Church trial finds former Utah pastor guilty of violating denominational law

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A former pastor at the troubled Tongan United Methodist Church in West Valley City, the Rev. Filimone Havili Mone, has been found guilty in a church trial of violating denominational law for failing to timely report suspected sexual abuse by a boy in the congregation.

As part of the verdict, the jury voted unanimously to terminate Mone’s United Methodist membership. He retains his ordination in the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, an independent Methodist denomination.

The verdict was delivered last week by a jury of 13 United Methodist clergy at the end of a two-day trial in Longmont, Colo., a church news release says. In a church trial, an individual responds to a charge or charges of having violated denominational law, as set forth in the church’s Book of Discipline, according to the release.

“I felt the case itself was clear and concise and the evidence before us was reliable and relevant,” the Rev. Ron Hodges, counsel for the United Methodist Church, said in the release.

The Rev. Keith Watson, who served as Mone’s counsel, said he was disappointed in the outcome but commended the jurors for their “careful, and probably painful, deliberations.”

Mone could not be reached for comment. Outside of church duties, he was a familiar face during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, when he served as a torchbearer.

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Mone was suspended in August 2012 while officials investigated complaints against him, which were not made public at the time. The Rev. Eddie Kelemeni, a retired pastor living in Hawaii, was appointed by Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky to fill in at the West Valley City church, 1553 W. Crystal Ave. (2590 South).

About six weeks after Mone’s suspension, approximately 150 members of the 600-strong congregation demonstrated in his support. Stanovsky, who is based in the Denver area, then wrote a letter to the congregation saying Mone had been removed from his position for failing to promptly report that young boys had been sexually abused by an older boy at the West Valley City church,

Stanovsky said in her letter that effective Nov. 15, 2012, she intended to close the complaints against Mone and end his appointment to the church, which is named Laumalie Ma’oni’oni.

The bishop — saying “Tongan culture has a way of bringing individuals and families together for conversation as a part of the healing process” — wrote that Mone “acted to try to heal the harm of abuse in a way that did not fulfill the expectations of The United Methodist Church and fell short of the professional standards for clergy in the United States.”

She said the complaints against Mone focused on shortcomings of his pastoral leadership after learning of the abuse allegation and his refusal to respect the authority of her office.

After the church trial, Stanvosky said in the news release that the jury’s decision recognizes that Mone’s actions conflict with the values and practices of The United Methodist Church.

“We are sorry to lose this friend and colleague, who has served among us for many years,” Stanvosky said, “but know that God continues to work in this life.”

Mone was charged in December 2012 with one class B misdemeanor count of failure to report child abuse. A West Valley City Justice Court judge later approved a diversion agreement that required Mone to complete 50 hours of community service. A 14-year-old boy was found guilty of sexual abusing a child in the congregation and sent to a juvenile detention facility, where he could remain until he is 21.

The situation created tension in the congregation, which erupted when members gathered at the church for the first time since learning why Mone had been suspended. Someone pulled the fire alarm during the Nov. 18, 2012, service and the members filed out to the parking lot. Words were exchanged, a drink and flip-flops were thrown and some church members engaged in pushing and shoving.

West Valley City police quickly restored order. Observers of the melee said the opposing sides were relatives of an alleged victim and the family of the boy accused of the crime.

Mone’s suspension also led to the congregation breaking into two factions. A majority of members voted to change the name of the church to The Salt Lake City Laumalie Ma’oni’oni Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, elect a new board and amend its articles of incorporation.

Other members, who opposed the changes, elected Elimani Ma’Afu as the president of what they continue to call the Tongan United Methodist Church.

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