It was late 1991, and the Kamehameha Schools community was still reeling from the suicide of a psychiatrist who had treated hundreds of its students from the late 1950s to the early ’80s.
On Halloween that year, Dr. Robert Browne shot himself — shortly after a former student confronted him about alleged abuse from years earlier, according to court records.
In the years after the suicide, school officials would hear of more allegations that Browne, a psychiatric consultant to Kamehameha, had sexually molested troubled male students during private counseling sessions, often at his soundproof office at St. Francis Medical Center.
Kamehameha’s then-president and secondary school principal were among those who were told of the accusations. In the president’s case, he eventually concluded the first allegations he heard were credible and acknowledged concerns about the possibility of more victims, according to sworn testimony taken for a pending lawsuit.
Yet the taint of a sex abuse scandal at the $8.6 billion charitable institution, Hawaii’s wealthiest, would remain off the public’s radar and out of the headlines for more than two decades, in part because Kamehameha did a good job of keeping the matter under wraps — not even reaching out to former students who were treated by Browne to see if they were all right. Some say they aren’t.
Transcripts of sworn testimony given by several key officials who worked for Kamehameha in the years before and after Browne’s death provide an unusual behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the institution responded to the initial allegations from at least several students.
Kamehameha officials did not report the accusations to law enforcement authorities or investigate whether more students had similar claims, according to depositions they gave last year for the lawsuit in which 34 plaintiffs accused Browne of sex abuse, mostly in the ’60s and ’70s. Most of the plaintiffs are ex-Kamehameha students.
One former school official questioned by the plaintiffs’ attorneys said he didn’t follow up on a 1991 phone conversation with an ex-student — who claimed he was going to confront the retired Browne about abuse from years earlier — because the psychiatrist killed himself the next day, the transcripts show.
“I didn’t go anywhere with that,” said Anthony Ramos, the secondary school principal at the time. “I said, ‘The man’s dead.’”
“Anger has been the centerpiece of my issues.” — Ronald James
“All these years of suffering, and Kam Schools, to me, they didn’t care. They’re just sorry they got caught.” — Michael Almeida
“I’ve been holding my shame in all this time. But now I realize it wasn’t my fault. I was a victim.” — Alika Bajo
“This has deeply impacted all of us, and as we work toward resolution in everyone’s best interest, we trust that we will all find a way to heal together as one ohana. Our hearts and prayers continue to go out to the plaintiffs and their families.” — Kamehameha Schools
Michael Chun, Kamehameha president in the 1990s, told the attorneys that his actions back then were guided by the institution’s lawyers.
Even though Chun concluded that two brothers were telling the truth about being abused by Browne and that he had concerns about the possibility of other victims, the president acknowledged taking no steps to try to identify the others, according to the transcripts.
“Why not?” plaintiffs lawyer Mark Davis asked.
“Can’t say; just did not happen,” Chun replied.
Asked why he didn’t do something to help Browne’s alleged victims in the ensuing years, Chun responded, “Doing nothing is doing something, right?”
ABUSE IN THE SPOTLIGHT
The current revelations focusing on what Kamehameha did and didn’t do in response to decades-old sex abuse allegations come amid heightened sensitivity to such scenarios.
Prestigious private schools on the mainland have been rocked by controversy after former students disclosed they were sexually abused long ago by people in positions of authority at those campuses.
The list of affected institutions is a who’s who of the East Coast elites: Phillips Academy, Deerfield Academy, Emma Willard School, Horace Mann School — just to name a few.
The political, entertainment and media worlds also have seen similar upheaval, with celebrities, corporate chieftains and others dragged down amid the fallout over recently revealed past misconduct.
In many cases, the systemic factors and lax attitudes and practices of past decades are blamed for allowing the abuse to continue. These factors have come under as much criticism as the institutions and individuals themselves.
Kamehameha is facing blowback as well, especially among the 34 plaintiffs who sued the school in 2016, alleging that it was negligent in its duty to protect students and even covered up the misconduct. The litigation is pending.
The school denies any negligence and maintains that Browne concealed the abuse, which Kamehameha described in one court document as happening routinely.
Browne’s estate, also a defendant, denied the abuse allegations in court documents. Its attorney declined comment. Another defendant, St. Francis Medical Center, where Browne served as chief of psychiatry for its hospital patients, likewise has denied wrongdoing.
YEARS OF PAIN AND ANGER
Several of the plaintiffs who spoke to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser recently said they are still struggling with the shame, guilt and emotional pain that have weighed them down since their Kamehameha years. Even those with successful careers spoke of anguish.
Until the lawsuit, they said they thought they were the only ones who had suffered at Browne’s hands and did not tell a soul — or only one or two confidants. At the time, they said, Browne told them that the fondling, masturbation or penetration was part of the therapy and that everything that happened in their sessions was secret. They also said they were threatened with expulsion from school if they didn’t keep their appointments with Browne.
In the aftermath, some plaintiffs turned to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Some cannot talk about the alleged abuse even decades later without tearing up, saying the emotions they bottled up for so long wreaked havoc with their lives. One man said he attempted suicide several times, acknowledging that each was a cry for help.
All spoke of an inner, consuming anger.
