Former church minister jailed for raping stepdaughter

A former church minister has been jailed for 10-and-a-half years for historical sex offences committed against his stepdaughter, then aged 13-years-old. 

Opeta Tuiavii, of Falevao and Aufaga, appeared in Court last week for sentencing on charges of rape; sexual connection and one count of performing an indecent act. 

He had already pleaded guilty to the charges earlier this year on 21 September 2020. 

Supreme Court Justice Tologata Leilani Tuala-Warren handed down the sentence for the crimes which, according to Police facts tendered in court, occurred between 31 July and 1 September 2014.

The court was told that Tuiavii first entered the room of the victim - whose name is subject to a permanent suppression order - to her late one night as she was sleeping.  

When the two were living together at Falevao, Tuiavii is alleged to have removed the victim’s clothing, startling her awake and raping her. 

“She struggled to free herself but he threatened to kill her if she told anyone,” the court heard. 

The following day the victim left for school and did not return home. She then told her uncle about what had happened and a reconciliation within the family took place.

The victim then started living with her uncle. 

In July of this year, after the accused had an argument with some family members, the matter was reported to Police. 

The victim is now 21 years old, married with one child.

According to the pre-sentence report, the accused is 44 years old, married with one biological child and two stepchildren.

A farmer, Tuiavi’i held various jobs before attending and graduating from Seventh Day Adventist Theological College in American Samoa. 

“He became the [church] Minister in Falealupo before he and his first wife were banished from the church and village after four years,” the Police facts stated. 

“He separated from his first wife then. Eight years later he married his second and current wife who had two children from a previous marriage.” 

Tuiavi’i told the probation officer the victim came onto her. He also noted that an ifoga (or traditional apology) was performed and a fine mat and $1,000 was given. 

Justice Tologata took issue with the lack of victim impact report provided by the prosecution to the court: “This is unsatisfactory.” 

In considering her sentencing decision, Justice Tologata noted aggravating features of the offending included the age of the victim. 

“She was 13 years old,” Justice Tologata said. 

“The younger the victim of a sexual offence the greater the need for protection, the greater is her vulnerability. 

“Young persons are more vulnerable and the law provided for their need for greater protection. It is also aggravating that the accused is the stepfather of the victim. 

“This domestic relationship aggravates his offending because inherent in this offending is a gross breach of trust.

“This is predatory and opportunistic offending which I find is an aggravating feature.   It took place at a time when the victim was sleeping alone.”

Justice Tologata found that Tuiavii had engaged in predatory behaviour and took advantage of his position of responsibility and trust to prey upon his niece opportunistically. 

“Rape is an inherently violent act. In this case it was accompanied by a threat to kill which further aggravates the offending,” the Judge’s sentencing remarks read. 

|The physical and psychological impact on the victim is taken into account as an aggravating feature. She left for school the next day and never returned home.”

Justice Tologata noted that a term of imprisonment was a primary consideration for rape offences of this kind. 

“There should be an element of deterrence to reflect the gravity of the offence to punish the offender, to deter the offender and to deter other like-minded people,” the Judge told the court. 

“The sentence is also to convey condemnation by society of such criminal conduct.

“There is a need to hold the accused accountable for the harm done to the victim, to promote in him a sense of responsibility for, and an acknowledgement of that harm, and to provide for the interests of the victim who was young, vulnerable and defenceless at the time.

“There is also an overriding need to deter the accused and others from committing the same or similar offences and to protect the community from the accused. 

“Sexual offending within families and committed by persons who are closely related or connected to their victims is sadly quite prevalent. 

“This offending is occurring within the home where it is expected to be the safest and most protective environment for children. We are seeing that this is not the case.” 

In assessing the extent of Tuiavii’s culpability to determine a starting point for his sentencing, Justice Tologata began by taking into account the age of the victim. 

“The breach of trust is enormous in that he was her stepfather and he raped and threatened to kill her,” she said. 

“His behaviour was predatory and opportunistic and caused her to leave home.

“I assess his culpability at a relatively high level as the aggravating features are at a relatively serious level. 

“I do not accept what he told probation [officers] about his stepdaughter exposing herself to him. 

“This is classic ‘victim-blaming’ and it is deplorable coming from the victim’s stepfather. 

“Having therefore considered all the circumstances, and in particular having regard to the aggravating features relating to this offending (there being no mitigating features of the offending), I place this offending in the middle of rape band three (14-20 years) where there are aggravating features at a relatively serious level.” 

Justice Tologata took 18 years imprisonment as the starting point for the sentence she was to hand down.

But a total of six-and-a-half years were deducted for the ifoga and the defendant’s early guilty pleas.

“For the offence of rape, the accused is convicted and sentenced to 10-and-a-half years imprisonment,” Justice Tologata said. 

For the offence of sexual connection with a dependent family member under 21 Tuiavii was convicted and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment to be served concurrently.

For the offence of an indecent act on a dependent family member under 21, he was also convicted and sentenced to another concurrent term of imprisonment of four years, also to be served concurrently. 

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