Top Episcopal leader in Haiti calls for new bishop election as gun trafficking scandal grips diocese

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 2, 2023

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Haiti was marked by internal divisions when Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin retired in 2019, and those divisions have only worsened in the ensuing four years.

With the standing committee serving as the interim ecclesiastical authority, the diocese, The Episcopal Church’s largest by membership, reportedly has devolved into chaos and infighting, and in July 2022, an arms trafficking scandal ensnared at least a half dozen current and former diocesan officials, including the current standing committee president. The case remains under investigation.

The Rev. Jean Madoché Vil, the standing committee president, said last month that electing a new bishop remains a priority, crucial to the survival of the diocese. Vil, however, gave no timeline or plan for holding an election.

The Rev. Jean Madoché Vil

The Rev. Jean Madoché Vil, standing committee president of the Diocese of Haiti, speaks May 9 via zoom during a diocesan synod.

“Beloved brothers and sisters, the diocese is going through a dark phase in its history, a difficult ordeal,” Vil said via Zoom in his May 9 speech to the diocesan synod. Episcopal News Service commissioned a French-to-English translation of his remarks from a video of the synod. “We believe that our church will emerge stronger and with its head held high. For the moment, the investigation of the case continues, and the standing committee is awaiting the judge’s order.”

A day later, on May 10, Haitian police announced they had taken the Rev. Fritz Désiré, a former standing committee president, into custody on charges that included arms and ammunition smuggling, according to local news reports.  That arrest followed the August 2022 arrest of the Rev. Franz Cole, the diocesan executive secretary, on similar charges.

The allegations stem from the July 2022 seizure of weapons and ammunition found in containers that had been shipped to the country under the cover of the Diocese of Haiti’s religious customs exemption status. The diocese has denied involvement in the scheme, though a local human rights organization’s investigative report says several of the arrested suspects are connected to the diocese, including Jean Mary Jean Gilles, a diocesan accountant, and Manion Saint-Germain, a diocesan messenger.

Police also have issued a warrant for the arrest of Vundla Sikhumbuzo, a Zimbabwean who was appointed in 2011 as the Diocese of Haiti’s chief of operations to manage relief and recovery efforts after the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake. Sikhumbuzo reportedly was fired in 2018 after allegedly disfiguring his wife in an acid attack. He now is accused of helping to facilitate the shipment of arms under the Diocese of Haiti’s customs exemption.

Vil, the current standing committee president, is said to be wanted for questioning, though it is unclear what crimes, if any, he is accused of committing. In his May 9 remarks at the diocesan synod, Vil didn’t address his own potential legal jeopardy but openly referred to the investigation.

“Now, more than ever, is the time to work for the truth to emerge, for light to be shed and for the guilty to be punished,” Vil said. “This dirty scandal, an embarrassing situation that we are facing today, comes at a crucial moment when the diocese is still struggling in its attempt to reconnect with the episcopate. … The standing committee intends to resume the electoral process for the election of a bishop for the good of the whole diocese.”

In a June 2018 election, the diocese chose the Very Rev. Joseph Kerwin Delicat, dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, as bishop coadjutor. That election, however, was later negated over churchwide concerns that the electoral process had been tainted by favoritism. Duracin retired on March 1, 2019, and without a bishop-elect, the standing committee assumed authority over the diocese, which counts nearly 100,000 members.

The Episcopal Diocese of Haiti’s Holy Trinity Cathedral in downtown Port-au-Prince as it stood in October 2006, a little more than three years before it was destroyed by a magnitude-7 earthquake in 2010. Photo: Dave Drachlis/Diocese of Alabama

Since then, Haiti, already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, has been further destabilized by the COVID-19 pandemic, another major earthquake in 2021 and civil unrest. An investigation by Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network notes that “the security situation in the country has worsened” since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, and this may be contributing to the rise of “the lucrative trade in arms and ammunition.”

An analysis by InSight Crime, an investigative think tank-media organization that reports on crime in Latin America, suggests the Diocese of Haiti might have been an easy, if unwitting, target for arms traffickers.

“The church’s international infrastructure and customs status make it an attractive option for traffickers looking to take increasingly powerful weapons into a country already neck-deep in gang-fueled violence,” InSight Crime wrote last October. “Whether the Episcopal Church of Haiti is responsible for the arms trafficking attempted under its name remains unclear. But the church’s name, prestige, and the shielding it enjoys from strict oversight are enticing to criminal actors.”

