By Steve Kilgallon and Catrin Owen , Stuff.co.nz
A prominent Catholic priest regrets the “silly mistake” that forced him to leave the church, after he admitted possessing semi-nude photos of a girl under 16.
Sosefo Sateki Raass was parish priest of St Mary’s, in Mt Albert, Auckland, but was convicted in March 2019 of indecent communication with a person under 16. He was told to serve 100 hours of community service for his offending. He was not placed on the sex offenders’ register.
Raass had been considered a rising star of the church, was principal priest of the Auckland Fijian community and was also the celebrant at Japanese rugby international Amanaki Mafi’s wedding.
It’s understood a relative complained to police after a 15 year old girl sent semi-nude selfies to Raass over Facebook.
Raass claimed he hadn’t solicited the photos from the girl, and hadn’t realised her age. He said he pleaded guilty to “get it out of the way, I didn’t want to hang on and waste time.”
He agreed it had ruined his career. “It did, yes, but I have to let it go. It was a silly mistake but.. We all make mistakes…. I believe things happen for a reason.”
Raass has left the priesthood and is now in a relationship with a woman with whom he shares a West Auckland home.
After he was convicted, reporting his case was delayed because his lawyer, Steve Bonnar QC, successfully opposed applications from Stuff to read the court file which detailed his offending.
Bonnar told Stuff his client hadn’t made enquiries of the victim’s age and believed she was over 16. But he said that was “no defence to the charge”.
“There were inappropriate communications…it wasn’t a situation of grooming,” Bonnar said.
After leaving the priesthood, Raass became a director and shareholder of a memorials business, but he said that venture hadn’t worked out and he was now employed in a family business.
The case has caused a change in how the censor’s office views potentially objectionable ‘selfies’, said the chief censor, David Shanks.
At the heart of the case appears to be whether or not Raass asked for the images to be sent to him.
Police originally sent the images for review by the Office of Film and Literature Classification in early 2018, which ruled them objectionable. But on appeal by Raass, the decision was overturned by the office’s Board of Review.
The review board said while the way in which the images “appear to have been brought into existence are highly objectionable (if ultimately proven in a court of law) and in no way to be condoned” and depicted a young person nude or partially nude in a way which could be viewed sexually, they were not “injurious to the public good”.
There had been discussions by prosecutors about appealing that decision to the High Court, but that process halted when Raass entered a guilty plea.
Shanks said the review decision was, in part, because the board decided that there wasn’t enough evidence before them to make a firm decision on the issue of solicitation. The office would now prefer agencies supplied all ‘chatter’ around an image, “to make it more straightforward and clearer, so we can take into account contextual matters in considering the publication.”
Shanks said the law was written in 1993 before digital selfies were considered, and his office didn’t want to criminalise teenagers – so their decisions were interested in the circumstances in which selfies were made: “It is quite a different scenario in terms of the public impact and public harm in a situation where an adult male is essentially procuring or exhorting a young person to provide these sorts of images.”
Virginia Noonan, director of the Catholic Church’s National Standards Office – the church’s policeman – directed comments to the Auckland Catholic diocese.
Their spokeswoman, Lyndsay Freer, said in a statement that Raass left the priesthood by his own choice and the formal laicisation process was underway.
She said once the diocese learned of the allegations, they had asked Raass to take leave from his parish, notified the principals of both schools in the parish, told parishioners he was on leave and co-operated with police. She said parishioners were never formally told of the reason for Raass’ departure.
Freer said she understood the complainant was not a parishioner, but from overseas and visiting family locally.
Marist College principal Raechelle Taulu said she was unaware of Raass and the offending was “before her time” at the school. However, she said she was sure the diocese would have been open and transparent with the school at the time.