Utah Tongan church dispute moves to federal court
An insurer is asking a federal judge to sort out whose legals bills it is obligated to pay in a dispute over control of the assets of a Tongan Methodist church congregation.
In a new complaint filed in U.S. District Court for Utah, the Church Mutual Insurance Company of Wisconsin says it has determined that a policy issued in January 2010 requires it to potentially pay limited legal fees for Etimani Ma'Afu, who was elected as president of the Tongan United Methodist Church in January, but not for the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church both of whom are battling a newly formed church entity.
The schism and resulting legal battle began after Filimone Havili Mone, 60, the former pastor of the Tongan United Methodist Church, was charged in December 2012 with one class B misdemeanor count of failure to report child abuse. Mone allegedly failed to act after learning a 14-year-old boy had sexually abused other boys in the congregation.
The Rocky Mountain Conference removed Mone from his post in November, allegedly without any explanation to the church's congregation. That led a majority of displeased church members to approve changing the name of the Tongan United Methodist Church to Salt Lake City Laumalie Ma'oni'oni Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, elect a new board and modify its articles of incorporation.
The Conference sided with the minority members who remained with the Tongan United Methodist Church and opposed the changes.
The Free Wesleyan Church filed the first legal foray, alleging in a lawsuit in state court that Ma'Afu was improperly claiming authority over the church's assets. The Conference filed a counterclaim asserting ownership and control of the church's charter and assets. In April, the Conference and the Tongan United Methodist Church jointly sued the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga and its principals, alleging a breach of fiduciary duty in setting up their unaffiliated congregation.
Meanwhile, on July 16 a West Valley City Justice Court judge approved a diversion agreement that requires Mone to complete 50 hours of community service, canceling a trial that was to take place in August. The 14-year-old perpetrator was found guilty of sexual abuse of a child and is in a juvenile detention facility, where he may remain until he is 21.