Long Beach resident Manny Lemos joined the Boy Scouts of America in the early 1970s after his father died, hoping the organization would give him a sense of belonging.
Lemos said he was 11 when an assistant scoutmaster befriended him and then began sexually abusing him during camping trips to Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear. The abuse, which continued until he was 14, had a profound affect on his life, he said.
“I was too afraid to tell anyone because I didn’t think anyone would believe me,” said Lemos, now 61. “But now I’m ready. I want it to be known what this man did to me.”
Until recently, Lemos had no room for legal recourse under California’s previous statute of limitations, but a new state law that went into effect in January now gives childhood victims of sexual abuse more time to decide whether to file lawsuits.
The expanded statute of limitations in California and other states has opened a floodgate of lawsuits against the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church and other organizations as victims of decades-old abuse come forward.
The law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom gives victims until age 40, or five years from discovery of the abuse, to file civil lawsuits. The previous limit had been 26, or within three years from discovery of the abuse.
The law also suspended the statute of limitations for three years—giving victims of all ages time to bring lawsuits if they wish.
On Thursday, Jan. 30, Lemos joined a growing number of lawsuits in California alleging abuse by Boy Scout leaders.
In a statement, the Boy Scouts apologized to anyone who was harmed while participating in the organization.
“We are outraged that there have been times when individuals took advantage of our program to abuse innocent children,” the statement said. “We believe victims, we support them, we pay for counseling by a provider of their choice and we encourage them to come forward.”
In his lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, Lemos alleges that the organization “knew for decades that its Scout leaders and volunteers were using their positions to groom and to sexually abuse children throughout California.”
Jason Amala, an attorney representing Lemos, said his law firm is now working on about 150 cases against institutions across California, including the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts.
Amala said the Boy Scouts, beginning in the 1930s, kept what were known as “perversion” files that listed men who were ineligible to volunteer with children, but the organization for decades kept the list secret and failed to warn parents. The organization didn’t start revising its policies until the late 1980s, he said.
“What the Scouts did started off as a good thing early on when they started to keep track of the men they felt were ineligible to volunteer,” he said. “But on the flip side of the coin, the parents and kids were never told to be on guard.”
Amala said some incomplete lists from the organization have identified more than 200 men who have been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with children in California. He expects hundreds more victims will come forward under the open statute of limitations law.
“My hunch is that by the time this three-year window is up we could see well over a thousand (lawsuits) just in California,” he said.
Amala, whose firm specializes in representing childhood sex abuse victims, said lawyers can typically find witnesses to corroborate victims’ stories, even in decades-old cases.
He said Lemos’ alleged abuser does not yet appear to be on any lists, but the severity and frequency of the abuse is characteristic of a predator.
The Boy Scouts said its policy requires any suspected abuse be reported to law enforcement—calling the safety of children in the program its top priority.
“We believe victims and remove individuals based on only allegations of inappropriate behavior,” the group said. “We recognize, however, that there were some instances in our organization’s history when cases were not addressed in a manner consistent with our commitment to protect Scouts, the values of our organization, and the procedures we have in place today.”
Lemos said his abuser, who has since died, was a neighbor and father of 12 who groomed him by befriending him and his family.
“He used to sequester me because I was one of the youngest boys in the troop,” he said.
The abuse continued for about three years, he said. He didn’t tell anyone until he was in his early 20s. Lemos, who never married, said he still fears intimacy with people because of his abuse and for years avoided older men.
He’s now in therapy and hopes that his lawsuit will bring him some closure.
“It’s giving me a sense of relief,” he said. “I’m not holding it in anymore.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report
Editor’s note: this story was updated Thursday with a response from the Boy Scouts of America.