Reporting abuse at the cost of relationship with family and church
Ms CU told us that in late 2017, her 15-year-old niece Lupe (not her real name) was groomed by a Catholic priest. What made the abuse even more damaging was that the Catholic Church held a deeply influential place in her culture and the life of her family and community, and it abused that position of trust and authority.
“The church is a place where Tongan people congregate and share culture and faith. So much of the cultural and social aspects of Tongan life are tied up in the church. The church is so intrinsic in the way it weaves through our lives.”
Her niece was attending a family reunion, at which Sateki Raass was the officiating priest. After Lupe gave confession to Sateki, he began messaging her on Facebook and taking photos of her at the reunion on his mobile phone. He asked her to send him photos, promised to get her a mobile phone so he could continue contacting her, and persistently attempted to meet with her alone.
“I think Sateki’s behaviour was clearly grooming … My niece was only 15 years old and Sateki was a grown man that held a significant, powerful role. Nothing anyone can say to me can make what he did better, or lessen it, or excuse it. It was, and is, wrong.”
Several days after the reunion, Ms CU was shown the messages between Sateki and Lupe by another family member who had Lupe’s Facebook account on her phone. Ms CU told Sateki to stop contacting her niece. She then spoke to her niece and her family, and told them she would report it to the diocese and Police.
Less than two weeks after seeing the messages, Ms CU made a complaint to the Diocese of Auckland. A week later, Ms CU met with Nicola Timms, Professional Standards Officer of the National Office for Professional Standards, who manages the Catholic Church’s process for responding to complaints of sexual abuse. She told Ms CU to report the abuse to Police, as it was a criminal matter. She said that after the police investigation, the National Office for Professional Standards would investigate Sateki’s behaviour as a priest.
After meeting with Ms Timms, Ms CU went directly to the police station to make a separate complaint.
She later learned the church had previously received a report of abuse against Sateki. She also heard from members of the community that there had been incidents between Sateki and young women in Tonga and that he had been moved from parish to parish as his behaviour was uncovered. She heard he had children with two young women, including one child in Auckland.
“Going up against the church felt like going up against Goliath. There have been bigger people with more resources who went up against the Catholic Church and they did not get anywhere. I knew what I was up against, but I had to do it.”
Reporting the abuse to Police and the church threatened the vā or the cultural relationships between Ms CU and her family. It caused a fallout in her family and impacted their involvement in the Tongan community. Many people thought Ms CU should not have gone to Police but should have left it with the church. It brought fakamā, or shame, on her family, some of whom cut ties with her.
Ms CU explained that reporting the abuse threatened the reputation and unity of her family and the cultural dignity of her family members. Ms CU, her husband and their children ultimately lost the village and spiritual support the church provided. Ms CU told us that these things can be barriers to Pacific peoples reporting abuse. She said:
“In Tongan culture, you become almost cursed for going up against the church. If you go up against the church and do something against what everyone believes in, anything wrong that later happens in your life or any problems that arise are considered to be a result of you speaking up against the church. There is a very powerful sense of being observed and judged by the Tongan community.”
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The Catholic Church paid for a Queen’s Counsel to represent Sateki. He was convicted of indecent communication with a young person under 16 and sentenced to 100 hours of community service. At Sateki’s sentencing, his service and leadership were discussed, and the judge spoke about his good character. “It felt like he was the victim,” she said.
Ms CU was disappointed by the justice system. “I felt that the focus of what we were really in court for, my niece, was lost and we were now in court for Sateki. It felt like … we were there to protect Sateki while he made up a story to make what he did seem okay.”
In early 2020, Ms CU contacted the church to express her disappointment at its lack of empathy towards her niece and her family during and after Sateki’s sentencing. She met Bishop of Auckland Patrick Dunn and a female member of the church at the Pompallier Diocesan Centre. Bishop Dunn denied knowledge of the incidents between Sateki and other young women in Tonga, and warned her to be careful with news outlets. Bishop Dunn told us Ms CU was concerned about preserving confidentiality of her niece, and that any “warning” he gave was on the basis that media may not share her concern. Ms CU did not feel safe to ask the bishop the questions she wanted to put to him because of the location of the meeting and the one-sided way in which it was held.
Lupe has struggled to recover from the abuse and feelings of shame. Ms CU considered the church’s response woeful. “I would have wanted the church to … admit that there was a wrong and take ownership of it ... I feel that the church failed in its duty of care in every shape and form to help my niece, me and our families restore and recover.” She would like to see the church acknowledge what it has done and publicly apologise to victims and their families.
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Ms CU’s experiences will be covered in more detail in a future report summarising our inquiry into abuse among Pacific peoples.
Next: Neta Kerepeti