This editorial was published Feb. 20, 2018, in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
There is no compensation for a childhood lost to sexual abuse. That won’t change as a result of the proposed $80 million settlement for 32 adults who suffered sexual abuse decades ago while students at Kamehameha Schools. They will carry that loss for a lifetime.
It’s believed to be the largest personal injury settlement in Hawaii’s history, hitting the wealthy and powerful landowner and educational trust, chartered to educate Native Hawaiians.
But what’s most significant about the settlement is the school’s recognition of its own accountability for that loss. In particular, the steps taken to correct how school officials address such complaints represents a sign that a long-established culture of silence is beginning to shift.
Although the accord still awaits final approval by the probate court, it remains a welcome sign: The settlement also includes a prescription for tracking future problems, an approach that should be adapted by other schools as well.
The need for these protocols quickly became evident, given the revelation of a new allegation of sexual assault. This led to the arrest on Friday of a 23-year-old Kamehameha teacher accused by a female student; he was placed on administrative leave.
The newly settled case involved the late Dr. Robert Browne, a consultant then employed as chief of psychiatry by what was then St. Francis Hospital and working under a separate contract as a therapist for Kamehameha. Browne committed suicide in 1991 outside his home hours after a former student had confronted him.
St. Francis Healthcare System of Hawaii, the successor to the hospital entity, is not a party to the negotiated settlement. In a prepared release from Kamehameha, officials of the schools indicated they “will pursue all possible remedies” against St. Francis to secure funds that will offset the total cost of the settlement to the schools.
In its response, St. Francis officials expressed their “disappointment” to learn of the pursuit of a claim.
The optimal outcome, of course, would be some participation by St. Francis, on whose premises some of the abuses were alleged to have occurred. Further prolonging of the litigation would bring more pain to the victims, so ideally the two parties should come to terms.
The fight is not over: The school is still negotiating with two other plaintiffs, in addition to its anticipated legal battle with St. Francis.
Browne treated troubled Kamehameha students for more than 20 years, from the late 1950s to the early ’80s. That was a different era, when children and even their parents felt even less empowered than they do now to challenge authority figures. These would include a medical professional such as Browne and the school officials who were supposed to have been providing oversight.
But times have changed. Certainly today, when many alleging sexual misdeeds have taken their grievances public, turning a blind eye to complaints has become unacceptable.
One of the strengths of the proposed settlement is its demand to set up a recovery fund to support students, past and present, in pursuing treatment services for sexual or physical abuse.
And it stipulates that an independent expert be hired to review reports made through a hotline, which itself would be operated by a vendor outside the school organization. The school already has established the hotline for students to report abuse and other problems.
However the settlement is finalized, it could develop into a template for other institutions that have custody of children, and a signal of how serious these charges can be. Each allegation still must be vetted, and parents still must be attentive to the signs.
But giving children a safe way to be heard should help better protect students, going forward. That is a goal all can share.