“I felt that rage inside of me for 44 years,” said Alika Bajo, 57, of Haleiwa, fighting back tears while recalling episodes of alleged abuse when he was a 13-year-old eighth-grader in 1973. In his later years, he said he attempted suicide five times and battled alcohol and drug addictions.
“Now I feel the rage more because Kam Schools doesn’t care about us,” Bajo, a musician and cultural practitioner, added. “They were supposed to help us, make us better. All they did was make us worse.”
Bajo’s anger is shared by other plaintiffs, who criticized the school for its past actions and how it currently is responding to the lawsuit. They say their trust in the organization — founded to uphold the will of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop to care for and educate Hawaiian children — has been shattered.
“I feel disgusted,” said Michael Almeida, 53, of Wailua, who said he was abused as a freshman in 1979. “They’re continuing to prolong our suffering. They’re not making any attempts to right the wrongs.”
California resident Ronald James, who says he was abused as a 12-year-old in the mid-’60s, added, “I think they were much more concerned about where the tuition was coming from and much less concerned about what’s happening to people under their care.”
Kamehameha would not answer questions related to the lawsuit, citing a 2014 gag order issued in a similar suit that was dismissed. The school says the order covers the current litigation and prevents the parties from publicly discussing the case. The 2014 order said it would apply to other proceedings arising from claims in that lawsuit.
The school has asked the court to sanction the plaintiffs’ lawyers, accusing them of flagrantly violating the gag order by talking to the press and running newspaper ads seeking additional witnesses.
But the plaintiffs’ attorneys say the order doesn’t apply to the current case and that Kamehameha simply is trying to keep past wrongdoing concealed.
A hearing on the dispute is scheduled for next month.
In a general statement, the school said it was “deeply saddened by the hardship endured by the individuals who have come forward in court.”
It also said it is continuing to make improvements in carrying out its most important responsibility — to care for and protect Kamehameha’s children.
“We take this matter very seriously and do not tolerate any conduct that endangers the health and safety of our students,” the statement said. “This has deeply impacted all of us, and as we work toward resolution in everyone’s best interest, we trust that we will all find a way to heal together as one ohana. Our hearts and prayers continue to go out to the plaintiffs and their families.”
St. Francis likewise issued a statement.
“As a Franciscan organization, St. Francis takes any allegation of sexual abuse of children very seriously, and the allegations made by the plaintiffs in this case break our hearts,” the statement said. “Although St. Francis will not comment on the specifics of any allegations at this time, St. Francis is committed to working through the judicial process to ensure peace and reconciliation to heal whatever may have happened in the past.”
St. Francis employed Browne as chief of psychiatry from the late ’50s to the early ’80s to see admitted patients at the hospital. He also maintained an office at St. Francis for his private practice.
Even though the alleged abuse happened decades ago, the plaintiffs were able to file their lawsuit after the state enacted a law in 2012 that extended the statute of limitations for individuals seeking damages for childhood abuse. The 34 former Browne patients are seeking unspecified damages.
When Kamehameha first learned of the alleged abuse is among the many issues in dispute.
Kamehameha says it didn’t know about the allegations until 1991 because Browne had concealed his alleged wrongdoing and reported to the school that he was providing medically appropriate services.
But James, the California resident, told the Star-Advertiser that in 1966 he informed then-Principal Diana Lord that Browne had abused him during a counseling session, including fondling his genitals. When the abuse progressed farther, James, then 12, cried as Browne told him to stare at a nearby wall, according to James.
When James later asked Lord why Browne had to touch him all over, the principal said Browne was a doctor and could do whatever he wanted, according to James. “She just stonewalled it.”
Lord died in 2008.
Another plaintiff told multiple school officials in 1975 about his alleged abuse, according to the lawsuit.
Jetta Bernier, executive director of MassKids, a Boston-based child advocacy organization, doesn’t believe Kamehameha broke the law by not reporting to authorities the allegations against Browne once learning of them after his suicide. But she said the school clearly was at fault for not investigating the scope of the problem.
“Professionally, it’s very, very bad behavior,” she said, adding that Kamehameha likely would have discovered more victims and perpetrators.
The lawsuit is scheduled for trial in June, though the two sides are arguing over matters related to additional depositions that could delay the date.
In the depositions taken last year, Chun, the former Kamehameha president, told the plaintiffs’ attorneys that no one had advised him against pursuing an investigation into other possible victims. But he expressed uncertainty over whether Kamehameha had the records to identify all the students Browne treated over the years.
Pressed by Davis, the plaintiff attorney, Chun admitted not even trying to identify a single person, according to the transcript.
“Were you worried about being sued when all this came to light?” Davis asked.
“We’re always worried about being sued,” Chun replied. “It doesn’t have to be this particular issue, but that’s not the driving force in terms of taking action.”
After Chun became aware of the possibility of widespread abuse, Kamehameha destroyed all records it had of Browne’s sessions with students, according to the plaintiffs. Chun could not be reached for comment for this story.
In his deposition, Ramos, the former principal, acknowledged that the school referred students to Browne and provided transportation to appointments but didn’t monitor the treatment, leaving that to the psychiatrist. Ramos declined comment, citing the pending litigation.
Chun told the plaintiffs’ attorneys that his main goal even as the Browne allegations surfaced was to ensure current students were safe. He said he could do no more to protect the former students already harmed.
“My agenda,” he told the attorneys, “was to protect the kids under my care.”