Deadline arrives for sex-abuse claims in Boy Scouts bankruptcy case, with tens of thousands filed
By Lewis Kamb
November 16, 2020
|Attorney Tim Kosnoff plays video of unidentified abuse victim known as S.O., during a Seattle news conference Aug. 29, 2013 to announce state’s...|
Photo by Ken Lambert
Before a Monday deadline, tens of thousands of men — including scores from Washington — already have filed sexual-abuse claims against the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in a federal bankruptcy case the national organization hopes will help it emerge from the cloud of a decades-old scandal.
But the sheer flood of claims that already have rolled in has revealed the hidden horrors of pedophilia perpetuated in scouting programs at a level vastly more widespread than previously known, some claimants’ lawyers said.
Not only does the far-reaching bankruptcy case now jeopardize the national BSA’s existence, but it throws into question whether hundreds of local scouting councils in Washington and around the nation can survive unscathed, according to two Seattle attorneys involved in the case.
“It was a disastrous decision,” Michael Pfau, a Seattle attorney who co-represents more than 1,000 sexual-abuse claimants, said of the BSA’s bankruptcy filing.
“They thought they could get in, get out, limit their liability and protect their local organizations,” he said. “But they grossly underestimated the level of abuse in scouting. Instead, it’s now crystal clear that the Boy Scouts of America probably has the largest number of sexual abusers of any institution in our country, ever.”
The Irving, Texas-based scouting group, a nonprofit corporation that serves as the national charter organization under which more than 270 local scouting councils operate, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February announcing that it aimed to create a Victims Compensation Trust to “provide equitable compensation to victims.”
The bankruptcy filing also sought to help the BSA survive “to continue carrying out its mission for years to come,” the organization said.
Officials for local councils in Washington — including the Chief Seattle Council in Seattle, the Mt. Baker Council in Everett and the Pacific Harbors Council in Tacoma — said in a statement last week “the overwhelming majority of abuse claims filed in the national organization’s bankruptcy case relate to allegations of abuse that occurred before our modern youth protection policies were put in place more than three decades ago.”
The local councils, which are not named in the bankruptcy case, have maintained their financial operations are separate from the national group and contend local camps, buildings and other assets aren’t at risk. But some lawyers for claimants have disputed that.
Known as a “bar date,” Monday’s deadline set by a federal bankruptcy court in Delaware allows any survivor of Boy Scouts sexual abuse to file a claim against the national scouting organization until 2 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. If a prospective claimant misses the deadline, they face losing the right to seek compensation against the national group in the future.
Some abuse victims could still separately file lawsuits in state courts against local scouting councils, as well as the churches, schools or other groups that sponsored them, attorneys say. But varying statutes of limitation in U.S. states and territories, and the uncertainty of the bankruptcy’s outcome, complicate the issue.
Already, the number of claims filed in the bankruptcy case to date — conservatively estimated at more than 50,000 — makes it by far the largest legal reckoning for sex abuse in the nation’s history, said Tim Kosnoff, a Seattle lawyer whose team represents thousands of BSA claimants nationwide.
“It’s the biggest sexual-abuse case by an order of magnitude, anywhere ever,” Kosnoff said. “It’s bigger than all of the Catholic Church cases combined, by a longshot.”
The sexual abuse of Boys Scouts in Washington and elsewhere is well-documented and dates back decades.
“Our clients range in age from 8 to 93,” said Kosnoff, whose firm and two others operate under the trade name, Abused in Scouting, and represent 18,000 claimants in the bankruptcy case. “They don’t know each other, they’re from different generations and different parts of the country. And yet, the stories they describe are so consistent and repetitive, they’re almost cross-corroborating.”
Pfau, whose firm is teaming with lawyers in California, New Jersey and New York, represents 1,050 claimants in the bankruptcy case. About 50 of his clients live in or were abused in Washington, with about 20 others expected to submit claims before Monday’s deadline, he said.
“Some of our claims involve predators whose names we recognize,” he said. “But a surprising number are new to us — Boy Scouts leaders who molested children in Washington state whose names weren’t found in any of the perversion files.”
