He grew up on a Molokai pig farm in a house with no toilet or light switches.
Andy Vliet’s rural lifestyle as a small boy was far removed from the traffic, concrete sprawl and modern amenities of urban Honolulu.
When Vliet obtained a scholarship to attend the Kapalama campus of Kamehameha Schools as a seventh grade boarding student in 1976, his transition to Oahu did not go well. He struggled in school, was teased for his light complexion and pig-farm upbringing, and got into fights with his tormentors.
In the fall of 1976, as Kamehameha had done with dozens of other troubled students, it sent the Native Hawaiian youth, then 12, to see Dr. Robert Browne, a psychiatric consultant experienced in treating adolescents. If the students didn’t keep their appointments, they risked being expelled from school.
According to Vliet and his lawyers, over the next nearly five years, until November 1981, Vliet was sexually molested by Browne every other week during the school year and during less frequent sessions in the summer. The sessions were at Browne’s office at what was then called St. Francis Hospital, where Browne worked as chief of psychiatry.
A lawsuit Vliet filed in 2016 says at each session Browne would fondle and masturbate Vliet, telling his young patient that such treatment was required and meant to help him relax and overcome inhibitions. The lawsuit, amending a 2014 complaint, says Browne told Vliet not to tell anyone about the sessions.
Vliet is one of 34 plaintiffs — mostly former Kamehameha students — who sued the school, St. Francis and the late psychiatrist’s estate, alleging their negligence decades ago gave a pedophile unfettered, unsupervised access to young male victims. They alleged Browne molested students from the late 1950s to the early ’80s.
Thirty two of the plaintiffs who filed a group lawsuit reached an $80 million settlement with Kamehameha last year, but Vliet was not among that group.
Settlement talks falter
Vliet filed a separate lawsuit in 2014 and re-filed it in 2016 as “John Doe,” hoping to keep his name from becoming public. Another plaintiff filed a complaint as “Student Doe.”
Unlike with the group lawsuit, mediation talks in the Doe cases were not successful.
By the time the $80 million settlement was reached in February 2018, Kamehameha already had been persuaded the abuse happened.
After listening to wrenching accounts from individual plaintiffs, Kamehameha said in court documents in 2017 that it believed Browne routinely abused students without the school’s contemporaneous knowledge and that the doctor concealed his behavior.
Later, Kamehameha admitted not doing nearly enough when its president and other school officials learned of the allegations in the early 1990s after the psychiatrist committed suicide. Browne fatally shot himself in October 1991 hours after being confronted by a former student.
Vliet suffered the most prolific abuse among the plaintiffs and was one of the youngest, according to his lawyers, Mattson Kelley of Maui and Jon Jacobs of Honolulu.
Vliet also was one of the most accomplished — so much so that the school named the former Molokai resident a distinguished alumnus and in 2003 considered him for Kamehameha’s chief executive position, a job that ultimately went to someone else.
Vliet, now 54, became Kamehameha’s first and only Rhodes scholar in 1985, obtained a doctorate degree from Oxford University in England and was awarded a Bronze star in 2006 for his Army service in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He retired as a lieutenant colonel. He also has held multiple jobs in the private sector and is now a managing consultant for the city.
Helping victims heal
When the settlement was announced last year, Kamehameha officials said they wanted to help the victims heal, bring closure to their years of suffering and do better moving forward in protecting students from harm. The agreement included enhancements for student safety.
Vliet said he was angered by the public pronouncements, which created the impression the Browne case was over, the victims were gaining closure and a dark chapter in the school’s history was ending.
“The words ring hollow,” he told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, speaking publicly about his case for the first time.
Vliet said he still feels betrayed by his alma mater. “Part of this (going public) is to set the record straight.”
Despite the school’s statements, Vliet added, Kamehameha is aggressively preparing for trial, plans to take his deposition in July and has requested numerous documents, all part of a strategy he believes is intended to wear him down so he will drop the lawsuit.
According to court filings, the school is seeking Vliet’s past job applications, employment assessments, academic evaluations, military records, supervisors’ names, salaries, awards, resumes, writings intended for publication and other records and electronic communications.
‘This is a knife fight’
Vliet questioned the relevance of such documents if the goal is to settle the case and called Kamehameha’s legal tactics appalling. “This isn’t closure, this is not healing,” he said. “This is a knife fight.”
But Kamehameha representatives, who expressed sorrow for the abuse Vliet suffered, said they are pursuing a resolution to his case no differently than the other Browne cases and in a manner typical when a plaintiff is seeking a large monetary amount in a personal injury lawsuit.
Kamehameha has used the same mediation process, including the same mediator, as in the other cases and, despite many hours of mediation spread over two-plus years, has not been able to reach agreement with Vliet, according to school officials.
