Rene Naufahu and the Groundhog Day nature of sexual offending cases

Following local actor Rene Naufahu’s guilty plea to charges of indecent assault, Madeleine Holden looks at the pattern that occurs when prominent men are accused of sexual abuse, and the role that both the media and the public play in perpetuating rape culture. 

Lee Rene Naufahu, of “ambulance driver Sam from Shortland Street” fame, pled guilty last week to six indecent assault charges relating to behaviour toward six aspiring actresses he was employed to mentor in private acting classes between 2010 and 2013.

Naufahu initially denied two charges of sexual violation and 15 of indecent assault, but changed his plea to guilty for six of the indecent assault charges after coming to an “agreed statement of facts” with the Crown, which dropped the remaining charges. He benefited from name suppression at the beginning of the trial but this was later removed. Naufahu will be sentenced in November.

The behaviour in question involved Naufahu abusing his position of power by kissing and inappropriately touching the complainants during private acting classes arranged through his agency, telling the women they needed to be sexually uninhibited to be good actresses. Naufahu said that his classes would help the women obtain coveted acting roles in the United States, going as far as telling one she could become the “NZ Charlize Theron”.

The victims reported feeling as though Naufahu had deliberately selected and groomed them due to their particular levels of vulnerability and impressionability, and Judge Evangelos Thomas stressed that the extent of the betrayal, rather than the touching itself, “caused an enormous amount of harm to six very vulnerable women”.

There’s a rinse and repeat nature to public cases of sexual assault, both in New Zealand and elsewhere in the world, that creates a dispiriting sense of inevitability: this stuff keeps happening, and it keeps happening in exactly the same way each time.

To start with, despite sexual offending being disconcertingly common, the accused inevitably denies any wrongdoing, vehemently and in a way which throws the complainant’s credibility into question. This means they must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accusations are true, which is the usual (and righteous) burden of proof in criminal law.

But complainants in sexual violence cases face an unusually high degree of scrutiny and testing of their motives which, practically speaking, makes it difficult to make a charge of this nature stick. To put it simply, judges, juries and everyday punters don’t tend to believe women who say that men sexually assault them until it’s inconceivable not to, and the legal system puts victims through the wringer in the process. The grueling court system means that victims often report feeling like they are the ones on trial, and this is one of the factors that discourage them from reporting sexual crimes altogether.

None of this is new, and all of it has been evident in Naufahu’s case. Naufahu initially denied the accusations strenuously, describing them as “ridiculous” and “ludicrous” and his own actions as “consensual” and necessary to the task at hand. His legal team also worked to discredit the complainants and suggest they had ulterior motives.

Rene Naufahu as Sam Aleni in Shortland Street

When it was revealed in court that Naufahu had been engaged in an extramarital affair with one of the complainants, his lawyers argued that the women jointly conspired against him because one felt snubbed after the affair ended. This line of argument then showed up in public thinking about the case: punters on the Bros Business podcast, for example, said that laying a complaint after an affair ended was “suspicious”.

All of this is to say that Naufahu’s case saw a common rape myth trollied out yet again: that women are in the habit of hurling baseless sexual assault allegations at men, alone or in packs, for their own personal gain or sense of retribution. Similar accusations were levelled at the complainants in Bill Cosby’s case, to take an analogous international example: Cosby’s lawyer said the women were motivated by money and a desire to appear on TV, and numerous celebrities and social media commenters argued that the 57 women who came forward against Cosby were conspiring to tarnish his name and legacy.

Although Naufahu is not the social institution Bill Cosby is, comparisons have been drawn between the two cases. Perhaps New Zealand can look forward to media personalities expressing more hand-wringing concern for the tarnished reputation of a TV show than empathy for victims of sexual assault.

Speaking of media responses, it’s common for members of the community to rally publically around those accused of sexual assault, offering support and condolences while they are on trial, and Naufahu’s case has been no exception.

During the trial, a church group, 4:13 Athletes NZ, posted an image on its Instagram account of Naufahu and his family being baptised. In the caption, the church states that it is “Standing with you [Naufahu] through it all.” That is, instead of remaining neutral and performing the requested baptism privately, 4:13 Athletes chose to make a clear, public statement of support for Naufahu and publish a positive image of him on their social media.

Again, this is not unusual in these cases, and it’s difficult to overstate how distressing such expressions of support can be for victims. These statements function as a signal that their accusations aren’t being taken seriously enough to warrant even a temporary withdrawal of public support for the accused.

Like most sexual assault trials, Naufahu’s case is also characterised by an outsized focus on the negative impact of the proceedings on him personally, combined with a minimisation of the offending and impact of the trial on the victims. Naufahu has said that the trial has been a difficult time for him that he “wouldn’t wish on [his] worst enemy”, and following his guilty plea stated that he is “pleased this case has resolved, as this period in my life has been very hard for me and my family.”

He minimised his offending by saying that he had “been passionate, clearly too passionate” – reframing his abusive behaviour as a positive personality quirk – and went on to issue a non-apology in a format so classic it has its own Wikipedia page (“If I have hurt these students and let them down, I regret that. That was never my intention.”) Naufahu’s response to the matter has been a symphony of self-pity, and his apologies sound more like reluctantly extracted PR remedies than genuine expressions of remorse.

Naufahu hasn’t been sentenced yet but, in a way, the results of the trial are already a familiar disappointment. The trial has been characterised by the same hostility to victims that advocates have long argued constitute a rape culture: unreasonable disbelief of victims, invasive questioning of their motives, minimisation of the harm they’ve suffered and overzealous protection of the reputations of their abusers.

Naufahu’s victims – or some of them, at least – have benefitted from a rare guilty plea, but the continuing nature of the offending, and the community’s response to it, still indicate how far we have to come before we are dealing healthily with the problem of sexual assault.

As a society, we need a widespread cultural shift in how we conceive of consent; we need to hold people who abuse relationships of power to account; and we need to reduce the many well-documented barriers to justice faced by victims of sexual offending. Until then, we’re doomed to watch the same rape myths and everyday injustices play out before our eyes every time a person is publically accused of sexual assault. Over and over. Rinse and repeat.


If the events depicted in this story have been triggering in any way, please consider contacting any of the following organisations:

Rape Crisis

Women’s Refuge

Lifeline

HELP


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