How Maryland’s statute of limitations undermines abuse survivors, including in Boy Scouts bankruptcy


September 10, 2021

By Madeleine O'Neill, USA TODAY NETWORK

SALISBURY, Md. — Growing up in central Maryland, Mick Gillispie was eager to earn merit badges and move up the ranks in his local Boy Scout troop.

But as the teenager worked through the badges, an upsetting pattern emerged. No matter what new skills he needed to learn, his merit badge counselor always had a reason that Mick needed to take off his clothes.

Mick started picking merit badges that couldn’t possibly require him to undress: citizenship, communications, emergency preparedness.

It didn’t matter. His merit badge counselor always had an excuse.

Now 46, Gillispie can still smell the musty basement apartment where, at 15, he suddenly understood what was happening — the day he says his merit badge counselor, William H. Tross, groped him and tried to order him into the bedroom.

Gillispie earned the rank of Eagle Scout a few years later. He doesn’t talk much about the accomplishment.

“Every time I see the Eagle Scout symbol, or I see somebody has it on their car…there’s just a part of me that goes back to that apartment,” said Gillispie, a sports broadcaster who resides in Alabama.

Mick Gillispie, of Maryland, poses for a portrait in Flowood, Miss., on June 24, 2021. Gillispie was abused by a Boy Scout merit badge counselor as a teenager in Maryland. Gillispie is speaking out against the abuse.
Mick Gillispie, of Maryland, poses for a portrait in Flowood, Miss., on June 24, 2021. Gillispie was abused by a Boy Scout merit badge counselor as a teenager in Maryland. Gillispie is speaking out against the abuse.

Gillispie is sharing his story of abuse publicly for the first time in part because he’s one of tens of thousands of survivors across the nation who filed claims as part of the Boy Scouts of America’s sweeping bankruptcy case.

But if it weren’t for the bankruptcy case, which allowed for claims that fall outside of their state’s statute of limitations, Gillispie and other survivors in Maryland would stand virtually no chance of holding the Boy Scouts accountable in court.

That’s because lawmakers in Maryland have not provided a path for older survivors to sue, even as dozens of other states have reopened their statutes of limitations in child sexual abuse cases.

The Boy Scouts bankruptcy allows a rare chance to put numbers to how severely Maryland’s statute of limitations undercuts survivors’ legal options.

About 1,300 total claims against the Boy Scouts originated in Maryland, according to a group representing the survivors in court. (The exact number was still being tallied as of earlier this year.)

Of that number, only 13 claims fell within Maryland’s statute of limitations based on the survivor’s age.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Gillispie said in an interview. “There’s certainly no statute of limitations on someone molesting kids.”

Maryland’s laws limit abuse cases

In this Feb. 28, 2019 photo, Del. C.T. Wilson stands outside the Maryland House of Delegates in Annapolis, Md. Wilson, a survivor of child sexual abuse who has spoken of his experience as he has advocated for laws to protect children, is sponsoring legislation in Maryland to prevent teachers with records of sexual misconduct against students from moving from one school to another.
In this Feb. 28, 2019 photo, Del. C.T. Wilson stands outside the Maryland House of Delegates in Annapolis, Md. Wilson, a survivor of child sexual abuse who has spoken of his experience as he has advocated for laws to protect children, is sponsoring legislation in Maryland to prevent teachers with records of sexual misconduct against students from moving from one school to another.

Fifteen states have completely eliminated the statute of limitations in civil cases related to child sexual abuse, giving survivors an unlimited amount of time to file lawsuits and seek damages.

Twenty-four states and Washington, D.C., have passed a “revival window” — a temporary period of time when survivors can file lawsuits, even if the statute of limitations for their claim has passed already.

Maryland has done neither.

Advocates for abuse survivors say there are good reasons to eliminate civil statutes of limitations.

On average, people who were victims of sexual abuse as children don’t disclose what happened to them until age 52, according to Child USA, a nonprofit focused on child protection.

Extending civil statutes of limitations also puts the power back in the hands of survivors, said David Lorenz, who leads the Maryland branch of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or S.N.A.P.

“If a person can file a civil suit, that belongs to them, as opposed to the criminal (case),” Lorenz said. “You can actually subpoena records. You get publicity. This person is exposed.”

Victims can also win financial help, he said. Sexual abuse can take an emotional and physical toll as survivors struggle to cope with what happened — some turn to drugs or alcohol, Lorenz said, and need help rebuilding their lives. Others just need money to cover therapy.

“Most survivors are carrying a ton of baggage,” Lorenz said.

Maryland did pass a law extending the civil statute of limitations in 2017. That change gave survivors until their 38th birthday to file claims against abusers — still more than a decade shorter than the average age of disclosure.

The change also wasn’t retroactive, so it didn’t apply to claims where the statute of limitations had already expired.

A proposal to end the statute of limitations completely and open a revival window for expired claims never made it out of committee this year in Annapolis, Maryland.

“It’s not that they voted that bill down; they just didn’t vote on it,” said Delegate C.T. Wilson, an abuse survivor who has for years pushed to expand Maryland’s statute of limitations.

“I would just call it outright cowardice.”

Wilson believes lawmakers are unwilling to challenge the Catholic church, which opposed the reform legislation proposed during the 2021 session.

He dropped his version of the legislation this year, citing his concern for the mental health of victims who would testify in favor of the bill during some of the worst months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Senate sponsor picked up the bill, but it stalled in the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Wilson calls his bill the “Hidden Predators Act” because similar legislation in other states led to the outing of predators who had previously remained hidden and the institutions that shielded them.

“It’s not a form of revenge,” he said.

“There’s no amount of money that’s going to unring that bell. We can at least stop them from continuing to do that.”

‘I gotta get out of here’

[Mick Gillispie is awarded the rank of Eagle Scout.]

The Boy Scouts had a file on Gillispie’s merit badge counselor, William Tross, court records show.

Tross died in 1999. But Gillispie believes the organization should have done more to protect Scouts, to keep them away from a man their own documents identified as an abuser.

In August 1991, around the same time Gillispie was working with Tross, Boy Scouts leaders created an internal record about a report they’d received of Tross abusing an 11-year-old boy.

That wasn’t Gillispie, who was between 14 and 15 years old when he visited Tross’s apartment for help with merit badges.

Both boys went to Tross for help becoming better Scouts. Both quickly noticed that Tross always wanted them to remove their shirts.

“Every badge, no matter what it was, he was always trying to get my clothes off somehow,” Gillispie said.

Hypothermia. Checking for broken bones. Whatever the skill, Gillispie said, Tross wanted him to get undressed.

Gillispie felt uncomfortable, but he thought this was just part of learning skills for Boy Scouts. After all, he’d heard that treating hypothermia sometimes required removing the person’s clothes and huddling close to warm them.

On one visit to Tross’s apartment, the already unsettling pattern escalated, according to Gillispie.

In that moment, Gillispie thought back to an episode of the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes he’d seen. The “very special episode” warned about sexual abusers and explained how they groom children.

I gotta get out of here, he remembers thinking.

He made up a reason to leave, grabbed his clothes and made his way through the three locks on Tross’ door to escape. He doesn’t remember where he went after.

The 11-year-old boy whose experience is documented in the Boy Scouts files reported similar experiences.

“Every time I did something, he had to hug me,” the boy complained in the report, which became public in 2012 as part of the disclosure of thousands of pages of Ineligible Volunteer files that documents decades of abuse.

The boy’s name is redacted in the file.

“I didn’t like it when he told me to take my shirt off when I was doing exercises,” the boy wrote.

Tross was never charged with a crime in Maryland, according to court records. The Boy Scouts’ internal file on Tross shows that a local leader with the organization reported the 11-year-old’s claims to law enforcement and that police were concerned by Tross’s behavior but did not file charges.

Tross’s Boy Scouts membership was revoked after the report.

It was too late for Gillispie. And possibly for other boys: while investigating the claim against Tross, the Boy Scouts leader learned from a Scoutmaster that there had been previous allegations against Tross six to eight years earlier.

After the fondling incident, Gillispie switched to a new Boy Scout troop, one run by a man who seemed, somehow, to sense what had happened.

The new troop leader helped Gillispie earn the rank of Eagle Scout and forbid Tross from coming to the ceremony.

Gillispie is proud of what he learned in Boy Scouts. After a tornado devastated Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 2011, Gillispie surprised himself with how many skills he remembered and could put to use.

[Mick Gillispie]

But he doesn’t often tell people he’s an Eagle Scout.

“The Boy Scouts is a great organization,” he said. “They made a huge mistake, though, by concealing what was going on with predators and also not protecting people like me, but that doesn’t mean the organization didn’t do a lot of great things in my life.”

In an emailed statement, the Boy Scouts of America said it “strongly supports efforts to ensure that anyone who commits sexual abuse is held accountable.”

“We believe it is imperative that all convicted abusers serve their full criminal sentences and comply with any post-release requirements to protect children and reduce recidivism,” the organization said.

“We also support efforts to strengthen protections for survivors of sexual abuse, including by reforming civil and criminal statutes of limitations governing allegations of abuse.”

The current leaders of Gillispie’s Maryland Boy Scouts troop did not return an email requesting comment about the allegations.

Gillispie is still haunted by what happened in Tross’ apartment.

“I feel like I’ve had this dark cloud over my head forever,” he said. “And it’s like, no matter how fast I run, I can’t get away from it.”

Accountability for institutions

The Boy Scouts declared bankruptcy in February 2020 as it faced nearly 300 abuse lawsuits and 1,400 other potential claims.

By November, the organization was facing tens of thousands of claims in one of the largest sexual abuse cases against a single organization. About 82,000 claimants are expected to be eligible for a final settlement.

Gillispie isn’t doing this for money, anyway, he said. He’s most concerned about raising awareness so that children and parents can learn how to avoid abusers.

Gillispie has told his wife about the abuse, and he told a buddy for the first time when he heard about the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal at Penn State in 2011.

He decided to join the bankruptcy case last year as he considered writing a book about his journey to becoming a sports broadcaster. As he reflected on his life, he knew he had to delve into the bad moments, too.

“I’m just embarrassed by it,” he said of the abuse. “But at the same time, I mean, maybe that’s what I felt like I needed to do.”

The Boy Scouts announced last month that it had reached a settlement with groups representing abuse survivors in the bankruptcy case.

A federal judge signed off on parts of the $850 million settlement proposal on Thursday, but there’s still a lengthy process ahead before it is finalized.

If it is ultimately approved, the plan breaks down to roughly $10,000 per survivor.

But survivors won’t all receive the same amount.

The settlement plan will account for the severity of each victim’s abuse and the state where the abuse happened, the Wall Street Journal reported. The plan is an effort to fairly compensate survivors based on what they might have won in a lawsuit.

In states like Maryland, where the statute of limitations means most claims would fail in court, survivors’ claims will be worth less money under the settlement proposal.

Whether to pay for these claims at all is still a matter of debate in the bankruptcy. Insurance companies who hold Boy Scout policies have objected to covering claims that would otherwise fail in court because they’re too old, USA Today reports.

Will the law change?

Will Maryland catch up to the other states that have ended civil statutes of limitations or opened retroactive windows for old claims?

Wilson, the state lawmaker, said he will continue pushing to expand the statute of limitations. He will continue telling his own story of abuse, as embarrassing as he finds it, to press for changes to the law.

As a child, Wilson’s adoptive father, Tom Wilson, sexually and physically abused him for years. Tom Wilson was also a Boy Scout leader, C.T. Wilson said.

He still feels guilty that he didn’t come forward sooner, maybe sparing another child from abuse.

“I believe, honestly, that the reason I even came out to fight like this is for the penance that I feel I have to pay because I didn’t speak up earlier,” Wilson said.

“I pray someday that I can stop paying this penance,” he said.

Follow Madeleine O’Neill on Twitter: @maddioneill.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Former Boy Scout reveal how Maryland laws cripple abuse survivors