St. Francis Medical Center is mounting a legal challenge to stop Kamehameha Schools’ landmark $80 million settlement with 32 former students who suffered sexual abuse during their time at the school.
The court appeal, which St. Francis announced in a statement Friday, could upend the effort to bring some closure to an ordeal involving one of Hawaii’s most powerful institutions, according to attorneys for the sex-abuse victims.
The Kamehameha Schools settlement was reached in February and is believed to be the largest of its kind in Hawaii. Notably absent from it, however, was St. Francis.
The facility employed Dr. Robert McCormick Browne as its chief of psychiatry from the late 1950s to the mid 1980s, a period in which he saw hundreds of students at Kamehameha and is believed to have sexually abused at least 34 boys.
Lawyers for the victims had previously said they would pursue a “contribution claim” against St. Francis to cover some of the settlement cost.
On Friday, one of the medical center’s attorneys, Arthur Roeca, said “we are appealing because the settlement agreement is unfairly prejudicial to the rights of St. Francis Medical Center.”
According to Michael Green, an attorney for several of the sex-abuse victims, Kamehameha and St. Francis are negotiating what amount of the settlement cost St. Francis should cover. The appeal, he said, could be used as leverage by St. Francis to reach a more favorable agreement with Kamehameha.
Green expressed concern Friday that Kamehameha might wait for St. Francis’ appeal to conclude before paying out the settlement. That process could take several years, he said.
State Circuit Court Judge Dean Ochiai approved the settlement in August. A probate court judge is slated to take up the settlement next week and decide whether to endorse it, Green said.
But if Kamehameha opts to wait for a ruling on St. Francis’ appeal before it pays, Green said the plaintiffs would sue the school.
In response to Green’s concerns over settlement payments, Kamehameha Schools issued the following statement:
“It’s premature to comment since neither the Probate Court nor Circuit Court proceedings are final. KS is doing all it can to overcome all hurdles to finalize the settlement as quickly as possible.”
“That said, Saint Francis Medical Center’s decision to shirk its responsibility and oppose this settlement is inexplicable,” the statement continued.
There is “no question,” the school added, that St. Francis “harbored and enabled Dr. Browne … to abuse young students. Yet, Saint Francis Medical Center has not stepped forward to acknowledge its role in these abuses.”
St. Francis President Jerry Correa said the medical center’s appeal “does not in any way impact our ongoing mediation efforts to resolve this case.”
“We are committed to continuing to work together with the other parties to reach an agreeable settlement,” Correa said.
Browne committed suicide by shooting himself in the head on Halloween night in 1991, shortly after one of his victims called him and vowed to expose him.
Two of the victims, Christopher Conant and Edward Kaula, eventually committed suicide after years of struggling with the emotional trauma of Browne’s abuse, according to the plaintiffs’ suit.
Other victims struggled with rage, shame and substance abuse as they hid for decades the abuse they endured while students at Kamehameha, the suit said.
In February, as the $80 million settlement was announced, some victims stressed the importance of its non-monetary requirements. One of those requirements is that Kamehameha maintain an independently run hotline where students can report potential wrongdoing or abuse.
“The money, that’s a big amount. But, will it take away the pain? No. A’ole. This pain is never going to leave me,” Aliko Bajo, who attended Kamehameha in the early 1970s, said at the time.
Sister Davilyn Ah Chick of St. Francis said in the medical center’s statement Friday that “we continue to pray for a timely resolution to this litigation out of respect for those who have been hurt.”
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