Charles Afeaki, a Marist Brother and schoolteacher, was prolific in his sexual offending against his pupils in the 1970s. This month, he stood trial again on charges which have ruined his victims’ lives. Steve Kilgallon reports.

Photo: Lawrence Smith/Stuff

Charles Afeaki walked slowly into courtroom 16 of Auckland District Court leaning on a cane. He was 81 years old, and frail. He didn’t remove his trench coat as he sat down next to his lawyer. He needed a hearing loop to listen to the evidence against him.

He was no longer as Tāne Davies* remembered him. To an 11-year-old Tane, his standard two teacher at Marist Brothers school back in Invercargill in 1975 was “a monster. A big Tongan guy. Big, big puku”.

There was an extended shuffle to ensure that when Tane came to give evidence in the trial of Charles Afeaki, the pair never came eye to eye inside courtroom 16.

Afeaki was moved into the dock, and a portable screen with neon lights, held together with sticky tape, was wheeled across to block the line of sight to the witness box. Then Tane entered the courtroom, not from the main door, but from the judges’ chambers. Despite all that manoeuvring, he caught a glimpse of Afeaki, and saw not the monster, but a diminished old man.

Justice had been a long time catching up with Charles Afeaki, but it had now arrived, and Tane and another survivor of his abuse, Robbie West*, would finally get their day.

The cool teacher

A pixelated file photo shows a smiling face and a large Afro. Tongan-born Charles Afeaki was a rarity amongst the mostly pakeha ranks of the Marist Brothers, a Catholic religious teaching order of immense wealth and with a significant grip on Catholic high schooling in New Zealand.

Tane and Robbie both recall initially thinking the effeminate, softly-spoken art teacher was cool. After attending the Marist Brothers’ training college in Tuakau in the early 1960s, Afeaki, like most of his confrères, began teaching work, initially at the Marist Brothers’ school in Suva, Fiji. In the early 1970s, he was posted to the Marist Brothers primary school in Invercargill; later, he was sent to the Marist-owned St Paul’s College in Auckland.

He was clearly a prolific paedophile. In 1994, he was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for offending against four boys between 1976 and 1979. He defended the charges, took pre-trial matters to the Court of Appeal, gave evidence denying the offences and lodged an appeal against conviction. He was told by the trial judge, Ted Thomas, that he was a “wretched and self-dedicated hypocrite”. He was released in 1998, and having long since left the Marist order, lived initially with his mother, re-trained as a computer tutor and gained an adult education degree. In 2003, when he was given another two-year sentence after admitting nine offences against a boy who had been a 12-year-old boarder at St Paul’s in 1980, the court agreed that he had turned his life around.

Afeaki was charged back in 2021 with his offending against Tane and Robbie. When Stuff produced our 2022 series on sexual abuse by the Marist religious orders – A Secret History – both Robbie and Tane agreed to tell their stories. But because Afeaki was still awaiting trial, we could not name him in that series. We still approached him then, intending to ask about Robbie and Tane. At his home in south Auckland, he said: “No thanks. You’re trespassing. I’ll call the police.”

‘A year of anguish, torture and pain’

Tane came to Charles Afeaki’s attention on the third day of the 1975 school year when he laughed at the words ‘sexual intercourse’ during a Bible reading. Afeaki summoned him to the front of the class, and caned him, then told him to stay behind after the final bell. He locked the classroom door, and then came the first of what Tane estimates was 50 sexual assaults.

When he was interviewed by detective Darrin​ Healy in May 2021, Tane said that “from that day on I was terrified. I stopped learning at that class. I stopped learning at that school. I stopped learning forever.”

Tane says it was a “year of anguish, torture and pain”. It led him, inevitably, to drink, then drugs, and then later, petty crime; he was, he says, always looking for a way to soften his pain. At 14, he says, he read a book which made him understand what had happened to him. He tried to tell his parents, and was met with stunned silence. Family life was in turmoil, his father was terminally ill, and nothing happened.

On the opening day of the trial, two long police evidential interviews with Tane were played. He drew sketch plans of locations and became distressed as he detailed those assaults. Afeaki watched dispassionately, writing in a notebook.

