Local Boy Scouts councils face new child abuse lawsuits

By Jay Tokasz
Buffalo News
July 5, 2020

The Boy Scouts of America’s bankruptcy filing in February stopped hundreds of child sexual abuse lawsuits, including more than a dozen in Western New York, from moving forward as the national organization attempts to reach a settlement with victims.

But the bankruptcy doesn’t prevent regional Boy Scouts councils, which are separately incorporated, from being sued. In the past month, the Greater Niagara Frontier Council, which has 7,000 Scouts in Erie and Niagara counties, was named as a defendant in seven Child Victims Act cases filed in Erie County State Supreme Court.

In one of the new lawsuits, Scott Miller of Hamburg accused the council of allowing a Scout leader to repeatedly molest him from 1974 to 1977, starting when was Miller was 11 years old. The lawsuit identified Hal Wright as the leader, although it does not name Wright as a defendant.

“This was a breeding ground for men that were sexual deviant. It was a landing spot for them,” said Miller. “The fact that they allowed that to happen for decades and decades and decades – they created an environment where that was doable. It’s disgusting that that could happen.”

Wright had not been publicly accused of abuse previously, and Miller said he was hoping his lawsuit would be the impetus for other victims to step forward.

Hallett A. Wright, 77, who formerly was a scoutmaster in Orchard Park and now lives in Colorado, did not respond to voicemail and email messages from The News seeking comment.

Gary A. Decker, Scout executive and chief executive officer for the Greater Niagara Frontier Council said that Wright had been barred from participation in the council and any other Boy Scout programs.

“On behalf of the Greater Niagara Frontier Council, I am heartbroken that there were times in the past when children in our council were mistreated during their participation in our programs, and we recognize that these events have caused victims unfathomable pain,” Decker said in a statement to The News.

Miller, 56, said in the lawsuit that he was a member of Troop 518 that met regularly at the Orchard Park United Methodist Church. The church also is named as a defendant, as is the Upper New York Conference of the United Methodist Church, a regional organization of 865 churches in New York state.

4 other Scout leaders accused

Other lawsuits filed in June against the Greater Niagara Frontier Council alleged abuses by Scout leaders Robert L. Eberhardt, Pascal Ipolito, Donald Hodge and Norbert Orsolits, all of whom had been publicly accused of abuse previously, either in earlier lawsuits, in criminal charges or in national Boy Scout records that were released to the public in 2012.

So far, 31 Boy Scout leaders from Western New York have been charged by police with molesting children or morals crimes involving children, were barred by the Boy Scouts of America from registering as Scout leaders due to allegations against them involving children or were accused in Child Victims Act lawsuits.

Two of the alleged abusers, Ipolito and Orsolits, are Catholic priests who were removed from ministry due to abuse claims substantiated by a Buffalo Diocese investigation.

Ipolito has been accused of molesting a child in three Child Victims Act cases. In court papers answering one of the complaints, Ipolito said the allegations against him were false.

A Florida man sued the Buffalo Diocese and the former St. Vincent de Paul parish in Evans last November alleging abuse by Ipolito in 1981 and 1982. The same man filed a new case on June 16 against the Greater Niagara Frontier Council with the same allegations. The diocese in 2018 suspended Ipolito following an abuse claim and later determined that the allegations were substantiated.

Orsolits admitted to The News in 2018 that he had molested "probably dozens" of boys decades ago and was sent for treatment at a facility near Toronto. A Lancaster man on Tuesday was the 10th plaintiff to file a Child Victims Act lawsuit accusing Orsolits of abuse. He's the first plaintiff to allege that the abuses happened during Orsolits' time as a Scout leader or volunteer. His lawsuit alleged Orsolits was a chaplain at Camp Scouthaven in Cattaraugus County in 1966 when the abuse occurred.

