One of the largest aquatics centers in California must pay about $7 million to a child who allegedly endured repeated sexual abuse on the premises.
The family of a teenage boy say that, when he was 11 years old, he suffered sexual abuse from a then-57-year-old patron at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center over the course of about six months. The family’s attorney, Stephen G. Larson, said these crimes took place in the men’s locker rooms, family changing room, and spa of the Pasadena, Calif. facility, and that it likely took place multiple times weekly.
The name of the child, who has been diagnosed with developmental disabilities, has been withheld to protect his privacy.
As is the case with many child victims of sexual abuse, the boy did not alert adults earlier because the accused predator, Leslie Dittert, mentally manipulated and shamed him, Larson said. It finally came to light during one visit when the child’s mother couldn’t find him. After a patron found him in the men’s locker room, the mother pressed for information about where he’d been, Larson said. Upon finding out, the mother confronted staff. Police apprehended Dittert after the boy identified him, according to court documents.
The family filed suit against Dittert and the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center. However, the accused predator fled the country, and his whereabouts remain unknown, Larson said.
The jury declared the aquatics center 70% responsible for the abuse, requiring it to pay approximately $7 million.
The family accused the center of enabling the assaults in multiple ways – not monitoring the premises where the abuse reportedly took place; not allowing parents close access to their children during swim-team practice while other adult patrons could get in; and not removing Dittert from the facility when his behavior came under question.
Larson said other patrons had complained about Dittert’s behavior, and that a lifeguard manager felt the need to monitor him.
“Every time this guy would come to the facility, [the manager] would broadcast on his walkie-talkie, ‘The creep is here,’” Larson said. “[In testimony,] he described telling his supervisors that he was suspicious of this guy because he would get in [the spas] with young boys, whisper in their ears and talk to them, and just behave strangely around them.”
Larson and the family contended that the center violated reporting laws in California. “They were mandatory reporters under state law, but they had failed to advise their lifeguards or employees that they were mandatory reporters and that they were required to report reasonable suspicions of this kind of behavior,” Larson said.
Larson said the center meets industry standards for drowning protection but didn’t have safeguards to prevent sexual abuse.
The Rose Bowl Aquatic Center did not grant an interview nor release its attorney to do so, but issued a statement. In its court-filed answer to the original complaint, the center denied responsibility for any assault on its premises, and said that others, including Dittert, the plaintiffs and other unnamed individuals or entities, were negligent and bore at least part of the fault for damages caused by the alleged assaults. The document also said that the facility exercised reasonable care with the boy, and “took reasonable steps to discover dangerous conditions at the property...” It said its level of care fell within industry customs and practices, and that it could not have foreseen what happened. Furthermore, it said it did not violate reporting laws.
In the statement, the organization’s executive director, Kurt Knop, said it should not have been held responsible for the incidents. “We continue to believe that the person responsible for this heinous criminal act is Mr. Leslie Adam Dittert, who has fled the country,” he said.
Larson argued that the center should bear the brunt of the responsibility for the assaults, because parents entrust their children to the center’s care, because it represents itself as worthy of that trust and particularly markets to parents and guardians of children with developmental disabilities.
Knop defended the facility’s safety, adding that it will see if changes are necessary. “Safety has always been of paramount importance to us and remains so,” he said in the statement. “The center, in its efforts to continually improve, will review its training, staffing and physical layout. We firmly believe that our Center remains a safe place and have a zero tolerance policy for any behavior that causes harm to anyone.”
Knop did not indicate whether it would appeal other than to say: “We respectfully disagree with the jury’s decision and will be reviewing this decision very carefully.”