The Kamehameha Schools administration in the 1990s dropped the ball by not investigating allegations of sexual abuse against a psychiatrist who had treated hundreds of students from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, a board member from that period told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Monday.
Oswald Stender, who served as a trustee from January 1990 to May 1999, said he recalls that the board was told that Dr. Robert Browne committed suicide in 1991 and that his death was linked to rumors that he had sexually molested a student years earlier.
The board instructed the school’s administration to look into the matter and report back to the board, but “nothing came back,” Stender told the newspaper.
As more former students came forward in the years following Browne’s suicide to allege that they had been victimized by the psychiatrist while they were Kamehameha students, “the board should have been informed of that,” Stender added.
He also said the administration should have investigated those allegations, given how serious they were, to determine the extent of the problem.
Jack Wong, Kamehameha’s chief executive officer, acknowledged Monday night that more could have been done for the students.
Thirty-four former patients of Browne — most of them former Kamehameha students — have sued the school, Browne’s estate and St. Francis Medical Center, where Browne was chief of psychiatry, for negligence and other alleged wrongdoing, saying the institutions failed in their obligation to protect the students from Browne’s sexual molestation.
In a statement to the Star-Advertiser, Wong said Kamehameha’s kuleana is to take care of its students.
“We feel deeply for the individuals, the plaintiffs who have come forward. We don’t condone what happened in the past, and the facts are being discussed in the courts. Clearly, more could’ve been done for these students. We know what is expected of us, and I’m ensuring that we have practices and procedures in place to better protect our students.”
The Star-Advertiser reported Sunday that school officials from the 1990s said in sworn depositions taken last year that Kamehameha did not conduct a broad investigation following the initial allegations, did not report them to law enforcement and did not reach out to former Kamehameha students who had been treated by Browne to determine whether they needed assistance.
Asked whether he thinks Kamehameha officials dropped the ball in not pursing an investigation, Stender replied, “It certainly seems so.”
Kamehameha acknowledged in court documents filed in July that it believes Browne routinely sexually abused students but concealed the alleged misconduct from the school. It said it didn’t start learning of the allegations until 1991, though the plaintiffs dispute that.
Browne’s tenure as psychiatric consultant to Kamehameha ended in late 1981. He treated troubled students, many of whom potentially were facing expulsion.
In the wake of Sunday’s Star-Advertiser coverage, some alumni have expressed unhappiness with the way the school has handled the problem.
“I love the school,” said Adrian Kamalii, a 2000 graduate. “But I’m extremely disappointed in what has been the response.”
Kamalii sits on the Hawaii advisory board for the nonprofit Joyful Heart Foundation, which focuses on healing, educating and empowering survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.
Any time someone alleges sexual abuse, that has to be taken seriously, Kamalii said. “The solution is not difficult. It just requires paying attention when people ask for help.”
On Facebook, Kamalii linked to the Star-Advertiser’s Sunday coverage and criticized Kamehameha’s actions.
“I’m deeply disappointed, saddened and disgusted,” he wrote. “Sexual predators are around our children all the time. How we respond to the issue determines the way society will step up to these issues in our own homes, work places and other places of learning.”
Michelle Kauhane, a 1986 graduate, also voiced disappointment.
“It’s gut-wrenching to hear of the tragedy experienced by who-knows-how-many students,” Kauhane said in an interview with the Star-Advertiser, adding that any allegations of sexual misconduct must be investigated.
“That’s got to be a priority,” she said.
Brandon Kaleiaina Lee, president of the Kamehameha Alumni Association’s Oahu region, said he couldn’t comment on how the school has responded to the allegations because he doesn’t have enough information, citing the school’s inability to publicly discuss the case because of a court gag order.
The plaintiffs maintain that the gag order, which was issued under a 2014 lawsuit that has since been dismissed, does not apply to the lawsuit they filed in 2016.
Stender told the newspaper that after Browne’s 1991 suicide there wasn’t much board discussion about it, but the trustees were told that the school’s attorneys would deal with the matter.
Michael Chun, Kamehameha president in the 1990s, said in a deposition taken last year that he concluded that the initial allegations reported to him in 1991 by the father of Kamehameha boys were accurate and that Chun was concerned about the possibility of more victims.
But in questioning by attorneys for the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, Chun said the school did not pursue an investigation to check for additional alleged victims or attempt to reach out to former students treated by Browne to see whether they needed help, according to transcripts of the depositions.
He said the school’s actions were guided by its attorneys.
Asked why he didn’t do something in the ensuing years to help Browne’s alleged victims, Chun responded, “Doing nothing is doing something, right?”
The transcripts show that at least one letter from the father of the boys who alleged abuse was copied to William Richardson, a member of the board.
Kamehameha Schools, which teaches Hawaiian students, is Hawaii’s wealthiest charitable institution, with roughly $8.6 billion in assets. The trust was established to uphold the will of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop and was formerly known as Bishop Estate.
In the years following Browne’s suicide, Bishop Estate became engulfed in a mismanagement scandal that threatened the trust’s tax-exempt status and eventually resulted in the replacement of trustees.
With the organization preoccupied by that issue, Stender speculated that the Browne matter might have gotten “lost in the shuffle.”