Court decision allows public glimpse into workings of CCCAS hierarchy

fili@samoanews.com

Last Friday’s court ruling on a complaint filed by the Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa (CCCAS) has allowed the general public a glimpse into the workings of the church, whose top leadership, the CCCAS Elders’ Committee, is usually tightlipped.

In discussion, the court highlighted the role of the CCCAS Elders’ Committee and church policy when sanctioning ordained ministers — and the guidelines it follows as laid out by the “Elders’ Resolution Book”.

The Trial Division of the High Court issued a decision June 23rd siding with CCCAS and senior church elders, who filed a complaint in early May this year, against Rev. Amaama Tofaeono and his wife, for failure to vacate the church house they occupied, after Tofaeono had his ministerial duties suspended and therefore no longer held the post of General Secretary.

The complaint was the subject of a bench trial held May 30-31, 2017.

The defendants in the case, Tofaeono and his wife, Joan, testified for the defense while  Rev. Elder Fa’aete’ete Saifoloi, vice chair of the CCCAS, testified for the plaintiffs. For rebuttal, the plaintiffs called Rev. Elder Leatulagi Fa’alevao, the Secretary of the Elders Committee. The court also received several documents as evidence.

Having heard and considered the evidence presented to the court, the judges outlined in its nine-page decision their “assessment of the facts” and their order, which allows CCCAS to take back possession of the church’s house used by Tofaeono and his family. (See yesterday’s front page story for details).

In discussion, the court notes that at its inception in 1980, CCCAS adopted a constitution to govern the activities of the church. Under the constitution, the Elders’ Committee, currently made up of 23 CCCAS reverend elders, is responsible for maintaining the “spiritual well-being of the church as well as members of the clergy”.

As part of that responsibility, the judges said, the Elders’ Committee is to “oversee all activities engaging the participation of clergy and spouses... as pertinent to their spirituality” and has authority to ordain and discipline CCCAS ministers.

The committee follows guidelines laid out in the “Elders’ Resolution Book” to make decisions pertinent to the “church’s spiritual well-being,” decisions affecting the Elders’ Committee itself and punishments for ministers.

The Resolution Book, according to the court, provides for removal of ministers “if they commit severe sins such as murder or adultery, and for removal — with a review to take place after three years — for the commission of other crimes or sins.”

The court notes that the Elders Committee manages the spiritual well-being of CCCAS throughout the year, whereas the General Assembly — comprising the Elders’ Committee, the CCCAS board members and representatives from various congregations and districts - meets once every two years.

For Rev. Tofaeono, he was elected at last July’s General Assembly to the post of General Secretary, a position which requires an ordained minister to serve for four years — in accordance with the church constitution.

The General Secretary receives a salary during his tenure and at last year’s General Assembly, Rev. Tofaeono was designated a newly renovated home, inside the Kanana Fou compound, so he could be close to the central office in case he is urgently needed by the church.

Rev. Tofaeono was given the house rent-free but was responsible for paying the utilities. However, there was no rental agreement or contract governing his stay in the house.

According to the court decision, it was in late 2016, that Mrs. Tofaeono approached Sailofoi about “marital and family discord” that she and Rev. Tofaeono were experiencing.

Saifoloi subsequently met with Rev. Tofaeono who “admitted that there was significant conflict ongoing in their marriage caused largely by his behavior”, according to the court decision, which notes that Saifoloi then met with the Rev. and Mrs. Tofaeono together and informed them that because the matter was serious and affected the spiritual well-being of the clergy, that he would notify the CCCAS board members and the Elders Committee secretary.

At a Dec. 27, 2016 meeting, the Elders’ Committee and the General Assembly chairman decided to suspend Rev. Tofaeono for four weeks with pay. Saifoloi then verbally relayed the decision to Rev. Tofaeono, who was also told that he and his family needed to vacate the house but they didn’t.

According to the court, there was a flurry of letter-writing by Rev. and Mrs. Tofaeono and the Elders’ Committee and CCCAS board members between January and February this year. Recipients on both sides either rejected the other’s letter or refused to acknowledge or respond to another’s letter.

One of the letters in February informed Rev. Tofaeono that he was now suspended for an additional period of six weeks and this time, without pay. He and his family were still required to vacate the house.

In March, the Elders’ Committee met, with all 23 members present.

At this meeting, the Elders considered the statements of witnesses and reviewed all of the defendants’ letters to the Elders’ Committee and CCCAS board members. They also considered a police report regarding Mrs. Tofaeono’s “altercation with another woman who was the subject of rumors involving” her husband.

The court noted that Rev. Tofaeono did not appear in person during the meeting because it was not part of the process that they follow. The Elders’ Committee then decided to remove Rev. Tofaeono from his position as an ordained minister for three years.

Because the CCCAS constitution requires that the General Secretary position be held by an ordained minister, the Elders’ Committee also removed Tofaeono from that position. A written notice was then delivered to the defendants, who were given Mar. 31st to vacate the CCCAS housing.

The defendants requested, and were granted, an opportunity to address the elders’ decision, but in the end the Elders’ Committee maintained its initial decision — but the defendants still refused to move out of the CCCAS house.

According to the court decision, the defense maintained that Tofaeono is still entitled to live in the house because he was not properly removed from his positions as ordained minister and General Secretary arguing that Tofaeono was denied due process by not being at the hearing by the Elders’ Committee before making their decision and because CCCAS didn’t follow its own procedure for removing CCCAS ministers.

According to the judges, Tofaeono “insists that the motive behind his removal was the perceived friction caused by his efforts to reform CCCAS travel and loan policies, and his efforts to delineate the proper scope of duties and responsibilities of the various officers of the church.”

As previously reported by Samoa News, Tofaeono testified during the two-day bench trial he was not liked much by senior CCCAS officials, because of his efforts to correct some of the problems within the CCCAS.

For example, out of control spending on a recent trip off island for CCCAS chairman Elder Rev. Eveni Mamoe and his wife — who traveled first class, and cost the CCCAS coffers about $11,000, while church policies require using a lower fare. (See Samoa News June 9 edition for details).

In their June 23rd decision, the judges say the defense has not shown that Tofaeono “was improperly terminated from his positions as an ordained minister and General Secretary.”

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