NEW HAVEN, Connecticut (Reuters) - The Knights of Columbus was sued on Tuesday by two men who said they were sexually abused as children by a leader of a youth group run by the Roman Catholic fraternal organization.
The federal lawsuits allege that Knights of Columbus officials knew a leader of the Columbian Squires youth group in Texas was molesting children but did not make any effort to stop him or remove him from the position.
The suits are believed to be the first child sex abuse claims filed against the Catholic group, said Jeffrey Herman, the attorney representing the two alleged victims.
“Like so many victims, these two men have suffered in silence for literally decades, and finally they are getting help,” said Herman.
The Roman Catholic Church has been rocked by sex abuse scandals worldwide. Some priests have been convicted of pedophilia, other cases have been settled in civil courts and the church has paid millions of dollars in damages.
In the largest compensation deal to date, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed in 2007 to pay $660 million to 500 victims of sexual abuse dating as far back as the 1940s.
“We emphatically deny the allegations that have been made,” said Patrick Korten, a spokesman for the Knights of Columbus.
With 1.8 million members worldwide, the Knight of Columbus is the world’s largest Catholic mens’ organization and is focused on charity work.
Its Squires youth division is made up of some 28,000 boys ages 10 to 18.
In one of the lawsuits, an unnamed Kansas resident claims the Squires leader abused him from 1978, when he was 10 years old, until 1986.
He claims the leader shared him with other youth counselors in the group and threatened to kill him if he told anyone, the lawsuit said.
The second lawsuit came from Texas resident Jim Dennany, who said he alerted Knights of Columbus officials in 1986 to assaults he said he suffered in the 1970s when he was a young teenager.
He claimed the group took no action, concealed the allegations and told him to keep quiet, according to the lawsuit.
The accused former youth group leader is identified in the lawsuits as Juan “Julian” Rivera, who remained a youth leader with the Knights of Columbus until last year, said Herman, a Miami-based attorney who specializes in sex abuse cases.
“We allege that Rivera fit the profile where they should have known he was a potential predator,” the attorney said. “He openly paraded himself around with boys and did not even try to cover it up.”
The Knights of Columbus spokesman said the group first became aware of allegations of sexual abuse against Rivera in December 2009.
“We acted immediately, removing him from any responsibility involving youth programs,” Korten said. The group also alerted local authorities in Brownsville, Texas, where Rivera was based, he said.
The Knights of Columbus adopted strict policies in 2003 to protect children from abuse, and every youth leader must undergo a background check every three years, he said.
“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,” Korten said.
Each suit seeks more than $5 million in damages from the fraternal organization, whose national headquarters is located in New Haven, Connecticut, where the suits were filed in U.S. District Court.