(AP) — After settling a lawsuit
against USA Water Polo
and a California club, a dozen female water polo players who accused their coach of sexual abuse
will share nearly $14 million.
From 2012 to 2017, the athletes claimed that the International Water Polo Club
and the sport's national governing body
failed to protect them from coach Bahram Hojreh
The $13.85 settlement with USA Water Polo and the International Water Polo Club was filed in Orange County Superior Court on Friday, and it will be paid by both organizations' insurers.
“We have heard the plaintiffs’ testimony, and their allegations are heartbreaking,” said Christopher Ramsey, CEO
of USA Water Polo, in a statement. “We hope that this allows them to start a new chapter in their lives.”
In a case involving aspiring taekwondo Olympians, the California Supreme Court
ruled in April
governing bodies have a responsibility to protect athletes.
Attorney Morgan Stewart, who represents 11 of the plaintiffs, said the ruling helped hold USA Water Polo accountable in the case, noting that the USA Taekwondo case established a precedent that national governing boards cannot simply collect fees and avoid responsibility.
“It’s the most ridiculous way to say we’re responsible for these clubs, but we’re not,” he said, adding that “USA Water Polo’s failures in this regard were just as culpable as the club’s.”
Hojreh, 45, has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of sexual abuse involving ten victims, nine of whom were children
at the time of the alleged crimes, which prosecutors say occurred during one-on-one coaching sessions.
The Orange County district attorney
filed charges of lewd acts on a child, sexual penetration with a foreign object, and sexual battery by fraud, alleging that the victims were unaware they were being molested because the coach claimed the "touching served a professional purpose."
“He’d get in the pool and tell the girls, ‘This is what's going to happen in college; you need to get used to it,'” Stewart explained, before reaching under their swimsuits and assaulting them.
According to the lawsuits, USA Water Polo was negligent in failing to act on reports in the summer of 2017 that Hojreh's players at the International club had sexually abused opponents during matches, allowing him to continue abusing opponents for another eight months.
According to the Orange County Register, girls from opposing teams emerged from the pool accusing Hojreh's swimmers of attempting to grab and penetrate their genitals underwater. During one match, another coach accused Hojreh of teaching that tactic to his players, and a fight nearly erupted on the pool deck, with angry parents yelling and threatening each other.
In a court filing, USA Water Polo stated that it forwarded the complaints from June and July 2017 to the US Center for SafeSport, a watchdog established in 2017 to handle sex-abuse cases in the Olympic
However, at the time, USA Water Polo stated that it had not received any complaints that Hojreh sexually abused his players and that he had been suspended from the organization after SafeSport received reports of his alleged abuse in January 2018.
Scandals involving sexual abuse of young athletes have reverberated throughout the sporting world, affecting several of the 61 Olympic governing organizations, including USA Swimming and USA Gymnastics
. The most high-profile case involved Larry Nassar, a doctor for the United States
gymnastics team who was imprisoned for assaulting minors, including several gold medalists.
SafeSport has permanently barred Hojreh from participating in water polo, and he is one of ten people
affiliated with USA Water Polo who have been barred from the sport since 2018 due to criminal charges.
Hojreh's criminal defense lawyer previously told The Associated Press
that despite working with hundreds of children over the course of two decades, he never had a blemish on his record.
Hojreh coached for nearly a quarter-century and claimed to have produced "multiple Olympians." He also served on the board of directors
of USA Water Polo's Southern California
chapter until 2018.
Lawsuits against the Anaheim and Irvine school districts where Hojreh coached are still pending.