“It’s quite simple,” said Jack Wong, Kamehameha’s CEO. “He asked for too much money.”
Noting the obligation the trust has to all its beneficiaries, Wong said the amount Vliet sought was unreasonable, excessive and far more than what other abuse victims have received.
Vliet, through his attorneys, disputed that.
“Andy is distressed by KS’ ongoing misrepresentations,” Jacobs said. “KS’ attacks of Andy, a survivor, are untruthful and unprecedented. He looks forward to the truth being presented at trial.”
The trial is scheduled for October 2020.
The settlement talks collapsed in February because the two sides were too far apart, and the mediator formally declared an impasse in May. Neither side would reveal proposed settlement amounts.
After the talks ended, Circuit Judge Dean Ochiai directed the parties to pursue discovery — obtaining documents and other evidence — to gain more clarity on the injury and damages claims, according to Paul Alston, attorney for Kamehameha. That’s what Kamehameha is doing with the document request, he added.
“Mr. Vliet’s refusal to settle at a fair and reasonable amount has forced us to go down this longer path of litigation,” Wong said. “It’s unfortunate but a necessary step to bring resolution.”
Even though Kamehameha is preparing to go to trial, it is focusing on the possibility of resolving the case after getting more information through discovery, Alston said.
“We’re working toward the same outcome here as we did with the 32 survivors: a fair and reasonable settlement,” Wong added.
Keeping a dark secret
With the exception of his legal team in 2014, Vliet said he didn’t tell anyone about his abuse until this year — nearly four decades after his last session with Browne, who he said conditioned him to trust and tell no one about his sessions.
“It’s like dirty laundry,” Vliet said. “You put it in a bag, you put it away, and you don’t wash the laundry. But it’s still there in the back of your closet, and it’s going mildewy and things like that.”
In April, he told his ex-wife, followed by his two children and a handful of others.
Asked why he kept his secret for so long, Vliet replied: “This is the worst thing. How do you tell people? How do you tell people, ‘I was sexually assaulted for five calendar years’? Who’s heard of that?”
But keeping quiet has left Vliet weary, another reason for going public. “I’m tired of hiding,” said the Maui resident, who lives by himself and commutes each work day to his Honolulu job.
Vliet also cited the notion of accountability. Even as the Browne litigation was ongoing, James Maeda, a former Kamehameha teacher, was convicted in February for sexually assaulting a student from June 2017 to February 2018, mostly on campus.
The case raised questions about whether meaningful reforms have been made, according to Vliet. “If you can’t trust the institution to protect your children, what good is the institution?”
Alston said Kamehameha “did everything in its power to see that Mr. Maeda was charged and convicted … as soon as his bad acts came to light.”
The school also reinforced efforts to maintain a safe environment for students, he added.
One of the notable aspects of Vliet’s case is what he has been able to achieve academically and professionally after leaving Kamehameha. Some of the other former Browne patients who said they were molested have acknowledged struggles with drug abuse, alcohol abuse, depression and other demons.
Asked whether the alleged abuse served as a motivator, Vliet was unsure. “I don’t even know how to answer that,” he said.
Touting a Rhodes scholar
Once Vliet was named a Rhodes scholar, Kamehameha was quick to tout his accomplishment. When the then-University of Montana student returned to Oahu after being informed of his selection to the prestigious program in 1985, the school held a news conference to highlight his achievement.
Ironically, several years later when allegations against Browne surfaced after his suicide, a retired Kamehameha principal referred to Vliet’s achievement while defending the late psychiatrist.
In 1992, Diana Lord wrote to Kamehameha’s president telling him that many graduates leading productive lives probably would not have made it through Kamehameha without Browne’s counseling, according to her letter.
“Without him Kamehameha would not have had a Rhodes scholar,” she added.
Alston said Lord, who has since died, was expressing a personal opinion. But like with all graduates, Kamehameha remains proud of Vliet’s accomplishments, he added.
The other plaintiff whose sex abuse lawsuit is still pending is not ready to speak publicly, his lawyer told the Star-Advertiser.
But Student Doe is “frustrated over the length of time between the filing of the complaint and the present without any resolution,” said his attorney, Steven Hisaka. “He has been waiting patiently to try to resolve things.”
Even if the two remaining Doe lawsuits are settled, the Browne controversy may not end then.
Other former Kamehameha students who say they were sexually molested by Browne and were not part of the initial litigation have contacted attorneys about pursuing claims, according to several lawyers.
The Legislature extended until April 2020 the ability to file child abuse lawsuits that otherwise would be barred because the statute of limitations has passed.
Mark Davis, one of the lawyers for the 32 plaintiffs whose case was settled, said his firm has been contacted by multiple former Browne patients, and it intends to pursue litigation on behalf of those with the strongest claims.
“There will be seven additional cases,” Davis said.