At least three women say the former associate pastor of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Encinitas tried to seduce them.
The allegations rocked the congregation Sunday, Dec. 16, when parishioners opened the church bulletin to find an apology from Bishop Robert McElroy “to all who were subjected to this terrible mistreatment…
“There is no room in the Church or the priesthood for this reprehensible type of misconduct,” McElroy wrote.
This message was a startling departure from the usual church bulletin fare, such as the Christmas Mass schedule and a notice about an upcoming marriage encounter retreat. McElroy, who this fall held a series of “listening sessions” for churchgoers disturbed by an ongoing clergy sexual abuse crisis, has preached the need to be more open about these scandals.
The Rev. Ben Vincent Awongo, 55, left St. John’s on Sept. 1 after the diocese received the second allegation. The first was anonymous and its author could not be found. The second came in August, and led to Awongo’s dismissal.
A member of the Missionary Order of the Apostles of Jesus, a group composed primarily of African priests, Awongo was born in Uganda. He had been working in the San Diego diocese since December 2014.
Awongo was not accused of any criminal actions, so the diocese “gave him his walking papers” after the second allegation, said diocesan spokesman Kevin Eckery.
When a third allegation surfaced in November, information was forwarded to the independent review board that examines allegations of priestly sexual misconduct. The board recommended the bishop make an announcement to St. John’s parishioners.
Word spread during Masses on the third Sunday in Advent, a season of penance and preparation for Christmas. St. John’s pastor, the Rev. Jim Bahash, solemnly addressed his congregation at the end of each service.
“Father Jim got up on the pulpit and said, ‘Listen I am not going to go into any details because there are children present. But there’s something in the bulletin,’” said Jim Chodzko, a regular churchgoer at St. John’s.
Awongo was a popular priest, parishioners said.
“I thought Father Ben was an excellent, intelligent, kind, skilled priest,” said Nancy Morgan, a licensed marriage and family therapist who has attended St. John’s for decades. “He just portrayed the best in the priesthood, from my perspective.”
Chodzko was impressed by Awongo, too — “I loved the guy,” he said — but did not fault the diocese for publicizing these allegations.
“I have full support of what the bishop is doing,” he said. “The church needs to grab onto these things and not sweep it under the rug.”
Scandals involving predator priests have dogged the Catholic church worldwide since at least 2002, when the Boston Globe conducted its “Spotlight” series. In 2007, the San Diego diocese agreed to pay a total of $198 million to 144 people who had been molested as children by priests and other church employees.
This year, a scathing grand jury report in Pennsylvania prompted numerous dioceses — including San Diego — to re-examine how they respond to clergy accused of preying on the faithful, whether children or adults.
“The bishop has to do what the bishop has to — I don’t blame him at all,” said Morgan, the therapist. “He has a responsibility in this day and age to be transparent.”
Awongo, who remains a priest in the Apostles of Jesus order, is reportedly teaching at a seminary in Kenya.
“What they are going to do, I don’t know,” Eckery said. “But his ministry in San Diego is over.”
A call to the U.S. regional superior of the Apostles of Jesus went unanswered Monday.
Awongo was ordained in 1990 in his native Uganda. He has a degree in business administration, holds a Ph.D in theology and speaks five languages: Swahili, Italian, Spanish, German and English.
At St. John’s, he was known for his insights into St. Paul’s epistles.
Vicar general of his order from 2002 through 2008, Awongo came to the U.S. in 2014, briefly serving as associate pastor at Vista’s St. Francis of Assisi and as a chaplain at Tri-City Medical Center. In January 2015, he was attached to St. Mary in El Centro, moving to St. John’s in July 2015.
In McElroy’s statement, the allegations against Awongo are described only as “aggressive advances.”
The review board examined more detailed information, Eckery said, and found the stories believable.
“There is no reason to sully someone’s reputation unless you believe it is credible,” he said. “You take seriously these kinds of allegations.”
Church officials urge anyone with information about these allegations to call Lisa Petronis, the diocesan victims assistance coordinator, at (858) 490-8353.
--Peter Rowe is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune