‘Make things pono’: Kamehameha Schools settles sex abuse case

'Make things pono': Kamehameha Schools settles sex abuse case
Updated: Feb. 16, 2018 at 4:42 PM HST
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Kamehameha Schools CEO Jack Wong walks out of court recently with Trustees Lance Wilhelm and...
Kamehameha Schools CEO Jack Wong walks out of court recently with Trustees Lance Wilhelm and Robert Nobriga. (Image: Hawaii News Now/File)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In what could be Hawaii's largest-ever settlement in a personal injury case, Kamehameha Schools will pay out $80 million to survivors and their families in a sex abuse scandal that's rocked the prestigious private school.

The settlement agreement, which also includes pledges to create new guards and methods to report abuse, is expected to bring victims closure — and turn the page on one of the darkest days for an institution that's revered in Hawaii.

The victims were all sexually assaulted between the 1950s to the 1980s by prominent Honolulu psychiatrist Dr. Robert Browne, who served as a consultant for the private school.

"We have to make things pono, not only for ourselves but for the future students" Alika Bajo, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said in a news conference Friday. "Some things take a long time to change. Change at this kind of magnitude not going to come overnight."

Micah Kane, chairman of Kamehameha School's board, said he believes the settlement will help all parties will move forward.

"We had the opportunity to reconcile something that happened a long time ago," he told Hawaii News Now.

"It was an emotional journey for everyone involved on both sides of the table. While we brought closure, it's something we're going to carry for a long period of time. We're not going to forget this time and what the trust experienced."

The money will go to 32 plaintiffs in the suit against Kamehameha Schools, including families of men who died and some who were not Kamehameha students.

It's unclear what each victim will receive since the legal fees paid to the attorneys was not disclose.

But on a per person basis, the settlement is nearly four times what the victims in the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal received.

Michael Green, one of the lawyers for the victims, said that while the money in the settlement is impressive, it won't erase the damage done to the men in the suit.

"For some of these men, their first sexual experiences was with Dr. Browne," Green said, in a news conference. "It's a lot of dollars, but there are a lot of people who wouldn't trade places with them."

Settlement talks began in earnest last month — after Kamehameha apologized for not acting faster to help the men.

"We have a tentative settlement agreement, which is still subject to probate court approval, that takes everyone one step closer to the end of mediation and the beginning of the healing we all want to see as a community and 'ohana," said Kevin Cockett, vice president of communications at Kamehameha Schools, in an emailed statement.

In addition to the $80 million settlement, Kamehameha Schools will establish an independently-run hotline through which people can anonymously report wrongdoing of any kind.

The school will also create a recovery fund that will pay for medical expenses for Kamehameha School students who have experienced or will experience instances of sexual assault. There is currently no cap for the fund.

Kamehameha is now expected to pursue its own lawsuit against St. Francis Healthcare System, which employed Browne and where middle and high school boys went for their so-called "therapy."

Gerald Carrell, one of Browne's victims, told Hawaii News Now Thursday night that the settlement — and the changes the school has pledged to make in the wake of the scandal — are heartening.

"People mistake the fact that we're asking for money for some kind of vendetta we have against the school, but I think a lot of people just don't understand ... I can't get those 50 years back. We can't change our past," he said.

"I'm excited that the men stood with me to do this ... that we stood together and we were strong."

RELATED COVERAGE: "Hidden Betrayal" Series

Part I: Kamehameha Schools sex abuse victims: 'Monster' stole our childhoodsPart II: Pledge to investigate Kamehameha Schools sex abuse went unfulfilledPart III: Victims: Kamehameha Schools sex abuse suit is about accountability?

Browne sexually abused boys at the school from 1958 to 1985, the school has acknowledged, and victims say he made clear to them that they had to keep quiet about the assaults.

"I spent 40 years of my life in shame and in hiding, thinking that it was my fault, when it wasn't my fault," said Alika Bajo, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, in a news conference Friday.

"This pain is never going to leave me, I'm probably going to get therapy for the rest of my life," Bajo said.

Dozens of victims have since come forward, telling similar stories — even 50 years later — about being driven by school employees to Browne's office at St. Francis Hospital and sexually assaulted on a weekly basis, often for years.

Browne committed suicide in 1991, a day after he was confronted by one of his victims.

But even after Browne's death, it would still take years for the victims to find each other and discover they were far from alone. While piecing together how such a widespread crime could have been hidden for so long, the men wondered, who else at Kamehameha knew and what was done about it?

In a deposition for the lawsuit against Kamehameha Schools and St. Francis, former Kamehameha President Michael Chun said he was alerted to the accusations against Browne after the psychiatrist's suicide.

Chun said his initial reaction to the allegations "was to find out more."

But an investigation appeared to go nowhere, and authorities weren't notified.

Under oath and on video, the beloved longtime head of the institution faced tough questions about what he did with his suspicions about Browne.

"I never reported that. I never reported it to the officials," Chun said.

Going into settlement talks, victims and their families were preparing for a courtroom battle against Kamehameha Schools, but also said they'd hear the institution out.

They've stressed the lawsuit was about keeping the school accountable.

"They failed to act, they failed to take proactive steps to identify these students," victim Emmett Lee Loy has told Hawaii News Now.

Lee Loy and the other plaintiffs said Kamehameha Schools failed to protect them and then covered up the years of sexual abuse, instead of trying to determine how many people Browne abused and whether they needed support.

The victims also alleged the school missed clear signs of Browne's behavior while he was abusing them. And the lawsuit mentions several examples of boys reporting abuse to school officials.

"They made no effort, in fact they went the direct opposite direction, they sought to cover this stuff up," Lee Loy said.

Founded by the 1883 will of Bernice Pauahi Bishop, Kamehameha Schools is the state's biggest private landowner and Hawaii's largest charitable trust – with assets exceeding $8 billion.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Hidden Betrayal at Kamehameha Schools]

This story will be updated.

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