Courts • Brawling, fraud probe and litigation follow the Tongan United Methodist Church split.
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West Valley City • The former pastor of the Tongan United Methodist Church was charged Wednesday with failing to report child abuse.
Meanwhile, his former congregation, now fractured into two distinct groups the Methodists and the Wesleyan Tongans is headed to civil court to duke it out over who should have access to the property and money that belonged to his former flock.
Filimone Havili Mone, 59, faces one count of failure to report abuse of a child, a class B misdemeanor, in West Valley City Justice Court.
The sexual abuse charge stems from the longtime pastor's failure to promptly report a crime when he allegedly learned that young boys in the congregation had been sexually abused by an older boy several years ago. It ultimately led to his removal by national leaders of the United Methodist Church (UMC) for violating the church's mandatory abuse reporting policy. But local church members say Mone's departure was the catalyst for a deep schism within the congregation of an estimated 600 members.
The frustrations last week caused the Tongan United Methodist Church to split into two factions the Methodists and the Wesleyan Tongans.
That schism has turned ugly during recent weeks as church members found themselves pitted against one another. West Valley City police have been called to the church , 1553 W. Crystal Ave. (2590 South), nearly a dozen times in recent months to keep the peace during Sunday services. Police report there is an active fraud investigation going on at the church and they have broken up at least one brawl in the parking lot between the family of the now-16-year-old abuser and one of his victim's families.
The abuse • Juvenile court records paint a stark picture of sexual abuse that allegedly went unreported for months behind the Tongan Methodist Church's doors.
On one occasion, the perpetrator, then about 14, asked an 8-year-old boy if he wanted to play "a game," which involved performing oral sex on the teen. In another incident, the teen lined children up so each could take a turn performing oral sex on him, according to charging documents.
A 13-year-old boy also reported that he and the abuser had repeatedly performed oral sex on each other at various locations around the church.
The abuser has been sentenced to secure confinement in a juvenile detention facility, possibly until he is 21, for sexual abuse of a child, a second-degree felony.
The Salt Lake Tribune does not typically identify youths charged with crimes. Officials say the teen is related to Mone's family.
When national UMC leaders got wind of the allegations, they reportedly immediately placed Mone on leave and, in November, permanently removed him from his post.
The move infuriated church members because national leaders refused to explain why Mone had been removed and would not communicate with the congregation, said attorney Hutch Fale, who is representing the Wesleyan contingent of the church.
"They were left in the dark," Fale said. "It was a situation they said was unfortunately too familiar. They were basically treated like little children when they asked questions."
Civil suit • About 77 percent of the 400 members of the Tongan United Methodist Church who recently voted in a mail ballot opted to change the church's name to the Salt Lake City Laumalie Ma'oni'oni Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, Fale said.
"[There's] a feeling," Fale said, "that the [UMC] based in another state is not able to relate and meet the needs of this particular cultural congregation the way it should be."
But that move has prompted a battle that's spilled into 3rd District Court over access to the church's money and property as the Wesleyans sued to prevent their former Methodist congregants from access to church funds, typically used for upkeep of church property.
Fale said the UMC leadership knows the congregation is dissatisfied but has taken no steps to attempt to repair the breach.
"I hate to see churches go through this type of thing," said Steve Goodier, a United Methodist Church superintendent in Colorado. "It's about power. It always is."
He said the UMC has brought in a new interim pastor, the Rev. Gary Grundman, who specializes in working toward healing. He's been tasked with helping the youths and the congregation heal from the abuse, re-establishing trust and helping transition the church toward a permanent Tongan pastor.
"This has really been kind of messy," Goodier said of the schism.
He said, that typically if church members are dissatisfied with a decision, they'll change churches or start their own. They don't usually try to take over the church assets in order to start a new church of a different denomination.
Temporary order • Third District Judge Anthony Quinn denied a proposed temporary restraining order that would have made it impossible for the local Methodist members to access church money. Another hearing is set for Jan. 22.
Meanwhile, Fale said, Quinn issued an order regarding three issues:
• The congregation does not have to pay any UMC pastor whom they did not select.
• Church funds can be used only to pay utilities on the church property.
• The two groups must set a schedule when they share the church.
That means when the Wesleyan group hires its own pastor, the church will have two pastors and two church services.
"This dissonance group [the Wesleyans] will meet at another time until we get this thing sorted out," Goodier said. "Kind of like dueling banjos. They're going to have to figure out a way to live together until this issue is decided in the courts."
However, Fale said his side hasn't ruled out staying within the established church. He said members just want to have input in their own spiritual future, and that includes helping select the new permanent minister.
"I don't think they have closed the door on anything," Fale said. "They just want to hold their future, their destiny, in their own hands."