NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Two men sued the Knights of Columbus on Tuesday alleging a youth leader sexually abused them decades ago and the world's largest Catholic lay organization covered up one of the men's earlier allegations of abuse.
The lawsuits claim that Juan "Julian" Rivera, a former leader of the Columbian Squires in Brownsville, Texas, abused the men in the 1970s and '80s when they were boys. One of the victims told Knights of Columbus officials in 1986 that he had been sexually abused by Rivera, but the Knights concealed the report of abuse and intimidated the victim into not making the abuse public, one lawsuit alleges.
"His allegations and his coming forward was basically shut down," Jeffrey Herman, attorney for the men, said outside the Knights' headquarters in New Haven as he announced the two lawsuits. "We believe that the Knights of Columbus organization was aware of what was taking place."
Patrick Korten, senior vice president for the Knights, said the organization vigorously denies the allegations. He said the organization acted quickly to remove Rivera and refer the matter to police in Texas when officials first learned of the allegations last year.
"There is nothing more important to us than to ensure the safety of the children in that program," Korten said.
Korten said the Knights established a youth protection program in 2003 that includes background checks on all applicants to be youth leaders.
There was no answer at a phone listed in Rivera's name. Larry Prather, chairman of the Texas Squires state council, said a phone number he believed was Rivera's was dead and his e-mail account was deleted.
Herman said he believes the lawsuits are the first against the Knights of Columbus to allege sexual abuse of children. Each lawsuit seeks more than $5 million in damages.
"It broadens the whole issue of the sexual abuse crisis and frankly further damages the Catholic Church's reputation," said Chuck Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University.
The Knights of Columbus is a well-regarded, generous organization which runs a large insurance program, Zech said. "They have deep pockets," he said.
One of the victims, 49-year-old Jim Dennany of Texas, identified himself in the lawsuit, while the other was filed as a John Doe. The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse, but Herman said Dennany believes using his name will help protect other children from abuse.
"I brought this lawsuit today because I do not ever want another child to be hurt the way that I was hurt," Dennany said in a statement to the AP. "I do not want anyone else who is suffering and blaming themselves to hurt anymore. I feel that it is time for the Knights of Columbus to be held accountable for what happened to me."
Dennany said the abuse affected every aspect of his life.
"I do not trust anyone, especially with my family members," he said. "I have lived most of my life feeling ashamed and dirty for what Julian Rivera did to me. My abuse has affected everyone around me. I am hopeful that today is my first step toward healing myself and those that I love."
Dennany's lawsuit alleges Rivera sexually abused him at various locations throughout Texas and Mexico between 1973 and 1977. Dennany, who said Rivera plied him with alcohol and pornography, said the abuse led to guilt, shame, self-blame, depression and chemical dependency.
John Doe, who lives in Kansas, said Rivera plied him with whisky, marijuana, pornography and a white pill that he said would help him relax. He said when he hesitated to give Rivera a massage, Rivera pulled out a small handgun and placed it on the ground.
Rivera sexually abused John Doe for six years on overnight trips for local and national events of the Squires, his lawsuit alleges. The man said if he told anyone, Rivera said he would kill his family or cut off a body part and send it to his mother, according to the lawsuit.
Rivera also "shared" the boy with another adult leader of the Squires in another city who sexually abused him, the lawsuit alleges.
The man said he suffered chemical addictions, nightmares, depression and suicidal tendencies.
The man also claimed the Knights of Columbus tried to trick him last year into signing papers that would have prevented him from suing for damages over the alleged abuse.
Korten denied the allegation. "There is no question but that the individual knew exactly what he was signing," he said.
The organization said there were 27,983 Columbian Squires as of last June.