A church minister's romance with one of his Sunday School teachers has split a South Auckland church and led to insults, shouting matches, fights in church offices and police arrests.
The ructions eventually led to one faction of the church forcing others out by issuing a trespass notice.
Blocked from God's house, those given their marching orders went to the court house - suing for $100,000 in damages for "inconvenience, hurt, humiliation and stress".
St Paul's Presbyterian in Manurewa has been riven by what one member calls the "totally immoral" behaviour of the minister, the Reverend Tony Spandow.
Spandow began a relationship with a Sunday School teacher at the church a few months after his appointment as a minister about two years ago.
The Sunday School teacher's family, who also attend the church, were horrified as Spandow was separated from his wife but not yet divorced.
Family members spoke of the pair arriving at their family home to announce the relationship.
"With the mantle of being a minister, it's controversial," said a family member, " . . . and within the space of six months of his ministry".
Another parishioner said the pair were "witnessed by Sunday School children from a bus".
The relationship sent shockwaves through the multi-ethnic congregation, with many of the conservative Samoan parishioners objecting to the "modern" arrangement.
The infighting of the flock was detailed in a High Court judgment when the ousted parishioners sued to have their trespass notices declared invalid and to prevent the church from banning them again.
Members of the congregation said they became "concerned" about Spandow's friendship with the Sunday School teacher in early 2011.
A member of the woman's family complained to the Northern Presbytery about Spandow's conduct, though a panel of church assessors found it did not involve "unbecoming" conduct.
Factions formed, with one group against Spandow and another group objecting to the way members of the first group were conducting themselves. Tensions simmered through the winter until two anti-Spandow members, Laisarini Hanipale-Brady and Lupematasila Siaosi, were suspended from church governance meetings.
Hanipale-Brady, a church elder in her 80s, found herself accused of displaying "unbecoming" behaviour, including refusing to shake Spandow's hand and screaming abuse at him and a "session clerk" - Filemoni Fa'avale - calling them both liars and fools.
In July the tension boiled over. Siaosi assaulted Fa'avale, was arrested by police and received diversion after entering a guilty plea.
"Over the following months, Siaosi allegedly made seven threatening phone calls to Spandow," the judge said in his ruling on the trespass notice.
In December 2011 there was a fight in the minster's office at the church between Hanipale-Brady and another supporter, versus Spandow and Fa'avale.
Hanipale-Brady, Siaosi and another were served with trespass notices from the church though they broke the orders repeatedly with Hanipale-Brady returning and attempting to lead the Samoan language services.
Police eventually charged the group with trespass and, in April, Siaosi was arrested after he smashed a window at the church.
One parishioner estimated 300 of the Samoan congregation had stopped going to the church, many of them families who had attended for decades.
Reverend Spandow declined to speak, citing a commission the Presbyterian Church had instituted to look into the matter.
The Presbyterian Church said there had "unfortunately been some division and disharmony within the congregation of St Paul's Manurewa". An independent body was looking into the complaints and the church would not comment until the commission reported back.
"We're hopeful that this commission will be the start of the healing process for this church. All those involved will have the opportunity to comment and contribute during the commission, and Presbytery will be providing support for the elders and congregation to make any changes needed." The group hoping for satisfaction from the courts found no comfort though.
When the suit for damages made it into the court, Associate Judge Jeremy Doogue ruled the church council was an unincorporated association and could not be proceeded against.
The issues were not "justiciable" and no legal rights had been breached. The applications for summary judgment were dismissed.
The court also declined to make moral judgments on the allegedly wayward minister.
On the issue of Spandow's conduct, the judge said: "It hardly needs to be said, of course, that the court cannot delve into the rights and wrongs of the matter."
- Sunday Star Times
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