A new middle school student from Kauai studying at Kamehameha Schools on Oahu, Christopher Conant missed his family back home and was suffering “transition issues” in adjusting to big-city Honolulu.
So school officials did what they commonly did for such students back in those days — sometime during the 1968-69 school year — they referred him to the school psychiatrist for therapy.
But that psychiatrist, Dr. Robert McCormick Browne, may not have given Conant the help he needed. Instead, according to allegations raised in a lawsuit filed Tuesday, he gave Conant powerful narcotics and repeatedly sexually abused him. That alleged abuse, according to family members, started the 12-year-old on a lifelong downward spiral that included drug and alcohol abuse and ultimately his untimely death four decades later. He only shared his long-held secret with his family the month before he died.
“My brother’s life was ruined by this situation,” his older brother, Blake Conant, told reporters at an emotionally charged Tuesday press conference.
Now, Blake Conant wants consequences for Kamehameha Schools. And he’s not alone: 25 named adult plaintiffs, all of them Kamehameha alumni, have joined him in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Circuit Court against the school and the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Estate, which funds the school, the school’s current trustees, Browne’s estate and two Honolulu medical centers — St. Francis and Kuakani — where Browne also formerly worked.
The plaintiffs allege that Browne was a pedophile who “repeatedly, regularly and systematically” preyed on scores of Kamehameha middle school boarding students between 1957 and 1985, using drugs and predatory tactics wrapped in psychotherapeutic language to coerce the boys — typically referred to him for behavioral or disciplinary issues — into sexual activity.
Students who were reluctant to take part in Browne’s “therapy” sessions were threatened with dismissal from Kamehameha, according to the attorneys representing the 26 plaintiffs. All of the boys were under the age of 16 at the time of the alleged abuse.
“Decades of monstrous sexual abuse of boys occurred because Kamehameha Schools, St. Francis Medical Center and Kuakani Medical Center provided the pedophile, Dr. Browne, unchecked access to, and authority over, boys in his role as a psychiatrist,” the lawsuit says. “When these institutions saw the warning signs and were told of ongoing sexual abuse, in the worst form of betrayal, each utterly turned their backs on these children.”
Kamehameha Schools’ communications vice president, Kevin Cockett, confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the school is limited in what it can say about the lawsuit or the alleged incidents within the suit. The school released a brief statement late Tuesday through Cockett.
“The claims we are hearing about today are the same that were made in the lawsuit that was originally filed in 2014,” according to the statement. “We continue to be troubled and saddened by this matter. The safety and welfare of our students is Kamehameha’s highest priority. We are working to resolve this matter in the best interests of everyone involved.”
Browne himself has been dead for 25 years. After one of his former student victims confronted him in a 1991 phone call, vowing to expose him, Browne fatally shot himself in the head that night — Halloween — “his body found the next day in the neighbor’s backyard,” the lawsuit says.
Around that same time, the suit alleges that “high level administrators” at the school were told of Browne’s sexual abuse of students, and “promises were made that Kamehameha Schools would take action,” according to the suit. “Instead, Kamehameha Schools did nothing.”
The suit alleges that the school undertook a cover up over many years to conceal Browne’s alleged crimes, even when the psychiatrist’s activities included an alleged sexual assault of a student that resulted in injuries and bleeding so significant, the boy had to go to the school clinic for treatment.
When he told clinic staff that he had just been raped by Browne, the staff neither reported the incident to law enforcement authorities nor the State of Hawaii Medical Board, the suit alleges. Neither did the house mother for seventh and eighth grade boys, a school counselor, the director of counseling or the director of boarding, all of whom were allegedly made aware of the sexual abuse by the student.
The director of boarding subsequently committed suicide.
This isn’t the first time Browne and allegations of abuse of Kamehameha students have made the news. Two years ago, a similar suit involving many of the same plaintiffs was dismissed so that the alleged victims could go before the Medical Inquiry Conciliation Panel, which is “responsible for conducting informal conciliation hearings on inquires regarding health care providers before a lawsuit may be filed based on such inquiries.”
All 26 plaintiffs have now told their stories individually to the panel where they were also heard by representatives of Kamehameha Schools, Davis said Tuesday.
Their attorneys praised the courage of their clients Tuesday for coming forward and being willing to move forward with litigation under their own names, rather than under aliases. But the attorneys also made clear they believe the legacy Browne left behind wasn’t limited to the victims named in this litigation.
“We know it’s not restricted to the 26,” said Davis. “It’s much, much bigger than the number who have come forward.”