A new law in Hawaiʻi now gives survivors of child sexual abuse more time to file claims against their abuser. Reforms to the state’s statute of limitations have been key in exposing the extent of child sexual abuse at various institutions, most notably the Catholic Diocese of Honolulu.
One of those priests is Father Donald Graff. He’s accused of sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy while assigned to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu in the 1960s. It took that boy 50 years to come forward.
“Who wants to come out and say, ‘I was abused’? What 12-, 13-year-old boy, altar boy going to a Catholic school wants to tell somebody I was abused?” says a 67-year-old survivor who would like to remain anonymous, “I would never tell my mother that. She was a devout Catholic. Even if I did, she probably wouldn’t believe me.”
The 67-year-old survivor spoke to Hawai’i Public Radio on the condition of anonymity. He filed suit against Father Graff in 2016 and the case was settled a year later.
“Nowadays, this is almost common place. You hear it – colleges, professors, senators,” says the survivor, ”So maybe it’s coming out of the closet a little bit more but it took a lot to come out of the closet for me.”
The true extent of child sexual abuse in the Diocese of Honolulu only became publically known after changes to Hawaiʻi’s statute of limitations allowed survivors to file suit decades after the abuse took place.
The legislature first opened a two-year, retroactive window for survivors in 2012. That window was extended in 2014 and again this month when Governor David Ige signed Senate Bill 2719.
“It’s finally showing both the victims and the abusers out there that this is wrong,” says Waiʻanae Senator Maile Shimabukuro, who introduced the bill.
“You know it’s not your fault if you’re a child sex abuse victim,” says Sen. Shimabukuro, “And that if you are a perpetrator, it’s not okay. It’s not something that is acceptable in our society to do, and that there are consequences.”
Survivors now have until April 24, 2020, to file a civil lawsuit.
“This law is revolutionary in Hawaiʻi,” says Joelle Casteix, a survivor of child sexual abuse.
Sheʻs been advocating for survivor rights and reforms in Hawaiʻi since 2012.
“The only reason that these people have been exposed,” says Casteix, “And that we have the information that we do is because brave survivors have come forward.”
Since the initial window opened more than 100 lawsuits were filed with the church. Information from these lawsuits and other public records were compiled into one of the first comprehensive reports on clerical abuse in the Honolulu Diocese.
Kailua attorney Mark Gallagher specializes in litigating clergy abuse.
“The Catholic Church Report is important in that it shines a light on the scope of the problem and how these things came to be a problem over the years,” says Gallagher.
The 49-page report contains the identities, histories and background information on dozens of priests and clerics accused of child sexual abuse in the Diocese of Honolulu.
The survivor we spoke to earlier sifts through the report until he finds the picture of his abuser.
“Itʻs never easy,” says the survivor, “but once you get it off your chest, the load starts to lighten.”