For more than 100 years, the BSA has kept so-called “perversion files” — internal records that tracked and, in theory, aimed to weed out suspected pedophiles within Scouting ranks.
Also known as the “ineligible volunteer,” or IV files, a portion was disclosed in 2012 under an Oregon Supreme Court ruling, revealing more than 7,800 names of suspected pedophiles that spurred lawsuits nationwide. Among them were at least 38 scouting officials in Washington state, several of whom the BSA knew posed dangers to kids, but allowed to remain in scouting.
But the BSA destroyed many of its perversion files or otherwise never disclosed the information, the lawyers said.
Among Pfau’s Washington cases, at least five involve Scouting officials whose names appeared in previously disclosed files, including Allen Ewalt and Charles Grewe — two notorious pedophiles who sometimes worked in tandem to abuse boys at the Fire Mountain Boys Scouts Camp near Mount Vernon in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Ewalt died in 1996; Grewe is a convicted child rapist and registered sex offender living in Lake Stevens. He did not respond to a phone message on Friday.
At least half of the Washington claimants represented by Pfau’s team have accused other scouting leaders who weren’t named in the disclosed perversion files, he said. They include James M. Sauget, a scoutmaster for Troop 523 in Port Orchard from 1959 to 1969, whom six of his clients have accused, Pfau said.
Sauget, 82, did not respond to a message left for him Friday. Court records show he pleaded guilty in 2012 to indecent liberties and domestic-violence charges related to the sexual abuse of a minor family member.
Kosnoff separately estimated at least 80% of the 18,000 claims represented by his team involve alleged perpetrators who previously have not been identified.
“These are hidden predators who are still out there, maybe still in Scouting or in youth sports or other things,” Kosnoff said. “That’s disturbing.”
Neither the national BSA nor its lawyers would say last week exactly how many claims have been filed to date.
“Since the deadline set by the court to file claims is several days away, it would be premature to comment on the exact number of claims submitted,” the BSA said in an emailed statement.
By the time the deadline passes, Kosnoff estimated 60,000 to 80,000 claims could be filed. Even with the conservative guess of 50,000 claimants, the BSA faces billions of dollars of liability, he said.
“If you figure $500,000 per claim is the average payout, that’s $25 billion,” he said. “And it would be hard to refuse to pay a fair value like that. ”
Local councils in Washington and elsewhere, in media statements and boilerplate language on websites, point out their finances are separate from the national organization, with the local groups raising their own operating funds and filing their own annual financial statements.
“Our council is an independent nonprofit organization,” says one such statement, posted on the Tacoma-based Pacific Harbors Council’s website. “We own and control our camps, council service center, bank funds and investments. We receive no funding from the national BSA organization.”
But some of the claimants’ attorneys dispute that local council assets are immune to the national group’s bankruptcy. Provisions in the local councils’ bylaws allow the national organization to terminate the charter of any council at any time, potentially putting their camps and other properties at risk should the national BSA need to liquidate them for payouts, Pfau said.
Beyond that, local councils and the churches, schools and other groups that have sponsored them, face separate lawsuits by abuse survivors. Washington is among the states with statutes of limitation allowing suits to be filed decades after abuses occurred. Other states, including Arizona, California, New Jersey and New York, recently have allowed for “look-back windows” that extend deadlines for filing sex abuse cases.
Until it’s resolved, the federal bankruptcy case has temporarily paused BSA abuse lawsuits in state courts. “But once that stay is lifted, we will pursue all of these cases aggressively,” said Pfau, whose firm has 70 lawsuits pending in Washington.
Jack Connelly, the volunteer executive board president of the Tacoma-based scouting council and a prominent trial lawyer whose firm routinely represents sex-abuse victims, said he’s impressed by measures the BSA has taken in recent years to protect youth and train volunteers.
“We are closely monitoring the national situation and appreciate that they are trying to handle these claims in a responsible manner assisting victims and allowing the many benefits of Scouting to continue for youth in a safe manner,” Connelly said in an email.