Abuse Suits Squeeze Under Hawaii's New Time Limits
by Nicholas Fillmore, Court House News, May 2, 2016
HONOLULU (CN) — Victims of childhood sexual abuse filed a spate of last-minute civil suits in Hawaii state court last week, ahead of the Legislature's latest deadline to re-enact the statute of limitations for sex-abuse cases.
In all, some 150 people have filed complaints in the four years since the Aloha State suspended the statute of limitations on noncriminal proceedings against sex offenders.
The lawsuits involve various parties as defendants, including the Roman Catholic Church of Hawaii, Kamehameha Schools, Boy Scouts of America, medical facilities, and state agencies. One case names the State Child Protective Services, which the plaintiff says removed him from an abusive home environment only to deliver him into the hands of a predatory foster father.
The original bill to set aside the statute of limitations in sex-abuse cases was set to expire in 2014, but compromise legislation authored by state Sen. Maile Shimabokuro kept the window for filing open another two years. The compromise came after former Gov. Neil Abercrombie vetoed a measure that would have eliminated the statute of limitations altogether.
Recognizing the long psychological process of dredging up repressed childhood memories and the struggle to talk about them, the bill has given plaintiffs — most of whom filed as John Roes — a belated chance to realize a measure of justice, if not closure.
The complaints describe the actions of a number of serial pedophiles active in the 1950s through the 1970s, most notable among them former Kamehameha School head psychiatrist Dr. Robert M. Browne and the late Father Joseph Henry of Saint Anthony's of Padua Church in Kailua. Victims claim both men used their positions of authority not only to gain physical access to their victims, but to convince victims that they were somehow at fault.
Browne raped dozens of young boys in his office and home as part of their "therapy." He shot and killed himself in 1991 after being confronted by one of his victims.
Henry, described as a pillar of the community, assaulted many of his victims with the knowledge and implied consent of other priests, domestic staff, and teachers.
Other suits describe altar boys raped by priests in the church sacristy after Sunday service and at "rectory sleepovers." A custodian who molested a girl right in the pews as she was waiting to go to confession described himself as having "hands of God."
John Roe #48 claims he was sexually abused by six different priests over a 12-year period. Another plaintiff says that he was repeatedly abused with the knowledge and participation of other priests within the diocese.
A disturbing trend in the complaints involves the cover-ups — the conspiracy of silence in which these perpetrators managed to implicate witnesses and victims alike.
"An observable trend among victims is they tend to be of lower economic classes, and introverted children with little self-confidence," attorney Randall Rosenberg, who has filed on behalf of 56 victims, said. "To be successful, pedophiles had to pick victims that weren't likely to tell. In fact, two of my clients were in their 70s before they ever told anyone. I was the first person they ever told."
Attorney Mark Gallagher, who was represents many sex-abuse victims in Hawaii, said it takes "a certain amount of courage and resolution to open up that box."
He added, "It's very powerful to sit across from a rugged 60-year old guy. They break down, it's still very fresh; but it's cathartic for them to be able to talk about it. And many, after sharing their experience for the first time will confide in others and receive the support they never got."
Rosenberg spoke of the stigma associated with sexual abuse as a reason why many victims wait so long to tell their stories.
“One of the reasons that victims struggle to come forward is this belief that the victims themselves somehow caused the abuse to occur, and thinking they will be judged if they disclose what happened to them," Rosenberg said. "The first thing I tell them is, 'This wasn't your fault; you're not the only one.'"
Occasionally, victims did gather the courage to tell someone — Rosenberg estimates it happened about 10 percent of the time, and often made things worse for the victims.
"Unfortunately, during the 50's, 60's, and 70's, most adults were very trusting of their religious institutions and refused to believe that the sexual abuse being described by my clients had happened. In some cases, my clients were disciplined for disclosing the abuse and were told to never say such things again," Rosenberg said.
One of Gallagher's clients told his grandmother about Father Henry.
“The grandmother put the kid in the car and they drove right down to St. Anthony's to confront Henry," Gallagher said. "Of course nothing ever happened. Henry deflected and denied. And the parents took the kid out of school and enrolled him in another Catholic school, thinking Henry was just a bad egg."
Even less often, a child had the courage to report the abuse directly to church officials. Mark Pinkosh, a fourth grade altar boy when he was first raped by father Henry, and one of the first Hawaii victims to come forward, said that when he told a nun at St. Anthony's that Father Henry raped him, she slapped his face.
Pinkosh later confided in another priest — Father Ferrario — who proceeded to rape Pinkosh himself. When Pinkosh tried to press criminal charges in the 1980s, he was told the statute of limitations had expired.
Ferrario, who was also accused by David Figueroa of sexual abuse, became Bishop of the Diocese in Hawaii even though the Vatican was aware of the complaints of sexual abuse.
None of Pinkosh's complaints to church officials were ever reported to law enforcement by the church. In fact, historically Hawaii institutions that learned of child sex abuse occurring under their watch rarely if ever reported such abuse to law enforcement authorities.
"And Figueroa was assassinated in the press." Gallagher said.
In 1992, the Hawaii Catholic Diocese claimed it had instituted a policy requiring employees to report all complaints of alleged child sex abuse to law enforcement. Despite this policy change, it is unclear what actions the diocese has actually taken.
During a recent deposition taken during litigation between victims and the church, Vicar General Gary Secor could not recall a single instance when the diocese actually made such a report. According to Rosenberg, documents show that the Catholic Church and other religious institutions were always more concerned with the perpetrator's viability to continue his religious duties than the harm suffered by the victim.
Details of the abuses are horrific. In one of the last complaints handled by Rosenberg before the deadline, plaintiff D.H. describes being anally raped by Father George De Costa 5-10 times when he was five years old.
"When a crying plaintiff said he was going to tell his parents, De Costa slapped plaintiff in the back of the head and said if he did, his parents would be killed," D.H. says in the complaint.
Though removed from official duties by Bishop Larry Silva in 2009, De Costa continued to deliver the opening prayer for the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival as late as 2011 and still maintains his innocence.
The damage to the victims is often profound and life-altering, according to Rosenberg.
"Seventy-five percent of the victims are disasters: alcohol abuse, prison, broken relationships," he said. "They've had a lifetime of being broken. Some become abusers themselves. One client developed a multiple personality disorder."
He added: "A handful are successful. One is a retired CEO of a private school. Some retired from law enforcement. But when you talk to them, you see the path they've gone down."
Reached for comment, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu offered this statement through Vicar General Gary Secor: "We know there is nothing we can do to erase the pain suffered by these victims of sexual abuse. The abuse of children by clergy and others has been a source of great shame to the Catholic Church throughout our country and the world. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu remains committed to treating these victims with compassion and respect, with the goal of providing just resolution. We ask for their forgiveness, and as a Catholic community, we continue to pray that they find peace and healing.
“It is also the church's responsibility to learn by its mistakes. The Diocese of Honolulu now has multi-level safe environment policies in place to help ensure that children and youth entrusted to our care will be safe from harm, and all who work with children will know that whenever there is evidence or suspicion of abuse, the matter will be reported to the appropriate authorities."
The church is in the process of settling cases and is expected to pay some $20 million in damages, some out-of-pocket as it is currently in mediation with its insurance company.
Rosenberg is a partner of the firm Rosenberg McKay Hoffman in Honolulu. Gallagher practices in Kailua, Hawaii.