A former Orthodox Presbyterian missionary pleaded guilty Wednesday to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl while he was working overseas in Uganda, authorities say.
Eric Tuininga pleaded guilty to engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia. The 44-year-old now faces up to 30 years in prison, followed by supervised release for potentially the rest of his life. (Parole isn’t an option in the federal system.) He could also be fined up to $250,000.
“Eric Tuininga used his trusted position as a pastor to sexually assault a young Ugandan girl in his care,” U.S. Attorney Peter D. Leary said in the release. “This was a challenging case, but law enforcement worked diligently to ensure that Tuininga did not escape justice for his crime overseas.”
Tuininga went to Uganda in July 2012 as a missionary with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) Presbytery of the Northwest.
Presbytery Clerk Jeff Scott said the presbytery learned Tuininga was accused of misconduct in May 2019, after he had returned to the U.S.
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Then in June, an American affiliated with the OPC called the U.S. Embassy in Uganda to report Tuininga, according to the federal press release. The American reportedly alleged Tuininga was having sex with Ugandan girls as young as 14 who were in the OPC’s care.
The State Department opened an investigation in cooperation with other agencies. That investigation was turned over to the Department of Homeland Security when the State Department found out Tuininga was back in the U.S.
Federal authorities identified one Ugandan girl who was 14 when Tuininga had sex with her in March 2019, the release states. It goes on to state that Tuininga admitted he met the girl while carrying out his missionary work. She would often visit the OPC church Tuininga oversaw in Uganda, according to the release.
“Tuininga was supposed to be someone that could be trusted, but instead he abused that trust and victimized a child,” Special Agent in Charge Katrina W. Berger said in the press release. Berger oversees Homeland Security Investigations operations in Georgia and Alabama.
Shortly after Tuininga returned to the U.S., he was kicked out of the OPC. The Presbytery of the Northwest deposed him from ministry in July 2019 and excommunicated him that September.
“By the time we became aware that Mr. Tuininga’s sexual immorality included the sexual abuse of a child, he was already under criminal investigation, and he had been excommunicated and was no longer under our jurisdiction,” Scott, the presbytery clerk, wrote in an email.
“We are profoundly grieved by Mr. Tuininga’s actions and the devastating impact they have had on many people and the stumbling block they place before those we call to put their trust in our Lord Jesus Christ,” Scott wrote. “. . . We pray for justice to be served on behalf of his victims. And we continue to pray for Mr. Tuininga’s family, those who have been harmed, and for Mr. Tuininga’s repentance.”
Tuininga and his former wife, Dianna Dise, had nine children. The OPC continued supporting Dise and the children after Tuininga was recalled from the mission field in 2019. Visits between Tuininga and the children were supervised while the investigation and divorce proceedings were underway, Dise recently wrote on her blog.
She also wrote Tuininga had groomed her as a gatekeeper to the girls he was abusing so she was kept “in the dark.” And because Tuininga could provide food or money to pay for schooling, he had the power to demand sex from the girls, she added.
“The entire community benefited from the money that he poured in,” she wrote. “This happened to the extent that victim’s lives were threatened if they dared to speak up.”
Tuininga is scheduled to be sentenced on May 3. He was taken into custody after the plea, but it’s unclear where he is now being held.
Sarah Einselen is an award-winning writer and editor based in Texas.