Kamehameha School in Honolulu is one of a kind. Situated on a sprawling 600-acre campus on choice Oahu land, its massive multibillion-dollar endowment supports a first-rate K-12 education for some 3,000 children of Hawaiian ancestry. It offers otherwise deprived families a wealth of facilities, exceeding those of the fanciest private schools in the country, with more than 70 buildings, including an Olympic-size swimming pool and an athletic complex seating 3,000 spectators.
Kamehameha School is “a towering symbol of Hawaiian pride” with a proud legacy, as Hawaii News Now expressed it. Named for the great monarch who united the Hawaiian Islands — King Kamehameha I — and established in the will of his last direct descendant, it has educated some of the Islands’ leading lights since 1887.
But it also harbored a sordid secret for years: The school was covering up what a lawsuit brought by 32 of those former students described as “decades of monstrous sexual abuse” perpetrated largely against male boarders who were entirely in the care of Kamehameha.
For 27 years, from 1958 to 1985, under the guise of providing these children with behavioral and psychological therapy, the school forced them, sometimes under threat of expulsion, to see psychiatrist Robert Browne. He drugged them, raped them and tormented them psychologically at weekend “sleepovers” in his home, the lawsuit says.
Now, after nearly two years of negotiation, the school and the plaintiffs have reached a settlement for the staggering sum of $80 million, lawyers for the abused men said in a news release. In addition to paying out the money, the school has agreed to take steps to make sure such abuses are never repeated, including establishing an independently run hotline service.
“After a bitter battle,” Mark S. Davis, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, told The Washington Post, the school trustees “began to understand that in this ‘MeToo’ world, transparency and accountability is a lot more valuable than concealment.” Kamehameha Schools, in its own statement, said it “took into consideration the needs of survivors, the impacts on our organization and its mission, and the recommendation of mediators who have overseen thousands of cases. Most importantly,” the school said, “it has been about bringing closure to the pending litigation so that we may move forward and begin healing together.” School officials said they would pursue action against St. Francis Medical Center, where Browne worked, to collect funds. St. Francis, also a defendant, has not settled. The settlement requires court approval.
The agreement culminates one of the most high-profile scandals in Hawaii’s modern history involving one of the state’s greatest pillars. Kamehameha Schools, which now includes campuses on the islands of Hawaii and Maui as well as Oahu, is run by the Bishop Estate, established under the will of King Kamehameha’s great granddaughter, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. The estate, according to the school’s website, includes more than 365,000 acres of valuable Hawaii real estate which, when combined with other assets, was valued at $11 billion in 2014.
The school did not dispute the facts in the lawsuit. It issued a public apology recently as the attention to the lawsuit mounted. In depositions, former school officials admitted that they knew of some of the abuses and took no action.
No one, said the school’s CEO Jack Wong in the public apology, “was prepared for the horrific revelation that our precious haumāna (students) were secretly abused and physically and emotionally traumatized from 1962-1984 by Dr. Robert Browne, Chief of Psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital. And, after abuses were reported, not nearly enough was done. … Kamehameha Schools is deeply and truly sorry.”
According to the lawsuit, in fact, nothing was done about the abuses committed by Browne, which are set out in unvarnished detail in the complaint and have been supplemented by interviews conducted in Hawaii media, including Hawaii News Now and the Honolulu Star Advertiser.
Browne “required” the boys to masturbate for him and sometimes simultaneously with him, engage in oral sex and be “penetrated with objects,” all to satisfy what appeared to be his insatiable pedophiliac appetite, according to the lawsuit.
He “raped, and sodomized” one boy from 1975, when he was 11 years old, through 1977, the lawsuit said, inserting his fingers, and “large Sharpie-type pens,” into the child’s rectum, causing bleeding. He brandished a revolver as well, and made the child look at pornography, all the while “telling him he was a nobody, no one would believe him, he was lying, nobody loved him, and nobody cared about him except Dr. Browne.”
Browne told the boys it was all normal.
“He said this was therapy,” Emmett Lee Loy, now an attorney and a plaintiff in the suit, told Hawaii News Now. “It would break down walls.”
Boys who dared to confide in school employees about the abuse got nowhere. A rape by the doctor reported to a house mother, for example, produced no action.
The same boy then told the school’s director of counseling about the sexual assault. Her response was to take him off campus and treat him to meals at fancy restaurants, according to the law suit, “in an attempt to pacify him and suppress his complaints.”
The abuse had lasting impact. Some suffered deep depression in later years and committed suicide or died of overdoses from drug habits acquired under Browne’s “treatments,” according to the lawsuit and Davis.
The boys remained silent into manhood. Browne continued as the school’s psychiatrist until one day in 1991 when Loy, then an adult, confronted him.
“He starts … breaking down and crying on the phone,” Loy told Hawaii News Now. “‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry’ He’s doing this crybaby thing on the phone. I said, ‘You’re not sorry for what you did, you’re sorry for getting caught.’”
That night Browne shot himself in the head. His body was found the next day in a neighbor’s backyard.
The suicide and the accusations jolted school officials, Davis said, but they did nothing in response.
In a video deposition reported by the Hawaii Star Advertiser and Hawaii News Now, Michael Chun, president of the school at the time, admitted that he was concerned that there might be more victims. He went to the high school principal who, in his own deposition, reported being shocked but baffled about what steps to take.
“Basically,” the principal testified, “I said, ‘The man is dead. I don’t know what to do with this.’”
Chun was asked whether there was “any attempt whatsoever” to at least identify those who were patients of Dr. Browne.
“Not to my understanding. No,” he responded.
“Why not?” the plaintiff’s lawyer asked him.
“Can’t say,” Chun responded. “But did not happen.”
Chun went on to say that he went to the school’s legal department to get some guidance but that the legal department never got back to him.
“But you could have done something,” said the lawyer.
Responded Chun: “Doing nothing is something, right?”
“That’s been the culture at the school,” said Davis, “and in so many institutions that are faced with these crimes.”
Until relatively recently, the men had kept their stories largely to themselves. Gradually, they began to share their stories first with one another and then in the media and with the lawyers.
The result was the lawsuit, and ultimately, the settlement.
This article has been updated.
More from Morning Mix: