Suit filed to prevent abuse at Honolulu diocese

HONOLULU – A Big Island farmer and five others who say they were sexually abused by clergy are suing the Catholic diocese in Honolulu and other related religious institutions to pressure them to change policies to prevent future abuse.

A lawsuit filed Thursday is asking for more than just money. Greg Owen and others want the church to release victims from confidentiality requirements in past abuse settlements, create a phone hot line for victims and encourage others to come forward and report abuse.

Owen says he was 8 when he was 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,” said Owen, 62. “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.

Owen and the others filing suit 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.

Randall Rosenberg, a lawyer for Owens and the others who allege they were victimized, says 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.

Rosenberg’s firm is partnering with 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.

The Hawaii lawsuit is permitted under a 2012 state law that suspends the statute of limitations for sex abuse cases until April 2014.