Kamehameha Schools has taken a major step to close one of the most tumultuous chapters in its long and storied history, paying $65 million to 32 plaintiffs who sued the institution for the sexual abuse they suffered decades ago at the hands of a psychiatric consultant.
The payment was made Monday as part of an $80 million settlement of a 2016 lawsuit the men filed against Kamehameha, St. Francis Medical Center and the estate of Dr. Robert Browne, whom the plaintiffs accused of sexually abusing them from the late 1950s to the early 1980s when they were boys. Most were students at Kamehameha at the time and typically were 12 or 13 when the abuse started.
Browne killed himself behind his Manoa home in 1991 shortly after one of the former students confronted him about the past abuse.
The $80 million represents what is thought to be the largest personal injury settlement in Hawaii history.
Kamehameha paid the $65 million and is required to pay the remaining $15 million upon resolution of its cross-claim against St. Francis, which is not a party to the settlement, and plaintiff claims against the health care provider and its insurers, according to the court-approved agreement.
The agreement ensures that the plaintiffs do not have to wait indefinitely for the remaining funds.
If the St. Francis claims are not resolved by March 1, Kamehameha must pay the plaintiffs $7.5 million, and if they are still unresolved a year later, the remaining $7.5 million must be paid, according to the agreement.
Time for healing
Stanford Alika Bajo, one of the 32 plaintiffs, said he was pleased that the case is nearing an end, calling the moment bittersweet.
“I feel like I can breathe,” Bajo told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “I’m not holding my breath wondering what’s going to happen. There’s a rainbow at the end.”
Bajo previously told the newspaper that Browne abused him as a 13-year-old student in the 1970s. Over the next few decades, he said, he struggled with anger, depression, alcohol addiction and drug abuse. Bajo said he attempted suicide five times.
“In order to heal, I have to let all that go, that hate and anger,” the Haleiwa resident told the newspaper.
A guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner, Bajo said he and his wife, Deborah, plan to move to the Big Island with the settlement money and start new lives there. They intend to open a wedding business, and Bajo plans to cut his first solo album of traditional and contemporary Hawaiian songs.
Mark Davis, one of the lead lawyers for the plaintiffs, said the group decided to keep confidential the settlement amounts each will receive. They agreed to a formula to determine the individual amounts, based partly on a portion of the funds being equally distributed among the 32. The duration of the abuse one suffered and other extenuating circumstances also factored into the formula, according to Davis.
“This long, difficult case finally is coming to an end,” he told the newspaper.
The lawyers get about one-third of the settlement money, as is typical in major personal injury cases. That would amount to about $21.6 million, leaving more than $43 million for the 32 plaintiffs.
Distribution of the settlement proceeds will happen in a day or two, Davis said, adding that he was hopeful the funds would have a meaningful impact in helping the survivors move on with their lives.
Jack Wong, Kamehameha’s CEO, also looked ahead.
“It was important to close this difficult chapter in the hope that this will help the survivors move forward in this painful journey,” he said.
Although Kamehameha and its insurers are covering the settlement tab, the school is trying to recoup some of that money from St. Francis, which has appealed the settlement agreement. In its cross-claim, Kamehameha said it believes Browne routinely abused students but that the school wasn’t aware of the misconduct contemporaneously and that Browne had concealed it.
“We sincerely hope St. Francis finally acknowledges its role in the abuses and contributes its fair share to the settlement,” Wong said.
A St. Francis spokesman said the organization is in mediation talks with Kamehameha, but declined further comment.
The 2016 lawsuit accused Kamehameha and the other defendants of negligence and other charges, saying the defendants knew or should have known that Browne was sexually abusing the plaintiffs. The defendants denied the charges, and the settlement does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing on Kamehameha’s part.
The two sides negotiated for about a year and a half before reaching an agreement that almost didn’t happen. Early on, the plaintiffs sought damages totaling more than $300 million, and toward the end of the mediation, the two sides appeared to be at an impasse, according to court documents.
At that point the two mediators, retired Hawaii Judge Victoria Marks and Boston attorney Paul Finn, who specializes in mediating sex abuse cases, proposed the $80 million settlement.
As part of the agreement, Kamehameha has established a fund to provide medical, counseling and psychiatric services for former and current students who have been the victims of physical or sexual abuse.
It also is continuing to retain an independent agency to maintain hotlines for students, parents or employees to report activities that might endanger student safety and well-being, according to the agreement.
While Bajo applauded the changes, he said he remains skeptical the school will fundamentally change when confronted with a controversy that can hurt its image. “Their first impulse is to sweep it under the rug,” he said.
A key turning point publicly in the case came in 2017 when the Star-Advertiser disclosed the content of sworn testimony from former Kamehameha officials taken during depositions the prior year, including admissions that they did not report allegations from the 1990s to law enforcement.
Michael Chun, who was Kamehameha president during the ’90s, said he found two brothers’ allegations credible, had concerns about the possibility of other Browne victims but admitted taking no steps to try to identify others, according to deposition transcripts. He said his actions back then were guided by the institution’s lawyers.
Asked why he didn’t do something to help Browne’s victims in the ensuing years, Chun responded, “Doing nothing is doing something, right?”
The settlement does not cover lawsuits filed by two plaintiffs who were not represented by the law firms of Davis and Michael Green. Those cases are pending.
CLOSING A DIFFICULT CHAPTER
Kamehameha pays $65 million as part of sex abuse lawsuit settlement
1959: Dr. Robert Browne becomes psychiatric consultant to Kamehameha Schools, counseling troubled students. He is chief of psychiatry at St. Francis Medical Center.
1966: A Kamehameha student who was treated by Browne tells a school principal that Browne abused him during a counseling session, according to the former student.
1981: Browne’s tenure as psychiatric consultant at Kamehameha ends.
1991: Browne kills himself behind his Manoa home after being confronted hours earlier by a former student who said Browne abused him years ago.
1991: A Kamehameha father tells school President Michael Chun that several of his sons were sexually abused by the psychiatrist years earlier. Chun orders an internal review but said in a 2016 disposition he didn’t recall receiving a written report.
2012: State enacts law extending statute of limitations for individuals seeking damages for childhood abuse.
2014: A small group of former Kamehameha students sue the school and other defendants, accusing them of negligence in connection with the alleged abuse. The defendants dispute the allegations and the lawsuit eventually is dismissed.
2016: Another lawsuit is filed with 34 plaintiffs against Kamehameha, St. Francis and Browne’s estate. The plaintiffs, most former Kamehameha students, alleged that the abuse lasted from the late 1950s into the early 1980s. Defendants deny wrongdoing.
2016: Chun said in his deposition that when he was president, he found two brothers’ abuse allegations against Browne credible but didn’t do anything in the ensuing years to help Browne’s alleged victims. Asked why not, Chun responded, “Doing nothing is doing something, right?”
February 2018: Kamehameha and plaintiffs reach an $80 million settlement.
September 2018: St. Francis files appeal of settlement, saying it is unfairly prejudicial.
Monday: Kamehameha pays $65 million to plaintiffs; the rest to be paid in 2019 and 2020 or when outstanding claims against St. Francis are resolved.