A 65-year-old Pearl City woman is accusing the Salvation Army of transferring a sexual predator from Oahu to Maui more than 50 years ago after he sexually assaulted her as a child.
Nancy "Sue" Spencer alleges in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in 2nd Circuit Court that Maj. Richard Tenkan Taba, who died last year, molested her on at least three occasions at his Salvation Army office on Oahu around 1959.
She eventually reported the abuse to her mother and police and believed that Taba had been fired. Last year, Spencer learned by reading Taba's obituary that he had moved to Maui and remained with the Salvation Army, according to her complaint. Taba died Feb. 17, 2012, while residing in Maui County, according to Spencer's complaint.
Nancy “Sue” Spencer
Says assaults were on Oahu
Taba's estate also is a defendant in the lawsuit.
Although the lawsuit was filed under the initials N.S. to protect her privacy, Spencer agreed to be interviewed and photographed in connection with her case. She said she hopes to get justice for herself as well as other possible victims on the Valley Isle.
The abuse allegedly occurred while Spencer was an 11-year-old living in Halawa on Oahu, where she participated in Salvation Army programs. According to her complaint, while Taba was providing family and religious counseling to Spencer and her family, he groomed her "under false pretenses (asking her to come to his office or get into his car to 'help him with something') for the purpose of isolating and sexually abusing her."
Spencer, who was known as Nancy "Sue" McHenry as a youngster, is seeking unspecified amounts of special, general and punitive damages. She also wants the Salvation Army to take action to prevent future abuse and help heal the victims of abuse.
Those proposed actions include identifying perpetrators, drafting a letter of apology from the organization as well as working with the state to form a joint task force on child protection to annually investigate and monitor activities supported by The Salvation Army.
In an email Tuesday afternoon, Maj. Fred Rasmussen, divisional secretary for business for the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands Division of the Salvation Army, said the divisional headquarters in Honolulu was not yet aware of the lawsuit. And, until the complaint is received, Salvation Army officials could not accurately respond to the matter, he said.
But he added: "The Salvation Army is assertively opposed to any form of harassment or sexual misbehavior by anyone in any form of association or affiliation with The Salvation Army. As such, we established many years ago a vigorous national program to 'protect the mission' that ensures a safe environment for the children, elderly and anyone else who attends a Salvation Army facility or program for worship, recreation or social assistance."
He added that the organization takes careful precautions to reduce or eliminate any risks of abuse that might occur.
"We do not take lightly any allegation that might arise and want to be proactive in researching and discovering the details that surround them," Rasmussen said in the email.
The Maui News could not reach Taba's immediate family through phone or email Tuesday.
Spencer, who said she doesn't like to call attention to herself, said she was speaking out to try to help others. The emotional scars she carries from her abuse have led to her shunning her femininity by not wearing revealing clothing or even carrying a purse.
"If one person can be protected and saved, it's worth everything coming forward," she said in an interview at The Maui News on Tuesday morning with her attorneys, shortly after the lawsuit was filed.
Oahu attorney Randall Rosenberg said in a prepared written statement that: "By stepping forward, Nancy is helping expose a horrible, serial pattern of abuse. We hope her bravery will inspire other potential victims on Oahu and Maui, to help them heal from these unspeakable acts."
Spencer's decision to bring her story to light stemmed from seeing an obituary for Taba and learning that he had moved to Maui and remained part of the Salvation Army.
She said she believed that Taba was fired after her mother reported the abuse to police and Salvation Army authorities decades ago. She knew Taba was no longer at the Salvation Army site she had attended as a child.
Reading the obituary "brought it all back," she said. Spencer reflected on her assault on Oahu and thought Taba might have harmed others on Maui. She said she felt betrayed and believed that the Salvation Army had "swept it under the rug" by transferring Taba to another island.
"I'm doing this only because he was still in the church," she said. "This was 54 years ago (that the assault happened). Who knows what happened after that?"
Spencer said she saw a newspaper advertisement from attorneys regarding a state law enacted last year that allows a two-year window for victims of child abuse to sue for damages, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred in Hawaii. She said she decided to call the attorneys about her case.
Her attorneys are with the Honolulu firm of Rosenberg & McKay, which in this case is also working with the firm of James, Vernon and Weeks, P.A., which has offices in Idaho and Washington state.
This case is the second of such lawsuits brought by Rosenberg & McKay under the new state law.
The first involved claims of six alleged victims against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu. That lawsuit was filed Feb. 21 on Oahu. Attorneys said that they have received numerous calls from other survivors who will be added soon to that lawsuit.
Leander L. James, of James, Vernon and Weeks, said that when a lawsuit like this is filed it's not just about getting a settlement, but such cases help protect children from possible future abuse, hold organizations accountable and can provide victims some relief by going through the legal process.
He added that Spencer isn't the norm because she wanted to come forward publicly about her story, while many victims don't want to be identified.
James was the principal architect of a $166.1 million settlement with the Northwest Jesuits, also involving nonmonetary relief, for more than 524 claims of child sexual abuse spanning three decades in five states.
Spencer's family had sought counseling services from Taba at the Salvation Army.
Spencer said her mother was a single mother, and they were poor. The assaults got worse and worse, and while she knew that what was going on was wrong, she believed that Taba was "a man of God" as a minister, and she was the bad person. But, after one of the more severe assaults, she ran away from Taba's office and told her mother.
Spencer said she believes that there were other children who also suffered abuse from Taba. The lawsuit says Taba was a minister with the Salvation Army for more than 55 years, including 40 years while on Maui.
Spencer's attorneys said they are investigating to see if there were any criminal charges filed against Taba. They are also seeking personnel records from the Salvation Army.
Spencer said she had no official counseling after the assault, pointing out that at the time there were not many programs for victims of sexual abuse.
Over the years, she said she was able to go on with her life. She is married and has two adult children. She works as a special education assistant.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.