In a Deluge of Sex-abuse Claims, Bankruptcy May Not Save the Boy Scouts
By Mike Baker
New York Times
February 19, 2020
|A statue outside the national headquarters of the Boy Scouts of America in Irving, Texas, on Feb. 14, 2020. (Allison V. Smith/The New York Times)|
Hoping to contain a growing deluge of sexual-abuse lawsuits, the Boy Scouts of America took shelter in bankruptcy court Tuesday, filing for Chapter 11 protection that will let it keep operating while it grapples with questions about the future of the century-old Scouting movement.
The bankruptcy filing was made by the national organization, which said that it did not involve the local councils across the country that run scouting programs day to day. Even so, the case sets up what may be one of the most complex and uncertain financial restructurings in American history. Thousands of people have already come forward with allegations that they were abused as scouts, and many more are expected to do so.
The Boy Scouts, whose mission to promote patriotism, courage, self-reliance and kindred virtues was enshrined in a rare congressional charter in 1916, said it plans to continue its work “for many years to come.”
The bankruptcy court in Delaware that is handling the case is likely to freeze the lawsuits against the group and set a deadline for filing any more claims. But Jim Turley, the group’s national chairman, said in an open letter to victims of sexual abuse that the Boy Scouts were not trying to dodge responsibility for compensating them. Instead, he said, the organization wanted to do so as equitably as possible through a victim’s compensation trust, rather than piecemeal in lawsuit after lawsuit.
The Boy Scouts held talks in recent months with some victims’ lawyers, aimed at finding a way to settle all the claims, but no agreement was reached. Under bankruptcy protection, the Boy Scouts gain the opportunity to have a judge approve a compensation plan.
The national organization said in its filing that it had assets exceeding $1 billion and liabilities in the $500 million to $1 billion range. A major issue in the case is expected to be whether the assets of local Boy Scouts councils, which own most Boy Scout camps and facilities, should also be tapped for the compensation fund.
“I want you to know that we believe you, we believe in compensating you, and we have programs in place to pay for counseling for you and your family by a provider of your choice,” Turley said.
Tim Kosnoff, a lawyer for an Abused in Scouting group that now has close to 2,000 clients, said that while he’s open to hearing how the Boy Scouts intends to reform itself, he finds it “difficult to impossible” to envision the organization finding a way to continue to operate, even with restructured finances.
“It would require changing into something people wouldn’t recognize as scouting,” said Kosnoff, noting the organization’s history of sending boys on remote outings with volunteer leaders.
Over the span of a century, more than 130 million Americans have participated in the Boy Scouts. But membership has been dwindling in recent decades, as shifting American attitudes pulled many families away from the God-and-country oaths and outdoorsy survival skills that scouting offered. Then, in more recent years, lawsuits brought to light a long history of sexual abuse problems that the organization strove to keep secret.
The Boy Scouts have kept internal files about abuse cases at their headquarters almost since the group was founded in 1910. In a 1935 article in The New York Times, the organization described having files on hundreds of people who had been scout leaders but had been labeled “degenerates.” In recent years, an expert hired by the organization reviewed decades of records and reported that there were nearly 8,000 “perpetrators.”
The Boy Scouts fought the release of some of the files in an Oregon case in the early 2000s — a case in which a jury held the Scouts liable in 2010 for $18.5 million in punitive damages. The Oregon Supreme Court ordered in 2012 that the records in that case be made public.
Paul Mones, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Oregon case, expressed concern on Tuesday that the Boy Scouts’ bankruptcy filing would rob other victims of the opportunity to hold the group accountable in court. “The justice that they so well deserved will unfortunately escape them in the end, and that is a true tragedy,” he said.
The Boy Scouts said in April 2019 that every account of suspected abuse in its files had been reported to law enforcement, and that it had never knowingly allowed a perpetrator to work with young people. The group later acknowledged that decades before, some volunteers who were credibly accused of abuse had in fact been allowed to return.
“We are outraged that there have been times when individuals took advantage of our programs to abuse innocent children, and sincerely apologize to anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting,” Turley wrote in his statement Tuesday. After years of implementing measures like mandatory background checks for volunteers and a ban on one-on-one interactions between adults and youths, he said, “Scouting is now safer than ever before.”
In its most recent tax filing, the national organization reported annual revenue of $285 million and assets of $1.4 billion. Its main sources of income include merchandise sales, membership fees and profits from its investments and facilities.
As a cornerstone of American civic life over the decades, the Boy Scouts have received support and donations from many sources. For example, Irving Berlin began donating royalties for the song “God Bless America” to the “youth of America” in the 1940s; most of the money goes to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. The national organization owns valuable camping and recreation facilities and other real estate around the country, including the acclaimed Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.
The Boy Scouts’ largest unsecured creditors are mostly former employees, according to its bankruptcy filing; it also listed the 25 law firms representing the most abuse claimants, but did not give dollar figures for their claims.
Last year, the Abused in Scouting group began advertising around the country for people who were abused as scouts to come forward, and found nearly 2,000 people with complaints, including one in every state. The clients range in age from 8 to 93. Kosnoff said hundreds of the claimants do not appear in the Boy Scouts’ internal files.
With the group now seeking bankruptcy protection, he said, “If you’ve ever considered coming forward, now is the time.”
Over the years, the Boy Scouts held a singular position in the shaping of American boyhood, with a scout law that demands loyalty, obedience and reverence. Former scouts who rose to prominence include presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, astronaut Neil Armstrong, Civil Rights icon Ernest Green, and film director Steven Spielberg.
But the group, which had around 5 million members in the 1970s, has only half that number now. In response, the Boy Scouts have tried to shift closer to evolving societal norms. Membership requirements were changed to allow openly gay scouts in 2013, and then openly gay leaders in 2015. The Boy Scouts also expanded to allow girls to participate starting in 2017, a move that created frictions with the Girl Scouts of the USA.
Those steps also opened a rift with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which severed its partnership with the Boy Scouts after decades of close alliance that included automatically signing up every boy in the church to participate in Scouting.
All the while, the legal pressures on the Boy Scouts continued to mount, especially after several states passed laws temporarily setting aside statutes of limitations to give victims of sexual abuse earlier in life a fresh opportunity to sue.
Other organizations in crisis over similar legacies of sexual abuse and secrecy have also sought bankruptcy protection, including Roman Catholic dioceses and USA Gymnastics.
Robbie Pierce, 39, of Los Angeles, was involved in scouting throughout his childhood, with a mother who ran a Cub Scout day camp in California. In August 1994, when he was 13, Pierce said he was on a weeklong outing at Camp Wolfeboro in the Sierra Nevada when he and several other children, including Pierce’s brother, showed signs of illness and went to the medic’s lodge.
There, a man who was not a medic but a leader of the camp, examined each of the boys in private, Pierce said. He said the man had him take his clothes off and then fondled his genitals, saying he was looking for a possible hernia.
Pierce said the boys did not discuss what the man had done until years afterward, when his brother brought it up.
Pierce said that while the Boy Scouts helped shape him and gave him many positive experiences, he now believes the organization must be abolished or radically changed.
“It provides pedophiles with access to boys,” Pierce said. “That has to stop. I don’t know if that means getting rid of the Boy Scouts, or some new oversight.”