The diocese defended itself shortly after the July 2022 seizure in a press release quoted by local news site Haiti Libre. “The Episcopal Church of Haiti denounces the unfounded rumors associating it with the importation of illegal weapons into the country,” the diocese said. It also pledged “its full cooperation to the authorities constituted for this purpose.”

Some reports indicate that Vil has personally cooperated with the investigation. The National Human Rights Defense Network says Vil voluntarily appeared before the Central Directorate of Judicial Police in August 2022 for a daylong hearing and was released, only to learn later that a prosecutor’s office had issued a warrant against him. The Haitian human rights network’s report does not specify any charges against Vil.

Some Episcopalians have urged The Episcopal Church to play a greater role in resolving the turmoil in the Diocese of Haiti, though churchwide officials’ ability to intervene may be limited by the church’s Constitution and Canons. On May 7, Bishop Todd Ousley, who heads the church’s Office for Pastoral Development, sent a letter addressed to Vil saying he was “pleased to learn” that the standing committee was convening a diocesan synod. The contents of the letter were first reported by The Living Church.

Ousley’s letter notes that the diocese had been unable to hold a synod for several years, because of “a variety of difficult circumstances,” including the pandemic.

“Now that the Diocese of Haiti will convene a synod for the transaction of canonical business, I pray that you will make a priority of electing a Standing Committee with appropriate and full participation by the clergy and laity of the Diocese,” said Ousley, whose office assists dioceses with bishop transitions. His May 7 letter does not discuss a potential bishop election in Haiti.

Many Haitians have settled in the United States as part of a decades-long migration, and some Haitians and Haitian-Americans have interpreted the letter as legitimizing Vil at a time when the standing committee president is under the cloud of a criminal investigation.

“If [Vil] knew that he was innocent, why did he spend almost four months in hiding?” the Rev. Nathanael Saint-Pierre said in an interview with ENS, referencing rumors that Vil had been dodging prosecutors’ arrest warrant. Saint-Pierre is a native of Haiti who now serves as rector of St. Augustine of Hippo Episcopal Church in New York City.

There is no indication that the standing committee has or plans to elect anyone other than Vil as president. Last month’s synod elected three new standing committee members, but “the same corrupt people are trying to maintain their control over the diocese,” Saint-Pierre said.

The Ven. Fritz Bazin, another priest originally from Haiti, told ENS he sees the turmoil in his home diocese as a battle between two factions made up of Episcopalians who either were aligned with or opposed to the former bishop, Duracin.

“Both camps have to realize that there is no way things are going to work unless they prepare to compromise,” said Bazin, who now serves in the Diocese of Southeast Florida as archdeacon for immigration and social justice.

Bazin argued that any criminal allegations against Vil have yet to be proven. That said, Bazin has learned from Episcopalians he knows in Haiti that some are trying to persuade Vil to step aside and allow the two factions to compromise on a plan for the fair election of a new bishop.

“Every participant, lay and ordained, is thirsty for that,” Bazin said, calling Vil a “stumbling block” to those efforts.

Saint-Pierre, however, doesn’t think it would be possible under current conditions for the Diocese of Haiti to hold a bishop election that would resolve the diocese’s ongoing problems. Instead, he thinks the Haiti Standing Committee needs to seek a provisional bishop, with assistance from the church’s Office of Pastoral Development, to guide the diocese through this transitional phase.

“The path Haiti is on cannot be resolved only by Haitians,” Saint-Pierre said. “Unfortunately, what is happening right now is beyond our ability to resolve issues. There should be some kind of intervention.”

In a written statement originally released to The Living Church, Ousley defended his May 7 letter to Vil.

“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,” Ousley said. “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.”

Ousley, through a church spokeswoman, declined to comment further for this story.

Vil referenced Ousley’s letter in his May 9 remarks to the diocesan synod. “The standing committee takes this opportunity to extend special greetings from the Office of Pastoral Development Office,” Vil said. The office “has renewed its prayers, its support for the diocese within the limits of canonical prescriptions.”

Vil concluded his speech with an appeal for cooperation over division. “Let us convert, make peace with ourselves,” he said. “Let us be reconciled sincerely and return to the truth of the Gospel. May God bless us and keep us, may he guide us in all things and preserve his church from the forces of evil.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at