By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A Pahoa farmer and five Oahu men who claim they were sexually abused are suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu and and other related religious institutions to pressure them to change policies to prevent future abuse.
Honolulu attorneys Charles McKay and Randall Rosenberg filed the suit Thursday in Honolulu Circuit Court on behalf of 62-year-old Greg Owen of Pahoa and the others, who are identified in the document only by their initials.
The complaint is asking for more than just money. Owen and the others want the church to release victims from confidentiality requirements in past abuse settlements, create a telephone hotline for victims, and encourage others to come forward and report abuse.
Owen said he was 8 when he was first sexually abused by Catholic priests while serving as an altar boy at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Kailua, Oahu. He said he knew it was wrong but felt he couldn’t tell anyone.
“Even if I fully understood what was happening, my father was a Marine,” Owen said. “There was no way I could talk to him about it.”
The lawsuit names as defendants religious organizations that run several Catholic schools in Hawaii. Diocese spokesman Patrick Downes declined to comment.
The suit seeks unspecified damages and compensation for medical expenses, and cites roughly a dozen policy changes the plaintiffs want from the diocese and other organizations.
“What we’re asking for is to try to prevent this kind of thing which happened decades ago, … to institute changes within the institutions that would help prevent these abuse-type situations from ever happening again,” said McKay. “There’s also a component for (monetary) compensation for the victims, to be sure. But we’re looking for non-monetary relief, as well.”
The two priests Owen says abused him, Fathers Edward Meuth and Joseph Henry, have since died. Owen also alleges abuse by David Brock, a teacher at St. Louis School in Honolulu, who was not a clergyman. McKay said he doesn’t know if Brock is still alive.
Others named as perpetrators in the lawsuit include Father Bruce J. Cullerton and Brother Thomas Duffin at Damien Memorial High School in Kalihi, Oahu, and Brother Dominic Stone at St. Patrick Church and School in Kaimuki, Oahu. The collective action alleges abuse in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Owens claims include that Meuth and Henry “groomed” him “under false pretenses specifically training him on how to be an altar boy.” Owen said the abuse included being hugged while the priests “pressed their genitals against” his body, and that Meuth “on repeated occasions exposed his genitalia and rubbed his exposed genitalia” on Owen’s face, head and shoulders, “in an apparent attempt to coerce” Owen “to perform oral sex.”
“I looked up to them as holy men of God and I trusted them. But, instead of protecting me, they hurt me in the worst possible way,” Owen said.
Added McKay: “I guess the honor and privilege of being an altar boy didn’t quite work out that way.”
McKay said that it took “an immense amount of courage” and “a huge amount of character” for Owen to come forward publicly with his claim.
“He didn’t tell anybody until more than 30 years after the events. He didn’t tell family, parents, friends, nobody,” McKay said. “If we look at this nationally, as a phenomenon, this happens the vast majority of the time. People just bury it and they don’t talk about it, and I guess that’s the reason this has been allowed to become prevalent. Because nobody’s come forward to say, ‘Hey, this is what happened,’ out of fear, pain, what have you.”
Owen and the others want the defendants to post the names of church members who have been sued for sexual abuse, and partner with the attorney general to investigate and monitor the organizations annually. They also want the church and other organizations to not lobby state lawmakers for protections for alleged abusers, and to require all staff to sign statements saying they’ve never abused a child.
The plaintiffs believe such policy changes will encourage more victims to come forward.
“What we’re trying to do is to change the culture so we don’t have a situation like we have in the past, where one member of the clergy is interviewed by another member of the clergy and given absolution, then sent off to a different locale, where, unfortunately, the pattern repeats,” McKay said. “If we’re successful in achieving our goals, there will be a more transparent supervisory system where you have instances of child abuse or molestation, that they don’t get swept under the rug, that they are actively investigated, that the alleged perpetrators are looked at very carefully, evaluated carefully, and some of the past confidentiality restrictions on some of the people who have settled their claims to be lifted.”
Rosenberg & McKay is partnering with law firms in other states to pursue the case, including a firm that helped win a $166 million settlement from the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Roman Catholic Church’s Jesuit order in 2011. That settlement also included church policy changes. Rosenberg said this is the first clergy abuse lawsuit filed in Hawaii he knows of that asks the church to make policy changes rather than just compensate victims.
The Hawaii lawsuit is permitted under a 2012 state law that suspends the statute of limitations for sex abuse cases until April 2014.
The Associated Press contributed. Email John Burnett at email@example.com.