrator was in the church celebrating Sunday Mass.
Parishioners of a parish are free to have meetings concerning internal matters to which others who are not parishioners are not invited. In a similar way, the Bishop of the Diocese is always free to have meetings with his parishioners to which only parishioners are invited. Such meetings do not violate transparency, for "transparency" does not mean that individuals who are not members of the parish are entitled to participate in every meeting of a parish community and know the details of every topic discussed during those meetings.
Just as a protestation of innocence does not mean a person is not guilty of wrongdoing, so also allegations of wrongdoing do not mean a person is guilty. When there is no evidence that a civil law has been broken, such matters should be investigated carefully with due regard to the reputation and good name of everyone involved. The presumption of innocence must always yield to the evidence of guilt; the presumption of guilt must always yield to the evidence of innocence. Public statements are made about these matters, when or if there is clarity about what did or did not happen.