The Catholic Church has been forced to apologise to outraged parents who only learned their parish priest had been convicted of sex offences through a story on Stuff.

Published in Stuff

Sosefo Sateki Raass quit the priesthood after pleading guilty to indecent communication with a person under 16 in March 2019. He was sentenced to 100 hours community service. But not until Stuff reported his offending this month did his parishioners, and the board and parents of two schools in his pastoral care, learn why he’d left.

One parent of a Marist student said he was “irate” that the church had once again opted to cover up, rather than be open about offending by its priests.

Raass admitted possessing semi-nude photographs of a teenage girl, which she had sent to him over Facebook. He was initially stood down, then applied to be laicised.

Raass was parish priest of St Mary’s, in Mount Albert, Auckland, and the local schools, Marist Primary and Marist College, both fell under his pastoral care.

But neither the parish, nor the two schools, were ever told by the Catholic diocese of Auckland about Raass’ offending – only his suspension.

The schools and the parish collectively complained to the Bishop of Auckland, Patrick Dunn. Marist Primary board chair Catherine Gilchrist wrote a note to parents saying they had conveyed “our disappointment around the poor communication and lack of transparency from the diocese”.

In his letter of response, Dunn described Raass’ offending as “some inappropriate text messaging”.

“With hindsight, I regret that you were not given more information from us at the time,” Dunn wrote, saying the diocese felt legally constrained about commenting while it was before the courts. “I apologise for the hurt and disappointment this may have caused.”

Dunn added: “It is most regrettable that many of you learned of this from the media.”

His letter was circulated to parishioners, and to parents, by the three bodies who received it. Gilchrist’s message to parents said the school board took Raass’ offending very seriously and were praying for the victim. Her note said they were “surprised and dismayed to find out about this for the first time when it was published on Stuff”.

Gilchrist’s letter said while the church told the school’s former principal of the police investigation in January 2018, the board was not informed, and neither the schools nor the parish were told of his eventual conviction 14 months later.

St Mary’s parish had a short note in their parish bulletin saying they had “requested an urgent response” from the diocese.

Dave Wood, chair of the parish’s pastoral council said: “We’re happy with the outcome. He [Dunn] has written to us and addressed the [issue].

“It is a diocese matter rather than a parish matter, so it is up to them how they handle it [but] we would have liked to have been informed earlier. We understood they couldn’t divulge everything because of the suppression orders, but we advised them it would have been nice to learn about it before the story was published.”

The disgruntled parent said he was pleased with the school board’s response, but disgusted with the diocese’s approach. “It’s another partial sorry when they’ve been caught out,” he said.

“It is ridiculous they did not inform us. The letter is the weakest thing I’ve seen in some time: it’s apologising for how we feel.

“I’m irate: it is classic Catholic obstruction and disinformation; hiding the facts and the truth and it’s the reason why the Catholic church continues to be in trouble. Until there’s systematic change at the top of the church, they are going to be in this mess for a long time.”

Auckland Catholic diocese spokeswoman Lyndsay Freer said Dunn did not want to be interviewed but would consider written questions.

Our questions included asking what legal advice Dunn had taken to lead him to decide not to tell parishioners, what he would do differently in the future, and whether he thought describing Raass’ actions as “inappropriate text messaging” served to minimise his offending.

In response, Freer provided a statement saying: “The bishop believes that this letter is self-explanatory, and covers the questions you raise. The bishop is happy to meet personally with anyone who wants further clarification.”

By Steve Kilgallon
Published in Stuff
16 February 2020