'He was a monster': Survivor shines light on dark past

Big questions are being asked about the Marist Brothers religious order in New Zealand after a...
Big questions are being asked about the Marist Brothers religious order in New Zealand after a new victim (pictured) came forward to allege sexual abuse by one of the order's members, Br Charles Afeaki in 1975. Photo: Gerard O'Brien

WARNING DISTRESSING CONTENT

Windows covered by a psychedelic paint job concealed a dark secret in Invercargill. Now one victim of a Marist Brother who raped children is letting the sunlight in. Chris Morris reports

Simon still remembers the painted windows.

He was a 12-year-old pupil at Invercargill's Marist Primary School when he first set eyes on them in 1975.

A psychedelic swirl covered the glass panes on the outside, blocking any view into the classroom hidden behind the patterns.

The classroom belonged to Charles Afeaki, a member of the Marist Brothers religious order, whose members taught generations of young children as they passed through the school.

Br Charles was a "big fella'' aged in his 30s who liked to giggle, Simon recalls, and the paint job made him seem "really cool''.

But inside the classroom, first impressions soon faded.

Everything was white and "quite oppressive'', Simon said.

"It was light, but you couldn't see outside and no-one could see in. It was so people couldn't see in, after class, when he locked the door.''

Simon - not his real name - told ODT Insight he was indecently assaulted for the first time on the third day of the school year.

He had drawn attention to himself by laughing during a bible reading, and was ordered by Br Charles to stay behind after class.

Once the other pupils had left, the Marist Brother made his move.

"The next thing I know he's got his hands on me and he's putting his hands down my pants and rubbing his sandpaper face against mine.

"I can remember turning around and going 'no', and ... I just remember this big tongue going into my mouth. I knew, right then, why the windows were painted out.''

And after the assault came a threat.

"He said he would kill my family if I told them.

"I believed him, totally ... he was a monster.''

Br Charles Afeaki. Photo: supplied
Br Charles Afeaki. Photo: supplied

It was the start of a year-long ordeal for Simon, as the abuse escalated from kissing and fondling to violence and sodomy.

Much of it took place inside the classroom, hidden behind the psychedelic windows.

On other occasions, Br Charles would take the young boy to a void within a large macrocarpa hedge on the school grounds, or to the back of a nearby building, to rape him.

"I got raped by him a lot of times ... in my head, it's like 100 times.''

The young boy tried to find ways to cope, including stealing large bottles of whisky and other spirits from a family member's house.

"Mum would make our drink bottles up in the morning. I would empty it out and fill it up with alcohol. If I had a feeling that [Br Charles] was going to pick on me that day, then I would drink it at lunchtime.''

He endured other forms of abuse, too, including one severe beating which left him covered in bruises for months.

He and other pupils had been packing up at the end of a school camp, when a box of toilet rolls Simon was carrying fell apart. One toilet roll fell into a puddle, and Br Charles erupted.

"He dragged me on to the bus and beat me up for about quarter of an hour. He knew to hit me in the body. And he knew he had me under control - that I would hide it - because I didn't want my family dead.''

And so Simon kept the secret - concealing the bruises, washing out bloodied underwear before slipping them into the family washing, and keeping quiet about the cause of injuries to his anus when forced to see a doctor.

And, when Br Charles turned his attention to other boys in the class, Simon remembered feeling only relief.

He could tell, as Br Charles draped an arm over their shoulders and led them away, where they were being taken and what was to follow.

"I can remember feeling good about it. That's terrible, but it was like 'oh, it's not me - thank God'.''

Simon's ordeal continued until almost the end of the school year, but it was to be years before Br Charles' crimes finally caught up with him.

He left Invercargill in 1977 and moved to Auckland, where in 1994 he was convicted of historic crimes against four boys between 1976-1979.

In 2003, by then no longer a Marist Brother, Afeaki was before the court again, admitting offences against a fifth Auckland boy from the same period.

Simon was not involved, having never previously spoken publicly - or to police - about his abuse.

BUT Afeaki's actions were just the tip of the iceberg for the Marist Brothers order, as more abusive acts continue to be revealed.

The Catholic order within the Society of Mary was founded in France in 1817 to focus on the spiritual and educational needs of the young and poor.

The movement soon spread around the world, including to New Zealand in 1838 and Invercargill in 1897, where 171 brothers had since taught.

The last brother left in 2011. Just 52 remained - most living in retirement - in New Zealand, including two in the South Island.

But since 1990, nine Marist Brothers - including Afeaki - have been convicted of crimes against boys in New Zealand.

The list included Br Kenneth Camden (Christchurch), Br Sione Losalu (Napier), Br Bryan McKay (Hamilton), Br Andrew Cody (Feilding), Br Bernard Stevenson (Fielding), Br Bede Hampton (Masterton), Br Patrick Bignell (Hutt Valley) and Br Claudius Pettit (Lower Hutt).

Another, Br Aiden Benefield, of Napier, was convicted of possessing child pornography in 2007, and more alleged victims of Br Bignell have emerged in recent days.

Several of those convicted also spent time in the South, including Br Pettit, who was in Invercargill from 1955-57.

