The child sex abuse scandal surrounding the Catholic Church has hit close to home, with fingers of accusation pointing at a priest revered in the local community.
Father George DeCosta, who for almost three decades was the parish priest at Malia Puka O Kalani Catholic Church in Keaukaha, has been accused of abuse by two Hawaii men. The two were students at Damien Memorial High School in the 1960s when DeCosta was the chaplain there.
The school is operated by Christian Brothers of Ireland, and the allegations have been made in claims filed against The Christian Brothers Institute and The Christian Brothers of Ireland Inc. in federal bankruptcy court in the Southern District Court of New York.
One of the alleged victims has made his claim public, with his name and the names of other alleged victims deleted from the document. The other has not, said California attorney Michael Reck, who represents both men.
According to the document, the man was a sophomore at Damien in 1968 when he and two other students were caught stealing sweatshirts from a classroom. The student states he and the others were sent to DeCosta, who imposed a two-day suspension and detention. He said DeCosta forced him to work his detention at the Catholic Youth Organization center in Windward Oahu.
The man states that DeCosta provided him with alcohol, “insisted they go swimming” and “forced” him into skinny dipping. He wrote that he became “incapacitated” and when he awoke DeCosta was “masturbating” him and “fondling his testicles.” He also stated that DeCosta “forced” him to reciprocate.
The man wrote that he has “experienced physical, emotional and psychological injuries due to the sexual abuse by DeCosta, including, but not limited to: dreams, nightmares, flashbacks and sleep problems; emotional distress including sadness, shame and embarrassment.” He also alleges “a loss of sexual desire and activity, feelings of guilt and faith, religion and spirituality issues.” He wrote that that it was his first experience with alcohol and he now cannot drink “due to the sexual abuse by DeCosta.”
The 74-year-old DeCosta, who retired from Malia Puka O Kalani in 2002 and is living in Volcano, denied the allegations.
“As far as I can remember, I don’t have any recollection of anything like that happening,” he said on Tuesday. “First of all, Damien High School wouldn’t have asked me to take care of demerits or whatever that is, because I was just a chaplain there, and their school was run by the Christian Brothers. So I was never in charge of any kind of detention assignment or anything.”
Asked if there had ever been similar allegations against him before, DeCosta said: “I believe there was one other one about five years ago, maybe, but nothing ever came about it.” He didn’t say what the allegation entailed, but said that it “wasn’t at Malia.”
Joelle Casteix, western regional director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, met Tuesday morning with several parishioners at Malia Puka O Kalani, but not with the church administration. The church currently does not have a priest.
“I believe there are about two dozen victims from Damien that have come forward,” Casteix said. “… There are a number of priests and Irish Christian Brothers out of Damien who have been accused.”
Casteix claimed that former Hawaii Archbishop Francis X. DiLorenzo forced DeCosta “to quickly retire in 2002, the same year the Boston (priest sex abuse) scandals broke,” an allegation DeCosta denied.
“I was not forced to retire. I was retired under Bishop DiLorenzo,” he said. “And I retired because the diocese says that at 65, you can retire with permission from the bishop. And I got his permission and I retired.”
Reck stopped short of calling DeCosta’s retirement involuntary.
“I don’t know why he retired, but the timing looks very odd,” he said.
DeCosta is working with Music Ministry Alive, a Minnesota organization whose website proclaims it is “fostering the growth of young pastoral musicians, one saint at a time.”
“What’s troubling, in our eyes, is the access he still has to children,” Reck said. “Considering that these claims are several decades old, there are several decades of kids who have been exposed to him.”
Asked about Music Ministry Alive, DeCosta replied: “I don’t work with any young people. I work with the adults.”
Reck said he will be filing suits in Honolulu District Court on behalf of both men “in the next couple of months.” A bill signed into law by Gov. Neil Abercrombie in April allows adults sexually abused as children to file suit within two years of the law’s effective date, no matter when the abuse occurred.
One suit has already been filed under the new law naming another former Damien chaplain, Father Gerald Funcheon. Also named is the Roman Catholic Church in the State of Hawaii. Reck described Funcheon as “a serial predator who’s abused children all across the country.”
“He abused three children that I’m aware of at Damien and he was reported, by the way, by one of my clients, to the principal at the time and he was transferred to another Christian Brothers high school in California,” Reck said, adding that he abused more students at the California school, Palma High School in Salinas.
Reck said the Christian Brothers filed for bankruptcy to avoid financial responsibility in lawsuits alleging abuse in their schools. The bankruptcy forced those alleging abuse by priests in Christian Brothers’ schools to file their claims by Aug. 1.
“Bankruptcy is a court that was created for people and businesses who have financial issues. And the Christian Brothers have a financial issue, but their financial issue is children who got hurt,” he said. “There’s something that’s fundamentally unfair about cutting off their rights.”
Reck said his clients “hope to get some transparency and accountability” with their claims.
“They have both expressed to me how fundamentally this has affected them throughout their lives in their different stages,” he said. “The one who is allowing his claim to be made public expressed how much he does not want any other child to have to go through this, and how this has followed him throughout his life.”
Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune- herald.com.