.- The Knights of Columbus, the largest Catholic fraternal organization, is vehemently denying accusations that they willfully covered up reports that one of their members sexually abused minors several decades ago.
On Dec. 14, the Miami law firm Mermelstein & Horowitz filed two lawsuits against the Knights national organization and its leader, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, alleging that Julian Rivera, who worked as a leader in Columbian Squires youth program in Brownsville, Texas, sexually abused two boys in the 1970s.
One victim, who identifies himself as “John Doe,” says Rivera threatened him with sexual demands at gunpoint when he was as young as 12 years old, telling him that he would kill his family if he did not comply. The abuse, which began in 1970, is reported to have continued for several years.
The second plaintiff – who released his name as Jim Dennany – claims that Rivera began showing him pornography at age 12 and began sexually abusing him from the ages of 14 to 16.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue in the briefs that the Knights of Columbus had knowledge of abuse claims against Rivera but concealed them and kept him in a leadership position.
Complicating matters, attorneys for John Doe claimed that he reported his abuse to the Knights of Columbus in 2009, saying that he wanted to enter a treatment program for chemical dependence caused by the trauma of the abuse. The Knights of Columbus officials allegedly agreed that they would pay for his treatment and gave him $200 for his travel expenses to the facility.
Doe said that he was given two separate pages to sign as acknowledgment for receipt of the money and that a witness notarized the pages. Doe then said he later received an eight-page settlement agreement in the mail – a document which he claimed he had never seen before – that bore his signature releasing his legal rights.
The Knights of Columbus, which has never been sued over sex abuse charges, issued a statement Dec. 14, “vigorously” denying the accusations.
“Although we have not yet been served with the lawsuits, we have obtained and reviewed copies of the complaints, and we emphatically deny the allegations that have been made,” spokesman Patrick Korten said.
On the charges involving Rivera, Korten explained that they “first became aware of allegations of sexual abuse against him only one year ago, in December 2009.”
“We acted immediately, removing him from any responsibility involving youth programs, and referring the case to Brownsville law enforcement authorities.”
Rivera terminated his membership in the Knights of Columbus in January of this year.
Korten also said that in 2003 the Knights of Columbus formalized its “Youth Protection Program” to train youth leaders about how to protect children from abuse.
He added that every member who agrees to serve as a youth leader must undergo a background check every three years.
“The safety and well-being of the youngsters involved in our Columbian Squires program and all other youth activities of the Knights of Columbus are among our highest priorities, and are at the heart of our approach to helping young Catholics become faithful and responsible citizens and future leaders of the church,” Korten said.
As of 2010, there are 27,983 Columbian Squires in 1,483 of the group's Squires Circles.