Tane’s recall of those locations was precise: underneath a towering macrocarpa hedge behind a Scout hut, to which Afeaki would lead him by the hand, and “you could hop inside, and the world was gone”. His bedroom whilst at a school camp at the beautiful Deep Cove in Fiordland National Park, and in Afeaki’s locked classroom, its high windows painted over with psychedelic colours, after the final bell had rung. “It’s a very vivid experience to go through,” Tane explains, “although there are times I block it out”.

When Tane gave evidence in person, at times he addressed the hidden Afeaki directly. When he talked about how Afeaki would cane him in front of his classmates, he raised his voice. “He loved his cane… Didn’t you Charlie?”

Afeaki’s defence seemed to question Tane’s credibility – he had about 70 convictions for theft, receiving, interference with a motor vehicle – and his memory. Tane simply pointed out: “It’s the survivor’s story.”

Afeaki’s gentlemanly lawyer, Roger Eagles, nibbled around the edges of Tane’s evidence, asking if the hedge wasn’t a longer walk from the school than Tane remembered, or if there actually was a tuck shop at school, but never produced the flourish to suggest he’d remembered anything wrongly. Eagles suggested Tane was recalling the abuse “through the lens of someone who has had serious alcohol and drug problems”.

“It’s not,” Tane retorted, “something you forget”.

Eagles pointed out that while Tane had described Afeaki towering over him, Afeaki was actually only five foot five inches tall. Tane explained that when he began high school, he was still only 4ft11. Eventually, he put it to him that it was all a fiction. “No,” said Tane, looking him in the eye. “No.”

With the public excluded, courtroom 16 was quiet; only the judge, the two lawyers, two registrars, Afeaki, this reporter, and periodically, the two cops, Brian Free and Scott Coleman, who had led the investigation.

Judge Kirsten Lummis had a warm, caring style, and an overloaded calendar which meant delays each morning as she dispensed with callovers and interim hearings, such as the showjumper who was pleading guilty to a DUI on Melbourne Cup day. “Did [you] pick a winner?” the judge asked. On occasion, she brightened proceedings with a joke at the expense of prosecutor Daniel Becker’s comparative youth to everyone else present.

Even so, giving evidence was a challenging experience for Tane. Judge Lummis called him a “compelling witness”, and Eagles’ inability to puncture his testimony appeared crucial.

Tane was surprised to hear that. While he’d looked composed, if on edge, he said on the inside he was frightened. “That was hard,” he said. “It might not have looked like it, but I was drenched from shaking. I felt myself shaking.”

‘I had these strange dreams’

Robbie West had grown up on Waiheke Island, but due to his grandparents’ Catholic faith, found himself in 1978, at the age of 12, as a weekly boarder at St Paul’s College in Ponsonby, central Auckland, where he was placed into the classroom of Charles Afeaki.

His story echoed Tane’s in many ways. When his abuse began, he says: “That was pretty much the end of my schooling.”

In his evidential interview, he said: “There’s a photo from when it was happening which I saw for the first time last year and, f—, you can tell there was something wrong, I was skinny as, drawn, white… it brought a lot of stuff back when I saw that photo.”

By the end of the year, he was seriously ill in hospital – Afeaki visited him there twice, and abused him on one of those visits – and he never returned to the school.

Like Tane, it was the end of his formal education. Robbie ended up in a boys’ home in Australia, then slept rough in Sydney, then embarked on what he describes as two decades of a “self-medicated binge and imprisonment lifestyle”. He spent his 18th birthday in Waikeria prison, and, he thinks, built up 42 convictions for mostly drug-related offending. He detoxed from heroin twice, and was a player in the early days of ecstasy importation.

Throughout those years, he said, he “had these strange dreams”; he’d dismiss them. The hangover from his 40th birthday party lasted three days, and turned him stone-cold sober. Without the self-medication of drugs and alcohol, the memories “became a lot more vivid”. He made one attempt to report to the police, and thinks they tried to locate him for one of Afeaki’s trials. “That to me was a big realisation that something had happened.” He also talked to lawyers, who told him a civil action against the Marists would be fruitlessly expensive, so he approached the church for help.

The Marist Brothers insisted he undergo counselling and promise he was clean of drink and drugs before entering into negotiations. So one evening in 2002, Robbie and his counsellor turned up at a small church hall in Oneroa, Waiheke Island’s main town, to meet senior Marist Brothers Henry Spinks and Richard Dunleavy. “It was so creepy,” he recalls. “The creepiest thing I’ve ever been involved in… the whole thing was bizarre. A real creepy, dark feeling.”

