By Kirk Petersen
The recent arrest of a former top official of the Diocese of Haiti is just the latest sign of catastrophic dysfunction in the largest diocese of the Episcopal Church.
Haiti has not been led by a bishop for nearly five years, because the outgoing bishop was credibly accused of manipulating an election to install his preferred successor.
In the absence of a bishop diocesan, the ecclesiastical authority of any diocese passes to the diocesan Standing Committee. The Rev. Mardoché Vil, who heads that committee in Haiti, is a fugitive, accused by Haitian police of trafficking weapons into a country where murderous gangs are better armed than the police.
The previous president of the Standing Committee, the Rev. Fritz Désiré, was arrested May 9 on similar charges.
Still being sought for arms trafficking is Vundla Sikhumbuzo, a Zimbabwean who worked as chief of operations for the diocese from 2011 until 2018. Vundla, who has been identified in multiple news reports as an international arms trafficker, was dismissed in 2018 after he allegedly attacked his wife with acid, leaving her disfigured. However, Vundla allegedly received several deposits of US$30,000 or more from the diocese as late as 2021.
These allegations began coming to light in August 2022, when the diocesan executive secretary and an accountant working for the diocese were arrested on arms-trafficking charges.
Virtually none of this has been reported in American news media. Most of the information comes from articles on Haitian news websites, some of them machine-translated from French.
Bishop Todd Ousley of the Office of Pastoral Development is the Church Center’s liaison with the Diocese of Haiti. In an email addressed to Vil on May 7, Ousley supported plans for a diocesan synod, or convention, to elect new members of the Standing Committee.
Ousley’s expression of support was denounced as “immoral and unacceptable” by the director general of the well-respected St. Vincent’s Center, an Episcopal institution that has provided educational opportunities and job training to children with disabilities since 1945.
“In encouraging President Vil to organize the Synod, [Ousley] did not underline anything about the current context in which Father Mardoché Vil is up to now being sought and pursued by the National Police of Haiti,” wrote the Rev. Irnel Duveaux in a letter to the St. Vincent’s board, which was forwarded to TLC by a priest in the diocese. Duveaux did not respond to a request for comment.
Ousley declined to be interviewed for this article. Public Affairs Officer Amanda Skofstad released a copy of the May 7 email, which appears at the bottom of this article.
“The point of the letter was to address the need for a synod to elect or re-elect members of the standing committee,” Skofstad said. “Since the current occupant of the office of president of the standing committee is Vil, the letter could only be addressed to him. Any use of the letter to promote political agendas within the Diocese of Haiti would be a misuse of the letter.”
She also released the following statement from Ousley:
“To the best of our knowledge, Père Jean Mardoché Vil is the duly elected standing committee president for the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti, and the validity of his service in that office is a matter to be determined by the diocese through its synod. As always, the clergy and people of the Diocese of Haiti are being held in prayer as they face various challenges within the church and Haitian society.”
However, two senior priests in the diocese have written to the national Department of Religious Affairs to say that a rival Provisional Standing Committee was elected by the clergy of the diocese in April. The six-person ad hoc committee was created to provide “honest and credible interlocutors without criminal records, capable of ensuring a responsible transition and doing everything possible to restore the image of this institution tarnished by the actions of a group of mercenaries.”
The letter, which also appears at the bottom of this article, names Duveaux, two other priests, and three lay people as members of the ad hoc committee. The letter provides an accounting, by name, of the votes cast for and against the committee by 59 priests in the diocese, and reports that 54 percent of the priests approved the committee.
Unsafe conditions have deteriorated in Haiti since the June 2021 assassination of President Jovenal Moïse. Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who was allegedly involved in the assassination, has since served as acting president.
“Violent gangs have effectively seized control of large swathes of the country,” according to a recent United Nations report, and rival gangs have engaged in armed combat, sexual violence, and kidnapping. Vigilantes have recently begun targeting the gangs. The BBC reports that 13 suspected gang members were beaten and burned to death in Port-au-Prince, the capital, in April.
The Diocese of Haiti reports nearly 98,000 baptized members, making it more than 30 percent larger by that measure than the Diocese of Texas, which ranks second. Because of societal violence and diocesan infighting, Haiti has had virtually no influence in recent years in the governance of the broader church.
The diocese has, however, had a remarkably broad role in Haitian society. The diocese owns more than 250 schools, as well as hospitals and higher-education facilities. L’Université Episcopale d’Haïti (UNEPH) educates about 2,500 students.
Haiti Letter to Pere Vil 5.7.23 by Kirk Petersen on Scribd
Ad Hoc Committee by Kirk Petersen on Scribd