Last summer, a Minnesota law firm published a 50-page booklet listing Hawaii priests accused of child sex abuse.
The alphabetical list started with Marc Alexander, who is currently serving as Honolulu’s housing director and has denied 2016 allegations by a minor in Kailua. It ended with Douglas Zlatis, who was accused by two students at Father Damien Memorial School and died in 2009.
Overall, the compilation names nearly 60 members of the clergy who have been accused of molesting children in the islands.
But advocates for survivors believe there may be a lot more. That’s why some are backing a Hawaii Senate resolution that calls on the attorney general’s office to investigate Hawaii’s Catholic clergy.
“Essentially we are asking for the same type of thing,” said Kailua attorney Mark Gallagher, who has represented dozens of plaintiffs against the Catholic Church.
The Diocese of Honolulu opposes the resolution. In lengthy testimony to a Senate committee, Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva wrote that the draft was “premised on the awful canard and libel that the Diocese is some kind of criminal enterprise bent on destroying the very people she strives to serve.”
The resolution goes next to the Ways and Means Committee, and hasn’t yet been scheduled for a hearing.
Meanwhile, the state House and Senate are separately expected to vote on bills Tuesday to get rid of the statute of limitations entirely for child sex abuse, despite pushback from the attorney general and the insurance industry.
The Legislature has already passed so-called “window” legislation three times to create time periods in which victims can file civil lawsuits involving years-old sexual abuse. The latest window is set to close in April 2020.
“Putting a false period of time in which those victims should come forward isn’t fair … to the victims,” said Rep. Cynthia Thielen, who introduced the House version of the bill. “When they are ready they should be allowed to come forward and the courts should be opened to them.”
Why Target The Church?
Gallagher says more than 100 cases have been brought against the Catholic Church in Hawaii and estimates he has represented clients in more than half of them.
“Although we litigated multiple cases involving these issues with the diocese they have never released the complete list of credibly accused priests,” Gallagher told Civil Beat. “It’s important for that list to come out so that people know who the perpetrators had been.”
In his testimony, Silva wrote that the church adopted reforms in 2002 and that the resolution “does not resolve any injury suffered by any child.”
“It does not make any victims whole. It does not make all children safe,” Silva said. “Rather it pretends that the pernicious evil that is the abuse of child still lies in the heart of only one institution in Hawaii – the Catholic Diocese. It is that great lie that I protest here. If the Senate truly wants to have law enforcement look at the sources of abuse and misconduct in society, it needs to cast a much wider net.”
Silva has a point, says Sen. Karl Rhoads. He thinks it’s fair to question why the state would target the diocese, even though he’s the lawmaker who introduced the resolution.
Other religious organizations have also come under scrutiny — Reveal News reported that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have “systematically instructed leaders to keep child sexual abuse secret from law enforcement and members of their own congregations.”
But Rhoads says the overwhelming evidence of child sex abuse within the Catholic Church justifies targeting the institution.
“The reason the Catholic Church rose to the priority list is because of the well-documented concerns that have been raised in other jurisdictions,” he said. “Realistically we can’t investigate everybody simultaneously so you have to decide where the biggest risk is.”
Statute of Limitations
Both legislative chambers are on track to pass bills eliminating the statute of limitations for civil suits involving child sex abuse. But they’ll require more public hearings and votes before becoming law.
The proposals include House Bill 18 introduced by Thielen, a Republican from Windward Oahu, and Senate Bill 1035, introduced by Democratic Sen. Maile Shimabukuro from West Oahu.
Shimabukuro’s bill originally proposed simply extending the statute of limitations, but Rhoads amended the measure to get rid of the time limit entirely.
“They can’t just keep it hidden for a few years and then they’re off the hook,” Rhoads said. “You realize — when nothing like that has ever happened to you — that how lucky you were that none of the adults in your life when you were a kid did anything like that.”
But Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors raised questions about getting rid of the statute of limitations entirely.
“There are concerns that the lengthy passage of time could severely prejudice the parties in a lawsuit. Over the passage of time, memories fade, witnesses move or pass away, and documents are lost or destroyed,” her office testified.
Sen. Laura Thielen, a member of the Women’s Caucus who supports the bill, disagrees.
“Because the burden of proof is on the survivor, the passage of time argument has proven to be a weak concern,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt somebody’s defense. If anything it makes it more difficult for a survivor to bring a case.”
“Yes, victims of sexual abuse should definitely receive their justice, no one disputes this basic notion of fairness, but so too should innocent employers and associations, who deserve the right to tender an effective defense to a claim that is still fairly recent in time to the alleged incident,” the organization wrote.
It testified that lawsuits often make employers the main focus — “the party with insurance coverage, ‘deeper financial pockets’ for civil judgment collections, and a professional reputation to protect.”
“These employer-parties are not sexual predators or social villains, so they shouldn’t be denied any of their due process rights and placed into a legal position of having to defend against an emotionally charged twenty-one or more years old claim where the evidence may be tainted or non-existent as a result of the excessive passage of time.”
Thielen said she’s disappointed in the industry’s stance.
“When we are talking about sexual assault of minors, we as policymakers must place those victims first and the rest will just have to fall into place,” she said.
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