He felt disadvantaged in those negotiations; he was in a frail mental condition, had no legal advice and felt pushed into accepting their terms. The Marists gave him $15,000, describing it as a “concrete sign of regret” (it came complete with a confidentiality clause), which they said matched others who’d complained about Afeaki. They deducted some to pay some of his debts and buy him a computer; the rest, he says, went on rent, meth and alcohol.

In 2021, Robbie gave an evidential interview to police in the South Island. The court only saw the first half-hour of his evidence, but he was careful to only explain what he recalled, and to admit there were gaps in his memory.

What he did remember was being taken into a store cupboard behind Afeaki’s classroom, sometimes during class, sometimes afterwards. Outside, his classmates would be running wild. “They knew something bad was happening to me in there,” he said. Inside, it was silent. He could recall Afeaki’s physical appearance with precision. He could remember him removing his clerical collar before the abuse began.

The end

The court never heard Charles Afeaki’s defence, beyond Eagles’ opening preamble, in which he said Afeaki didn’t recall either Tane or Robbie and “says there are numerous aspects of the evidence of the complainants which are wrong and unbelievable”. That was because on the morning of the third day of the trial, Eagles entered guilty pleas on his client’s behalf to all 15 charges. “I think you’ve done the right thing,” the judge told Afeaki. He will be sentenced in April next year.

When the trial halted, the video screen remained frozen on an image of Robbie, legs crossed, in a police interview suite, midway through telling his story. He had been due to give evidence by video link shortly afterwards. He was pleased that didn’t happen. “I hate the court. I haven’t been to court for a criminal thing since 2009. And just the fact of going to court itself… it just felt never-ending.”

Nowadays, he doesn’t drink or smoke and he eats well. Despite that, the stress of the unending court case had affected his physical health.

“There was a big sense of relief, and of vindication,” he says. “I just wanted it to end by that stage. It’s taken up 80 per cent of my life. And it’s still not quite finished.

The Marists, he says, have indicated they will top up his compensation, though he only expects to get another $10,000, which he thinks is risible. He never wants to hear from them or Afeaki again. He has weekly counselling, and probably always will, but he has a good job, has been in a relationship for 12 years and sober for even longer. He has some ACC support after they assessed his mental injury at 34%, entitling him to a $10,000 back payment and $5,000 every five years. “They stole the first 40 years of my life,” he says.

“Don’t forget, I came forward with this in 2002. It’s taken 22 years for them to sort this s— out.”


As the court concluded, Afeaki turned to Eagles and asked if it was all over and, if so, could he take an Uber ride to meet his brother, who was playing golf.

Then he told Stuff that we had “crucified him” in our reporting of his case; at the urging of Eagles, standing beside him, he then said he “didn’t want to engage” any further.

Marist Brothers delegate Peter Horide wouldn’t answer specific questions about Robbie or Tane, but in a statement, said they acknowledged the guilty pleas, that children were failed in their care, and had endured great suffering. He said they were deeply sorry, encouraged others who’d experienced abuse to come forward, and said they acknowledged and admired the “great bravery and courage” of those who had.

Outside court, Tane stood in the sunshine on Albert St. His brother, Gareth, who had been waiting his turn to give evidence that Tane had told him as a teenager of his abuse, walked up and they embraced.

“It’s over,” Tane said. “I’m feeling good. Actually, I’m feeling awesome. But close to tears as well.”

Tane would refuse any restorative justice meeting. He didn’t want to see Afeaki. “He’s had 50 years to do that.” What Afeaki should have done, when he was first charged in 1993, he thought, was to track down everyone he’d offended against. “That would have been a human thing to do. But he didn’t.”

Gareth will now pursue compensation on his behalf. Tane’s siblings have all been professionally successful, and he doesn’t see why, if he’d never met Charles Afeaki, he wouldn’t have been too. In his case: “I made bad choices. I acted rashly. To make the anxiety go away, to become a substance abuser and a self-medicator, which the system calls an addict.”

He takes anti-anxiety pills and sleeps poorly. He looked back on his life, and reflected: “I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted to be a family man.”

“He destroyed our lives,” he says. “It changes whatever path you were on.

“For each of us, he took our lives. He changed our lives from that moment.”

Robbie, Tane and Gareth’s names have been changed.

By Steve Kilgallon
Published in Stuff