Lawsuits against the Catholic Church alleging sexual abuse of parishioners are all too common.

But in a twist, the Roman Catholic Church in Hawaii is suing a local insurance company, alleging that the insurer won’t cover settlements arising from scores of past sexual abuses cases in the islands.

In a lawsuit filed Jan. 14 in 1st Circuit Court in Honolulu, the church alleges that First Insurance Co. of Hawaii refuses to honor commitments made in liability policies it sold the church over the course of several decades.

The settlements, according to the lawsuit, involve more than 60 former and current parishioners and students who confirm that when they were children, “a number of priests or brothers of others subjected them to sexual abuse.”

The Catholic Diocese of Honolulu building downtown.
The Catholic Diocese of Honolulu building downtown. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The policies are intended to cover claims of bodily harm or property damage, caused by the church and for whom the church accepts responsibility.

Attorneys for Honolulu law firm Ashford & Wriston and Wisconsin-based Perkins Coie, which are representing the church, did not return requests for comment Tuesday.

But a spokesman for the Roman Catholc Church in Hawaii provided a statement from the Rev. Larry Silva, Bishop of Honolulu:

“The Roman Catholic Church in Hawaii is committed to providing victims of sexual abuse with compassionate resolution, but with limited resources, it cannot do so on its own. We remain hopeful that First Insurance Company of Hawaii will assist us in our efforts by honoring the insurance coverage the Church purchased in years past.”

Steve Tabussi, a senior vice president with First Insurance, said the company had not been served with the complaint as of midday Tuesday, and so he could not comment.

Most Perpetrators Dead

The Catholic Church in the islands consists of the Diocese of Honolulu and 66 parishes, including schools, mission churches and outreach programs in all Hawaii counties.

It says that it regularly bought and renewed general liability policies with First Insurance from 1951 through 1987.

The multiple allegations allege sexual abuse by clergy and others affiliated with the church. Some of the cases date to the 1950s and 1960s, and the lawsuit explains that most of the perpetrators and most witnesses are deceased.

Bishop Larry Silva
Bishop Larry Silva Diocese of Honolulu

Under mediation last fall supervised by 1st Circuit Court Judge Gary Chang, settlements were agreed upon for 29 claimants. The church agreed to paid monetary compensation and to provide a victim assistance program of pastoral and social services.

A third and final negotiation is scheduled for this month.

But, the lawsuit states, First Insurance “has behaved as no insurer should ever behave.”

It has “delayed, obfuscated, and misled its policyholders, consistently putting its interests ahead of the interests” of the church and the claimants.

The suit further alleges that First Insurance could not locate policies it sold before 1982, although it is said to have later found ones for the years 1978 to 1981.

“The Roman Catholic Church in Hawaii is committed to providing victims of sexual abuse with compassionate resolution, but with limited resources, it cannot do so on its own.” —Bishop Larry Silva

The company, owned by Tokio Marine Holdings of Japan, “claims absence of the policy copies permits it to avoid” its coverage obligations, “a position contrary to well-established law.”

The Catholic Church is seeking a jury trial and monetary damages from First Insurance as well as the usual attorney fees. It’s not clear how much that is, however.

Laurie LaGrange, public relations counsel for the church, said, “At this point, it is too early to estimate what this total may be. There are cases in mediation and others that are scheduled for future mediation. Any settlements reached to date remain sealed.”

First Insurance has not filed a brief in the case, which in addition to the insurer lists up to 50 persons or entities who are “unknown at this time, who could be potential defendants,” said LaGrange.

First Insurance Company of Hawaii on Ward Avenue.
First Insurance Company of Hawaii on Ward Avenue. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Asked if any of the cases had been made public, LaGrange said, “All of the complaints are public record; however in the majority of these cases, the plaintiffs have requested their names be sealed; therefore, you will see the plaintiff’s initials or DOE used to identify the plaintiff.”

The lawsuit implies that the settlements could amount to millions of dollars.

The polices, says the lawsuit, range from $100,000 “per occurrence” in the 1950s and up to $1 million per occurrence by the 1980s.

The lawsuit says the church is considering liquidating assets because of the lack of insurance money and warns that fundraising for the ministry and church services to tens of thousands of Hawaii residents are “in serious jeopardy.”

The lawsuit includes a quote from Pope Francis when he visited Philadelphia last fall, saying “God weeps” at the abuse of chirdren.

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