Five plaintiffs have alleged abuse by Eberhardt in lawsuits since last August, including three men who filed cases in June against the Greater Niagara Frontier Council. The abuses are alleged to have happened between 1965 and 1970. Some of the plaintiffs said in court papers that they were members of Troop 701 in Cheektowaga and that Eberhardt molested them during overnight Scout outings. Eberhardt, who now lives in Arcade, could not be reached to comment.

In two of the lawsuits alleging abuse by Eberhardt, plaintiffs also named Rescue Volunteer Hose Co. No. 1 in Cheektowaga as a defendant, because the volunteer fire company was believed to have operated the troop where Eberhardt was a Scout leader.

Hodge was a scoutmaster at Troop 83 in Buffalo for eight to 10 years before he resigned in 1965, according to Boy Scout records known as the “Perversion Files” that were released by court order in 2012. Three days after his resignation from the Scouts, Hodge pleaded guilty to a morals charge involving a minor and was sentenced to a suspended one-year term in the Erie County Penitentiary and put on probation. On June 9, a 74-year-old Gasport man filed a lawsuit alleging Hodge fondled his genitals when he was 12, during an overnight trip in 1958 to a Scout camp.

Victim kept secret for years

Miller said he was abused multiple times for years by Wright, his scoutmaster.

“The guy made me trust him. He made me think what he was telling me was important and that it was part of manhood and that there were steps,” he said. “I felt like I was supposed to do what he told me to do and somehow I was going to be absolved from not being a good kid.”

Miller said he remembers being afraid to go to sleep at night while on overnight camping trips at a scout camp.

He was relieved to move away from Orchard Park with his family in 1977 and get away from the abuse, without having to explain to his mother why.

“For me, it was witness protection,” he said. “I felt like I was in the safe zone and I was going to be OK.”

For decades, Miller didn’t mention the abuse to anyone. But he ultimately revealed what had happened to him after months of intensive therapy, and his counselor convinced him to report the abuse.

Miller said he called the national organization in 2018 for answers, but “they were very dismissive of me and didn’t want to talk to me and blew off my calls.”

Miller also contacted Wright in Colorado by email in 2019 to ask if he was the Hal Wright who was a scoutmaster from Troop 518 in Orchard Park in the 1970s. Wright acknowledged in a reply email that he was.

Miller hopes his lawsuit will force the Boy Scouts to reveal what they knew about Wright, but Miller acknowledged that could be more difficult with the organization being in a bankruptcy proceeding.

A federal bankruptcy judge in Delaware is now overseeing the cases filed against the national Boy Scouts, and plaintiffs in those cases are now considered creditors.

Miller did not file a case against the national organization, but his case will be stalled, as well, because the bankruptcy judge has halted lawsuits against regional councils from moving forward, at least until November, so that they can participate in negotiations toward a global settlement for childhood victims who were abused in Scouting programs.

The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, in its bankruptcy case, also has asked Chief Judge Carl L. Bucki of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Western District of New York to make a similar ruling that would shield parishes, schools and other Catholic entities from lawsuits as the diocese negotiates a settlement plan with abuse victims.

Court orders since 2012 have made public the names of about 5,000 Scout leaders who were accused of abuse in the internal Boy Scouts of America “Ineligible Volunteers” documents known as the “Perversion Files.”

Wright’s name is not among those, but Miller’s lawyer, Vincent Nappo, said the released files include only cases of abuse reported prior to 1991. Many abuse survivors came forward after 1991 to report abuse, he said.

Impact on local Boy Scouts council

It’s not clear yet how the Greater Niagara Frontier Council will be impacted by the bankruptcy.

Gary Decker, the Greater Niagara Frontier Council chief executive officer, said that the council shares the national organization’s “commitment to ensuring victims are equitably compensated for instances of abuse in Scouting.”

“This is the driving force behind why the national organization filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The BSA and our council hope that the bankruptcy process will create a Trust that will provide equitable compensation to victims while also ensuring that we carry out our mission to serve youth, families and local communities for years to come,” he said.




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