Documents viewed by ODT Insight also confirmed another Brother, Fabian O'Driscoll, had been the subject of four complaints upheld by the Marist Brothers, although he was never prosecuted.

Br Fabian was in Invercargill from 1933-38 and again from 1947-49, but died in 2006.

Marist Brothers at their Mary Street resident in Invercargill in 1947 including Brother Fabian O'Driscoll (front, left). Photo: supplied
Marist Brothers at their Mary Street resident in Invercargill in 1947 including Brother Fabian O'Driscoll (front, left). Photo: supplied

Together, such men have left behind a trail of victims, but the Marist Brothers order remains reluctant to discuss its dark past.

District leader Br David McDonald was "not available'' for comment, and district bursar Br Peter Horide referred questions to the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference.

NZCBC spokeswoman Amanda Gregan, in a written response, acknowledged historic allegations "continue to be received regarding members of our Order, and all matters will be investigated''.

However, specific questions, including when complaints about Br Charles were first received, when and why he left the order, and where else he served, were ignored.

Nor would she say how many complaints relating to other Marist Brothers had been received.

"The Marist Brothers do not disclose personal information to media,'' she said.

It was a different story in Australia, where the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had put the Catholic order under the microscope.

It calculated 20.4% of all Marist Brothers active in Australia between 1950 and 2010 were alleged perpetrators.

The order had received 486 complaints of child sexual abuse involving Marist Brothers between 1980 and 2015 - the second-highest of any Catholic Church authority - and paid $8million to victims.

But it had also treated sexual abuse complaints as "highly confidential'', used codes on internal records and moved offending Brothers around, allowing them to offend again.

Ms Gregan would not "speculate'' on whether the same pattern could exist in New Zealand, but said the order was "committed to taking responsibility for their past actions and taking action to address the wrongs and provide support for those who were harmed''.

That was not good enough for Simon, who believed questions still needed to be answered.

By age 14, he had moved to Christchurch with his family, where he quit school and worked in a restaurant.

He tried to tell his parents about his ordeal, but was met with silence.

"They couldn't handle it. I think they were that naive they didn't really believe a man would do that to a child.''

He was soon "self-medicating'' on drugs as well as alcohol, which led to crime, prison and suicide attempts.

He was saved by the love of a partner, his three daughters and four grandchildren, as well as regular counselling, and had now "come to peace'' with his pain.

But one thing he could not yet find was forgiveness - for Br Charles, the Marist Brothers order or the wider Catholic Church.

"I hate them. They took everything from me. All my family are successful ... and I'm a person who walks around with holes in their jeans.''

He also scoffed at suggestions Afeaki had turned his life around.

In 1994, Afeaki had denied the charges against him and unsuccessfully appealed his conviction, prompting Judge Ted Thomas to describe him as a "wretched and self-dedicated hypocrite''.

When he appeared in court again in 2003, Judge Hugh Williams noted the steps taken by Afeaki to avoid reoffending and recognise the damage inflicted on his victim, concluding the earlier description of him no longer applied.

Simon disagreed, telling ODT Insight the full extent of Afeaki's crimes had not been revealed.

His own experiences had never been put before a court, but neither had those of other victims from his class.

One friend from Simon's class had simply disappeared from school one day, never to return.

"And I remember him being one of the boys who was a target. I know he was a target, definitely.''

And when Afeaki was eventually jailed, two other boys had committed suicide - prompted, Simon believed, by memories of their own abuse.

"He's still an evil man ... he hasn't admitted to what he's done. He'll never see daylight again if the reality comes out.''

Extensive efforts by ODT Insight to contact Afeaki in recent weeks have been unsuccessful.

At some point after 1977, Afeaki left - or was removed - from the Marist Brothers order, but the circumstances remain unclear as the order declined to discuss it.

Br Osmund Macnamara, one of just two remaining Marist Brothers in the South Island, said from Christchurch he did not know Afeaki.

"The name is familiar, but I cannot recall him as a brother at all, nor was I ever in a community with him.''

However, Tim Ward, another Marist Primary School pupil in the 1970s, said he was also taught by Afeaki and was "never in any situation where I felt threatened or ill at ease with him''.

Mr Ward, who is now board chairman at Invercargill's Verdon College - the successor to Marist College - remembered a "supportive'' and "high activity'' environment at Marist Primary School.

He had been "disappointed'' to learn of Br Charles' crimes, as the Marist Brothers were "committed Christian men'' with a strong sense of discipline.

"I never had concerns about anything that was going on along those lines, but it's really sad for someone who has experienced it.''

Afeaki later worked as a literacy programme co-ordinator for the Martin Hautus Institute, an Auckland-based education provider which closed last year.

The institute's former chief executive, Pulotu Selio Solomon, agreed to try to contact Afeaki on ODT Insight's behalf, but could not, and declined to comment himself.

Simon hoped other victims of Afeaki - including families who lost loved ones to suicide - would come forward.

A group action, seeking compensation or a fresh prosecution, could follow, he said.

Money was not his motivation, but would make life a little easier for his family.

"Being Maori, I would like for our whanau to have a chunk of land somewhere.

"I don't want nothing for myself. I want it for my family - my children and my grandchildren.

"It would be like a dream come true.''

chris.morris@odt.co.nz

 

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