LOS ANGELES (AP) — A dozen female water polo players who accused their coach of sexual abuse will split nearly $14 million after settling a lawsuit against USA Water Polo and a California club.
The athletes alleged that International Water Polo Club and the national governing body for the sport failed to protect them from abuse by coach Bahram Hojreh from 2012 to 2017.
The $13.85 settlement with USA Water Polo and International Water Polo Club was filed Friday in Orange County Superior Court. It is being paid by the insurer for both organizations.
“We have heard the plaintiffs’ testimony, and their allegations are heartbreaking,” Christopher Ramsey, CEO of USA Water Polo, said in a statement. “We hope that this allows them to begin a new chapter in their lives."
The California Supreme Court ruled in April in a case involving aspiring taekwondo Olympians that sports governing organizations have a duty to protect athletes.
Attorney Morgan Stewart, who represents 11 of the plaintiffs, said that ruling helped hold USA Water Polo accountable in the case. The USA Taekwondo case set a standard that national governing bodies can't just collect fees and avoid responsibility.
“It’s the most absurd way to say we’re responsible for these clubs, but we’re not responsible,” he said. “USA Water Polo’s failures in this respect were just as culpable as the club’s.”
Hojreh, 45, has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of sexual abuse involving 10 victims, nine of whom were children at the time of the acts. The alleged crimes occurred during one-on-one coaching sessions, prosecutors said.
Charges filed by the Orange County district attorney include lewd acts on a child, sexual penetration with a foreign object and sexual battery by fraud, which alleges the victims were not aware they were being molested because the coach said 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 this,’” Stewart said. “Then he’d reach under their swimsuits and assault them.”
The suits said USA Water Polo was negligent for failing to act upon reports in the summer of 2017 that Hojreh’s players at the International club had sexually abused opponents during matches and that allowed him to get away with abuse for about eight more months.
The Orange County Register reported that girls on opposing teams had emerged from the pool accusing Hojreh’s swimmers of trying to grab and penetrate their genitals underwater. At 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 said it forwarded those complaints from June and July 2017 to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, the watchdog formed in 2017 to handle sex-abuse cases in the Olympic realm.
At the time, however, USA Water Polo said it had not received complaints that Hojreh sexually abused his players. It said it suspended him from the organization when it first got reports about his alleged abuse in January 2018 from SafeSport.
Stewart, however, said leaders at USA Water Polo failed to inform law enforcement at the time — as they had a duty to under California law and the SafeSport code. He said he filed a complaint against Ramsey and Senior Director Christy Sicard for failing to report those complaints about the coach to authorities.
USA Water Polo acknowledged there is a pending SafeSport probe and said it is cooperating. It said it is confident it complied with SafeSport policy.
Scandals involving sexual abuse of young athletes have reverberated across the sporting world and hit several of the 61 Olympic governing organizations, including USA Swimming and USA Gymnastics. The highest-profile case involved Larry Nassar, a doctor for the U.S. gymnastics team imprisoned for assaulting minors that included several gold medalists.
Hojreh has been permanently banned from water polo by SafeSport. He's one of 10 people affiliated with USA Water Polo banned from the sport since 2018 due to criminal matters.
A criminal defense lawyer for Hojreh, who still faces several lawsuits, previously told The Associated Press he never had a blemish on his record after working with hundreds of children over two decades.
Hojreh coached for nearly a quarter-century and said he’d developed “multiple Olympians.” Until 2018, he served on the board of directors for the Southern California chapter of USA Water Polo.
Lawsuits related to Hojreh are still pending against school districts in Anaheim and Irvine where he coached.