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Hanna Boys Center abuse survivor speaks publicly after $6.8 million settlement

He left his abuser behind when he departed Hanna Boys Center, a graduate at 18, onto another life.

But the anguish of what happened - six years of sexual abuse at the hands of his case worker at the Sonoma Valley residential facility for troubled boys - nearly took him down anyway.

“It was a very, very dark feeling,” said Robert Kennedy, 25, identified until Wednesday in civil and criminal court proceedings only as a John Doe.

His abuser, Kevin Scott Thorpe, who was promoted to clinical director at Hanna months before his June 2017 arrest, is now serving 21 years in state prison in the San Joaquin Valley. Kennedy, one of his victims, kept his story to himself until coming forward two years ago, detailing his claims to law enforcement and later filing a civil suit against Thorpe.

“I felt like I was suffering in silence, and if I did speak that it wouldn’t even matter,” Kennedy said. “That’s what I kept telling myself.”

On Wednesday the Santa Rosa man spoke for the first time outside of court about his experience, standing at a press conference outside the Hanna Boys Center and later in an exclusive interview. The account he shared followed news on Tuesday that he and his brother, another of Thorpe’s victims, had reached a $6.8 million settlement in their pair of lawsuits against Hanna Boys Center and the affiliated Santa Rosa Diocese of the Catholic Church.

The settlement, confirmed Wednesday by Brian Farragher, Hanna’s chief executive officer, involves the highest payout of any sex abuse case publicly reported in over a quarter century involving the Santa Rosa diocese, according to Santa Rosa attorney Dan Beck, who represented the brothers.

The size of the award reflected what Beck called “the enormous harm” inflicted on the siblings, as well as a “tone” and “culture” at the boys home in which such abuse was allowed to flourish.

In a voicemail Wednesday, Santa Rosa Bishop Robert F. Vasa, who sits on the board of trustees for the boys center, declined to comment, deferring to Hanna Boys Center.

Vasa said in May the diocese had paid out at least $31 million in settlements to clergy abuse victims since the early 1990s.

The settlement is the latest development in a painful and tumultuous period for the venerable 74-year-old boys center, which has struggled after a wave of troubles linked to Thorpe’s misconduct, a related whistleblower case and ensuing turmoil in the ranks of staff and board leaders. The facility is on three years of probation after nearly losing its license in the wake of Thorpe’s arrest, a second staff misconduct case and the whistleblower suit that resulted in a $1.1 million jury award. A state licensing agency said Thorpe had as many as seven young victims at Hanna, but his criminal case focused only on four, including the two brothers.

In the past two years, the boys home has taken mandated steps, including extensive staff training, adoption of new campus and travel protocols and improvements like more mirrors and windows at the site, GPS tracking on vans and other measures to enhance protections for the residents entrusted to its care.

“We’re moving forward, trying to do the best we can with a very difficult situation, and I’m actually very grateful that this issue came to light so that we could deal with it,” Farragher said Wednesday. “So that’s what we’ve been doing.”

The settlement, reached through a private mediator, includes a standard clause stipulating that it does not constitute an admission of guilt, according to Irvine attorney Vince Finaldi, who along with Beck represented the brothers. “But I’ve got $6.8 million admissions of guilt, in my opinion.”

Beck said the settlement figure includes attorneys’ fees, though he would not disclose details.

Finaldi said his side was never informed how Hanna Boys Center and the church would divide up responsibility for the settlement award. Attorneys for the boys home and the diocese did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment Tuesday and Wednesday.

Kennedy is the only victim of sex abuse at Hanna to so far to speak outside of court about his experience. He said his life hit “rock bottom” two years ago. He had left school at Sonoma State University, was drinking heavily and had no place to live, without local family or any supporters to turn to.

Then he began to question all the ways Thorpe had rationalized the things they had done together “and realized it was just wrong,” he said.

His silence about Thorpe broke when he spoke to another former Hanna resident and they talked about Thorpe’s habit of making “sexual remarks disguised as jokes.” Kennedy took a chance and told the former resident what he had been through. The friend believed him and encouraged him to tell someone else.

The next day, Kennedy made an appointment with Beck, the Santa Rosa attorney, who connected him with a Sonoma County sheriff’s detective and later agreed to represent him.

“I felt like they believed me, for which I am eternally grateful,” said Kennedy, who expressed interest in pursuing a career in law enforcement.

Kennedy was 13 when he and his older brother, 15, arrived at Hanna Boys Center in 2006, directed there by an aunt who found herself overwhelmed by the arrival of three nephews sent to her from Ohio where they had spent three years fending for themselves. Their father, a physically abusive man, was in jail, and their mother was addicted to drugs and eventually was jailed herself.

The boys found themselves on the street, the older of the three stealing food to keep his family going, Kennedy said.

It was a desperate life that for the two brothers old enough to go made Hanna Boys Center an attractive refuge. It offered food, housing and badly needed structure.

Both were assigned to the same case worker, Thorpe, who soon after their arrival began talking about sex and masturbation, asking them about their urges and pornography, according to court testimony and their lawsuits. Neither brother knew about the experience of the other, but the talk quickly escalated to physical contact that grew increasingly intimate and brazen. In the older brother’s case, Thorpe became commanding and dictatorial, causing nightmares and, eventually, severe depression and anxiety, according to his lawsuit.

Kennedy, in the interview, said Thorpe would sometimes grab or slap him just walking down the hall, knowing others were in close proximity and might see or hear him.

He said the boys at Hanna often spoke among themselves about Thorpe’s frequent “sexually inappropriate remarks.”

“He was completely unchecked,” he said.

The lawsuits alleged that staff members knew or should have known about the pattern of abuse. In Kennedy’s case, a religion teacher, Joseph Filice, once walked into Thorpe’s office when he was abusing Kennedy, covered his eyes and gasped, “Oh God!” before leaving, according to his lawsuit. Filice has adamantly denied that claim.

Kennedy’s brother’s suit said another staffer, Richard Coberly, would have seen from his desk some of the many times Thorpe left campus with the boy in his car without ever signing him out and never asked about it.

Kennedy’s brother, who now lives in Fresno, graduated from Archbishop Hanna - the center’s high school - in 2010 and has continued to struggle emotionally, though he now has a wife and a daughter. Kennedy left Hanna Boys Center in 2012, and says Thorpe informed him after graduation that he had been in a sexual relationship with both brothers. The two siblings have never discussed it to this day.

Kennedy went on to Sonoma State, but drank heavily - thinking that’s what college students did - and left after a year. He said Thorpe sent him long, rambling Facebook messages seeking to reconnect and talking of how he missed him.

Aimless, Kennedy became homeless and bottomed out.

It was another two years before he spoke up and began to share his nightmare at the boys’ home with those who would listen.

“Two years ago or however long, I had no idea it would come to this,” he said. “I feel like I’m in a much better mental space now because of the support I’m getting, and I don’t want anyone else to suffer the way that I have been.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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