A priest convicted of grooming a teenage girl to send him nude photos was the subject of a previous complaint that was covered up by the Tongan Catholic Church.

The victim’s aunt and an abuse survivors’ group said it showed the church should have prevented Sosefo Sateki Raass’ offending.

The Tongan church gave Raass a good character reference before he moved to Auckland, where he was convicted in 2019 of indecent communication with a person under 16 and subsequently quit the priesthood.

But a complaint had been lodged about Raass in 2006, and the head of the Tongan church, Cardinal Soane Patita Paini Mafi, admitted there were repeated rumours about Raass’ behaviour.

Published in Stuff

The late Bishop of Tonga, John Foliaki, signed a statement of good character before Raass’ formal transfer to Auckland. But Mafi, who replaced Foliaki after Raass had left the kingdom, said he subsequently had several conversations with Auckland bishop Patrick Dunn about those rumours.

He said Dunn “hesitated” in sending Raass for further academic studies after also fielding concerns, which Dunn denied.

In 2014, Dunn handled another complaint about Raass having an inappropriate relationship while in Auckland, which he resolved by sending the priest for counselling.

Raass was still serving as parish priest of St Mary’s in Mt Albert, when he groomed a 15-year-old girl who was visiting from Tonga. Raass sent messages suggesting he would take the girl to a hotel to swim in the pool and drink alcohol, asked for a “sexy” photo, told her she looked “hot hot hot” and planned to sneak her a mobile phone.

The church paid for a QC to represent Raass, who initially denied his offending, and fought a classification of the images he solicited as objectionable.

Mafi searched the Tongan diocese records after an enquiry from Stuff. Among those were letters from Foliaki to Immigration NZ in 2005 and 2006 supporting Raass’ stay in Auckland.

There was also a letter dated June 2005, sent to Raass and copied to Foliaki, from a parishioner. Mafi described it as an “urgent direct pleading from a concerned dedicated member of the parish for Raass to repent and stop his alleged sexual relationships that seemed to have been known by people in parishes he was working at”.

Mafi said it was “very likely’’ Foliaki would have sent Raass for counselling or on a retreat as the Tongan church didn’t have a formal professional standards policy at the time.

He said it was “unfortunate” there was no record of other correspondence between Dunn and Foliaki about Raass.

“To me, it was very likely that the ‘rumour’ on Raass must have reached Foliaki way back then … the so-called ‘rumours’ about Raass were around already then and Tonga is a very small place.”

Catholicism is a minority faith in Tonga, which only has about 26 active priests.

Mafi, who was overseas from 1998 to 2007, replaced the ailing Foliaki in 2008. Raass then asked Mafi if he could stay permanently in New Zealand. Mafi said “by these times of course I began to hear some ‘rumours’ about Raass, again without formal and evidential information available” but presumed they had been handled by Foliaki.

He met Raass, who had been seeing counsellors, and set an “essential condition” that he have sessions with a professional counsellor. He said he also discussed Raass with Dunn: “I recall a few occasions where we talked with Dunn and mentioned both the potential of Raass as a gifted person, as well as for the ‘rumours’ that we had both seemed to have heard from people.”

“I’m sure Dunn was doing his very best too and especially in hesitating in sending Raass for his planned further studies since more ‘rumours’ were coming up again at the time.”

Mafi said the Tongan church had learned from the Raass affair and had new professional standards guidelines.

Auckland Diocese spokeswoman Lyndsay Freer​ said Dunn recalled conversations with Mafi about the rumours, but said he was told there was insufficient evidence to substantiate them.

He had received a formal clearance from Foliaki in May 2006 to say there had been no complaints and at that time, had heard no rumours or “information to suggest any untoward behaviour”.

Only in 2014 when a woman complained about Raass did Dunn have “information of his breaches of moral and professional standards”. A Professional Standards Committee required him to undertake professional counselling, and the complaint was withdrawn. Raass was warned a second complaint would cause his permanent withdrawal from ministry.

Freer claimed Dunn was “deeply disappointed and saddened that this has led to the suffering of the young woman and her family, and is very sorry for the harm that has been caused to them”.

However, the victim’s aunt said Dunn and Raass had never apologised to the family directly.

The church has consistently defended its handling of the Raass case, which included Dunn originally planning to not inform school communities, to allow Raass to say masses after his arrest, and to initially bail him to a church presbytery attached to a primary school grounds despite a bail condition prohibiting contact with under-16s. In their in-house journal, CathNews, Freer described Stuff’s coverage as “unfairly skewed”.

The aunt, who gave evidence to the Royal Commission on State-based Care, said: “The most basic thing that the Auckland Diocese could have done to prevent the offending against my niece was to address the previous complaints with integrity and actual consequences.

“Knowing that there were previous complaints and rumours, the Auckland Diocese should have prevented Raass from engaging in active ministry here.

“Had something been done about earlier complaints and concerns raised about Raass, then we would not be in the position we were in with my niece – she and her family and our family could have been spared from all of this.”

Murray Heasley, spokesman for the Network of Survivors of Abuse in Faith-based Institutions and their Supporters, said Dunn had to shoulder blame: “Cardinal Mafi warned Bishop Dunn that Raass was a problem. Dunn should have nipped this in the bud.

“Instead, he ignored the warning and empowered and enabled Raass.

“Worse, he wrapped the massive resources of the church around the perpetrator after he was outed and in so doing, devastated innocent people he was obliged to protect.”

Heasley said Dunn had played a part in causing cultural shame for the family, and ought to have paid compensation and given a public apology.

By Steve Kilgallon
Published in Stuff
3 Oct 2021