Here’s the thing about stories of alleged sexual abuse: The stakes are gut-wrenchingly high for all the parties, whether the alleged victim or the perpetrator or the institutions where the abuse is said to have taken place.
It’s hard to imagine how hard it is for victims — who may have bottled up the abuse for decades — finally telling their stories publicly, only to have them picked apart or undermined by their attackers or others.
Likewise, false accusations of abuse, once they become public, can never really be taken back, especially in the internet age.
As journalists, we instinctively take the side of victims. But without extensive investigation — and even sometimes despite that — we cannot know for sure who is telling the truth.
So we are left trying to report such stories fairly. And to decide what parts of these accusations are most important for the public to know.
The key question for us is: What do these accusations say about public institutions that we cover?
Civil Beat and other Hawaii news outlets were forced to deal with these questions and conundrums in recent weeks when a spate of sexual abuse lawsuits were filed, including some against such well-known Hawaii institutions as Kamehameha Schools and the Punahou School.
The lawsuits were filed to get in under a deadline of April 24. That was the most recent deadline set by the Legislature in its move to allow sex abuse lawsuits to be filed well after the statute of limitations had run out.
Starting in 2012, lawmakers had extended this date several times and were going to consider doing so again when the pandemic hit and the session was suspended.
Several of the cases were against Kamehameha Schools, and taken together, the allegations of 16 plaintiffs painted a disturbing picture of the actions decades ago of the institution charged with educating children of Hawaiian descent.
School employees did not notify authorities when they heard of abuse, the lawsuits alleged, even though they were required to by law. They didn’t control who came onto the campus and some of those visitors preyed on students. The alleged victimizers plied students with drugs and alcohol before abusing them.
The truth of these allegations may come out in trials, if the cases ever get that far. But the fact that a well-known Hawaii institution was facing a wave of lawsuits certainly warranted reporting, not only because of the pattern of neglect they portrayed but also because the litigation could have financial implications for the school.
But what about the individuals, both alleged victims and perpetrators?
We chose not to name them.
As a general rule, we don’t name victims of sexual assault unless they make the decision to go public.
As for their alleged abusers, one factor was that none of the individuals had ever been charged with crimes related to these incidents. If any of them had been well-known public figures, we might have considered naming them, but only after making our own attempt to verify the victim’s story and giving the alleged abuser ample opportunity to respond.
None of the alleged perpetrators were household names. We made the decision not to identify them.
And then, a few days later, we found ourselves deciding how to handle yet another case — this one involving Guy Kaulukukui, who as the city of Honolulu’s enterprise services director had been in the limelight recently as head of Oahu’s COVID-19 testing program.
The lawsuit filed by an unidentified former student of his at Kamehameha Schools accused Kaulukukui of sexually exploiting and assaulting her starting in 1985, when she was 15 years old. Kaulukukui at the time was a 24-year-old teacher and coach at the school.
This case, too, raised questions about whether the school fulfilled its role as a mandated reporter, required by law to notify authorities of suspected child abuse. The student said she reported the abuse verbally and in writing to teachers, dorm advisors and a coach, but nothing was done.
It definitely qualified as a story, but what to do about naming the alleged abuser? Those who follow city government certainly knew of Kaulukukui. But the public? Not so much.
Then the decision got made for us. Mayor Kirk Caldwell put Kaulukukui on paid administrative leave after becoming aware of the lawsuit. The mayor’s official action against a high-ranking member of his administration clearly needed to be reported.
Still another case presented us with yet another set of circumstances.
One of the cases filed just before the deadline involved a Punahou assistant girls’ basketball coach who was accused by three women of sexual abuse but nonetheless went on to coach and teach at three other Hawaii schools.
One of the three women, while still a minor, had even filed a restraining order against the coach, Dwayne Yuen.
In this case, the story centered on how a coach was able to land jobs at other schools despite the abuse allegations. Kamehameha Schools said it was unaware of the Punahou allegations when it hired him.
So what happened? Did Punahou report the allegations to authorities and, if so, where did the case go? Did Punahou tell the other schools? Did they ask?
These were serious questions worthy of coverage. But what about naming names?
One difference in this case was that some of those who filed lawsuits spoke publicly, including MMA flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane. Other outlets identified her and also her alleged abuser, Yuen.
Our story centered on Yuen’s career trajectory at four different schools and his work relationships with other coaches. As a practical matter, it would have been impossible to detail all of that without, in effect, identifying him. And his name had already been widely disseminated in the media. Still, our reporter called and emailed him to try to get his side of the story. He didn’t respond.
Each case is different, and it’s rarely an easy call deciding who to name. In the end, we try to look at these kinds of allegations through the prism not of individuals but institutions and public policy. And to be fair to all the parties.
Editor’s Note: Readers often wonder about the reporting and editing process and other news practices. We think it’s important to explain our decisions and do so from time to time in our ongoing series called “Behind The Story.” For even more information about how Civil Beat and other news outlets do their journalism, check out our “Understanding The News” section.
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