The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic charity organization headquartered in New Haven, is the target of a sexual abuse lawsuit.
After two Texas men who claim the organization neglected to protect them from a sexual predator in the 1970s and 1980s filed a lawsuit against the Knights last December, the Knights moved to have the case dismissed Mar. 14. The Knights deny all allegations and claim to have acted promptly when they first became aware of the problem in 2009. They have asked the United States District Court in Hartford to dismiss the case on the grounds it was filed too late.
The two men, who were both members of the Knights’ youth program, Columbian Squires, claim that they were molested by Juan Rivera, the leader of the Squires in Brownsville, Tex. They claim that the Knights of Columbus refused to act or protect them despite learning about the incident 25 years ago.
Patrick Korten, senior vice president for the Knights of Columbus, said the Knights created a set of policies for the Squires to avoid potential instances of sexual abuse in 2003, though this was not in response to any reported incidents.
Jeffrey Herman, a lawyer representing both plaintiffs, disagreed that the Supreme Council was ignorant of sexual abuses in the Squires in general.
“They concealed their knowledge to protect the entity, the organization,” Herman said, adding that there was a culture of sexual abuse in the Knights during the 1980s.
He said an example of this was shown in John Doe’s complaint, which alleged that he was “shared” by Rivera with another Columbian Squires leader in another city.
“From what my clients have shared I’m very concerned that this was not isolated,” said Jeffrey Herman, a lawyer representing both plaintiffs. “The victims would tell me that they would go to the statewide conferences and they would be paraded around like they were the boyfriends of the leaders.”
In December 2010, two men, one self-identified as James Dennany and the other under the name John Doe, filed suit against the Knights of Columbus. Each suit asked for damage compensation of $5 million.
This is the first time that the Knights have been implicated in such a scandal, Herman said. His Miami-based law firm, Herman, Mermelstein & Horowitz, focuses solely on sexual abuse cases, especially ones involving clergy.
The lawsuit may be complicated by the fact that the Texas statute of limitations has expired. Korten explained that the case should have been filed in Texas, not Connecticut, because the alleged abuses all took place in Texas. If a minor is a victim of sexual abuse in Texas, under the state’s statute of limitations the plaintiff must file a lawsuit before turning 20 ; both men are in their 40s.
“They filed it here [in Connecticut] probably because we have a more generous statute of limitations,” Korten said.
Korten said he is confident that the case will be dismissed because of Texas’ law. The Knights’ key claim is that no one on the Knights’ Supreme Council, their governing body, knew about the abuses until 2009.
But to the plaintiffs, it is appropriate that the cases were filed in Connecticut because the alleged concealment and negligence took place at the New Haven headquarters, Herman said. By focusing on the alleged wrongdoing of the Knights’ Supreme Council, the plaintiffs may be able to keep the case from being dismissed.
Cherie Benjoseph of the KidSafe Foundation, a non-profit that educates parents and children to watch out for the “red flags” of sexual abuse, said that it is not unusual for victims of molestation to wait a long time before speaking out.
“There are so many layers of shame and guilt. [The victims] feel responsible for it as well. They do what we refer to as self-sacrifice,” she said. “It’s very psychologically complicated.”
Sexual abuse is not uncommon among youth groups, Benjoseph said. She explained that youth groups are very attractive to predators because they provide easy access to children in situations with little adult supervision. This is compounded, she said, by the volunteer aspect.
“That’s what pedophiles do: they volunteer,” Benjoseph said. “If it looks too good to be true, it’s probably too good to be true.”
There are approximately 25,000 members of the Knights of Columbus in Connecticut.