[ OUR OPINION ]
A.G. should back
away from church dispute
An internal dispute is threatening to tear apart a church led by the family who founded it in Kalihi 57 years ago. The state Attorney General's Office has taken sides in the conflict, submitting a legal brief that supports church dissidents' lawsuit accusing the church leaders of wrongdoing. If the state has evidence of illegal activity it should take action on its own, but its participation in a civil lawsuit about the inner workings of a church is unseemly.
The Hawaii Attorney General's Office has sided with the plaintiffs in a lawsuit accusing their church's leadership of financial wrongdoing.
A group of Way of Salvation Church members maintained in filing the lawsuit -- after which they were excommunicated -- that church funds have been misspent or are unaccounted for. They contend, among other things, that nearly $500,000 in church funds was paid to eight members of the Rev. Mariano Caneso's family during a recent three-year period. The suit says the expenditures were approved by a church board in violation of church bylaws.
The Attorney General's Office took what may have been an unprecedented step last year of opening an investigation into the church's operations. In the three decades since the FBI stopped investigating targets ranging from the Rev. Martin Luther King to the Ku Klux Klan, such probes have been avoided nationwide.
Religion should not be a shield against legitimate criminal investigations. In asking for new surveillance powers following 9/11, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft remarked that they would be used against "people who hijack a religion and make out of it an implement of war." Likewise, the state has a duty to act upon evidence of the hijacking of church funds for personal use.
In April, state Deputy Attorney General Hugh Jones submitted a friend-of-the-court brief siding with the Way of Salvation Church dissidents. Jones called for a court-ordered accounting or appointment of a receiver "because the church has repeatedly failed to account for charitable funds and because the assets of the church are in possible danger of conversion and loss." Jones told the Star-Bulletin's Rob Perez that the Canesos "are very afraid of facts being known" and "have a habit of attacking anyone who even questions what they're doing."
Jones acknowledges that he never questioned the church's leaders, instead complying with a legal rule requiring that he deal with their lawyer. The rule forbids a lawyer from communicating with a person represented by an attorney without the person's consent.
Since Caneso, 94, and his 78-year-old wife founded the church in 1947, it has grown to more than 100 branches in several countries. Family members deny having received lucrative financial benefits; the Canesos still live in the modest Kalihi home they bought in the 1950s. If the Attorney General's Office has evidence of illegal conduct, it should use its authority to bring charges. It should not be an adversary in an intra-church dispute.