NEVADA FOCUS: Knights of Columbus dutifully bury abandoned babies

When nobody else wants them and their tiny bodies have been discarded in trash bins and toilets, the Knights of Columbus arrange a funeral and burial service for them.

This child, named Francis by the Knights, was found May 22 in a trash bin behind Harrah's hotel-casino on the Strip. No parents, no family, just a group of men willing to give him a proper burial.

''It deserved better than that,'' said David Strait, state secretary for the group, a fraternal order of Catholic men.

They've done this five times before. The Knights began abandoned baby funerals in Las Vegas after a baby was found in the city's sewer system in 1988. One baby was found in a toilet in a room at the Lady Luck hotel-casino downtown; another in a trash bin behind the Imperial Palace hotel-casino on the Strip.

Other chapters of the Knights - with 1.6 million members worldwide - also arrange funerals for abandoned babies.

Across the country, mortuaries, police and fire departments and other nonprofit groups pay for abandoned baby funerals.

Nevada and 30 other states are trying to avoid these funerals with state laws that allow mothers to drop their newborns at safe places such as fire or police stations and hospitals. In most states, the mothers avoid prosecution.

Nevada's law passed just days after Francis was found in the trash.

''Maybe it'll help,'' Strait said. ''We always hope for the best. The whole part of this is babies shouldn't be abandoned.''

On an overcast day in July, Francis is taken to a cemetery a few blocks from the city's downtown casinos. The stoic Knights stand behind his casket and in ceremonial fashion, raise their swords to their chests as raindrops fall.

''It is sad, but it's an honor,'' pallbearer Don Ordaz says. ''It's an honor for me to do that, to carry one of God's children who didn't have a chance in this world but who is in a better place.''

Before Francis is lowered into the ground next to another discarded baby's grave, John L. Bongiorno, 73, steps out of the procession. He brings his hand to his lips, then gently places the kiss on the casket.

''What harm did this baby do?'' Bongiorno asks.


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