LIHUE — A Kapaa Elementary School teacher filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Church last year, alleging she was sexually molested as a child by a nun while attending a local parochial elementary school.
Donna Nunes, now a Hawaiian Studies teacher at Kapaa Elementary School, says she was victimized over a two-year period by a nun who was her teacher for grades five and six at the now-defunct Immaculate Conception School in Lihue.
Nearly 50 years later, at age 58, Nunes remembers the nun who “tormented me for two years.”
Fifth Grade — “there she was, with her palm on her cheek, staring.”
According to Nunes, the alleged abuse began when she was about 10 years old, during her fifth-grade year. Although Nunes remembers the name of the woman who committed the alleged abuse, the nun was not named in the lawsuit and will be referenced anonymously in this article.
According to Nunes, soon after the nun took over as her teacher, she started noticing the woman staring at her during class. Nunes said she could feel the nun’s eyes on her while she sat at her desk working on an assignment. Feeling uncomfortable, Nunes looked up at her teacher, “and there she was, with her palm on her cheek, staring.”
Before long the interaction became physical, according to Nunes, who said her teacher started coming to her desk frequently during class to touch her in a way that made her uncomfortable.
“Constantly she was hugging me,” Nunes said.
But the hugs were more than platonic, Nunes explained, with the nun squeezing her uncomfortably close, while groping her body and fondling her breasts.
“She stank,” Nunes said.
Nunes became increasingly uncomfortable with the nun’s behavior, but when she tried to complain at home, she said her grandmother told her, “Stop. That’s Jesus’ wife.”
“I had nowhere to go, nobody to turn to,” Nunes said.
The school year dragged on. The fondling continued. Once a relatively strong student, Nunes became depressed and started failing classes.
“I couldn’t learn, knowing she was watching me,” Nunes said.
Summer vacation offered a sense of relief that was short-lived.
Nunes arrived at school in the fall to discover that the nun who spent the previous year tormenting her was now teaching sixth grade.
Sixth Grade — “Don’t touch me again!”
Nunes said interactions between her and her teacher became increasingly hostile, and she grew desperate, cursing at the nun when the woman would try to approach her desk for a hug.
The abuse reached a climax one afternoon in a school bathroom, Nunes said, after she had been excused from class with a note from her grandmother explaining that she had a urinary tract infection. The trip took longer than usual, as she struggled to relieve herself. Finally finished, Nunes said she washed her hands and was walking out the door when the nun entered the bathroom.
According to Nunes, the nun reached out, lifted her dress and tried to pulled down her panties, demanding that the little girl show her what the problem was.
“So I slapped her,” Nunes said. “And I told her, ‘Don’t touch me again!’”
Now, completely distraught, Nunes went home and told her grandmother what had happened.
“I went home, and I cried,” she said.
But her pleas fell on deaf ears, and she was once again scolded for speaking ill of a someone ordained by the Catholic church.
After the incident, Nunes said the nun’s behavior went on as before, and throughout her sixth grade year, she continued to find herself subject to unwelcome groping sessions during class time. Subsequent attempts to persuade her grandmother that something was wrong were equally unsuccessful.
“Constantly I begged to go to a different school,” she said. “Those were the hardest days of my life.”
Nunes moved on to seventh grade and into a different school the following year. The nun who allegedly molested and harassed her for the better part of two years didn’t follow her, but the damage was done.
“It ruined my life,” Nunes said. “It ruined my education.”
This week, Nunes decided to make her allegations public, in the hopes that her story would give courage to other sexual abuse victims who may have previously been afraid to come forward.
“I didn’t want to go public at first for fear of losing a lot of close friends and family,” Nunes said in an interview Friday. “I’m not scared because I’m wrong, but I’m worried about how friends and family will react.”
Nunes said she was inspired to tell her story after watching a local television news report last year, featuring an interview with a man who came forward to talk about sexual abuse he suffered decades before as a Kamehameha Schools student.
“Watching that interview kind of opened up my courage,” Nunes said. “I could feel his pain.”
Nunes’ lawsuit naming the Roman Catholic Church in the State of Hawaii as the defendant was filed in August 2018, about a month after a new law was passed giving survivors of child sexual abuse more time to file claims against their abusers, extending the deadline until 2020.
Hawaii Senate Bill 2719 — signed into law July 1 — was written by specifically to address instances of sexual abuse such as those alleged by Nunes.
In the bill’s opening passage, legislators note that,“most children do not immediately disclose the fact that they were abused. In the United States, one in five girls and one in twenty boys is a victim of child sexual abuse, and studies show that between sixty and eighty percent of survivors withhold disclosure.
“Of those who delay disclosure until adulthood, the average delay has been found to be approximately twenty years, with some survivors delaying up to fifty years.”
The Hawaii Legislature first extended the window for childhood sexual abuse victims to file civil claims against their perpetrators in 2012.
Since that time, dozens of priests associated with Hawaii’s Roman Catholic Church have been accused of child sexual abuse, according to a 2018 report by Jeff Anderson & Associates, a law firm that has filed hundreds of sex abuse suits against the church in states throughout the country.
Response from the diocese
In a written statement Tuesday, Monsignor Gary Secor, Vicar General for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu, said the church has filed a motion to dismiss Nunes’ lawsuit on the basis that the complaint filed on her behalf “does not identify the alleged abuser or state when the alleged abuse occurred. We reached out to Ms. Nunes’ attorney regarding this but the response was vague and indefinite.”
Secor’s statement continues: “Regardless of the outcome, we will continue to handle this case with compassion and respect, just as we have done with all cases filed against the Catholic Diocese of Honolulu. We remain committed to taking responsibility and providing justice and support for those who were abused.”