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The first federal sex abuse lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America could help victims from all 50 states to sue the Boy Scouts — or it could get shelved long before the eight men who filed it ever get the chance to tell their stories in a courtroom.
The men, who say they were sexually abused as children by Boy Scout leaders, filed their lawsuit in Washington, D.C., this week because state statutes of limitations would likely block them from suing their alleged attackers in state court. If the lawsuit moves forward, the men’s attorneys say that it may be the only way that their clients can get justice.
But that’s a big if. Sex abuse litigation typically unfolds in state courts, and not everybody is convinced that this new approach will work out as its architects intend.
“I don’t want to call this experimental, because I think that we’re on very solid legal grounds,” said attorney Aitan Goelman, who helped file the lawsuit. “But it is unprecedented. It is something that is novel.”
Goelman works for the D.C.-based law firm Zuckerman Spaeder, which is a member of a coalition of firms known collectively as Abused in Scouting. He and his colleagues are hoping to take advantage of a recent law in Washington, D.C. that set up a two-year “lookback window.” While the window is open, people who were sexually assaulted as children can sue their abusers and the institutions they represented, as long as they’re under 40 years old. The eight men in the lawsuit, who are unnamed, are now between 32 and 39 years old.
Abused in Scouting says it represents nearly 1,600 people, and a victory for the alliance in federal court could open up the floodgates for countless more abuse victims. That would spell disaster for the Boy Scouts, which has already announced that it’s considering filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy as the group continues to grapple with accusations that rampant sex abuse took place under its watch.
“It’s not just that somebody who is abused as a little kid in New York has a pathway to achieve some measure of justice but somebody in Florida or Texas doesn’t.”
Nine states passed legislation to open up lookback windows in 2019, according to the anti-child abuse group Child USA. The resulting patchwork of laws is simply unfair, Goelman said. His lawsuit argues that the Boy Scouts can be sued in federal court because the organization received a federal charter from Congress in 1916, meaning its “legal domicile is in the District of Columbia.” (The Boy Scouts are now headquartered in Texas.)
“It’s not just that somebody who is abused as a little kid in New York has a pathway to achieve some measure of justice but somebody in Florida or Texas doesn’t,” Goelman said.
The men in the lawsuit were allegedly abused after joining troops in Texas, North Carolina, West Virginia, Florida, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Utah, and Nevada. One alleges that he won merit badges for sex acts with the assistant scoutmaster of his troop. Another says that his assistant scout leader not only abused him, but suggested pimping him out; that man had a breakdown when, years later, his young son asked to join Boy Scouts.
Paul Mones, a Los Angeles-based attorney who represents hundreds of people who were abused in the Scouts, wants more state legislatures to open up lookback windows. He compared it to marijuana legalization laws: In some states, smoking weed is a crime that’ll land you behind bars; in others, you can buy weed gummies at the shop around the corner.
Lookback windows are typically meant to address abuse of a state’s residents within that state. He doesn’t think that a court will agree to use D.C. law to tackle abuse that allegedly occurred outside of the district’s borders.
“I also don’t see the federal courts in D.C. opening themselves up for thousands and thousands of lawsuits — which is what it would be — to clog the system there,” said Mones, who once won a jury verdict of almost $20 million in a sex abuse lawsuit against the Boy Scouts.
“On the other hand,” he added, “I think that any attempt made to try to get justice for victims is an important one and I applaud this.”
It’s no secret that predators have lurked within the Boy Scouts. In 2019, an expert hired by the Scouts found that the group’s own records — dubbed the “ineligible volunteer files” or, more luridly, the “perversion files” — show that around 12,000 boys have been allegedly sexually abused while participating in Scouting programs. While volunteers on the list were kicked out of the Scouts, they were not always reported to law enforcement.
“BSA consistently misrepresented itself as a safe, wholesome, values-based organization where scouts would be ‘prepared for life,’ when BSA knew, in fact, that: its programs were infested with pedophiles,” the lawsuit alleges, accusing the Scouts of negligence and fraudulent misrepresentation.
In a statement, the Boy Scouts said that it is now the organization’s policy to report all suspected abuse to the police. The Scouts will also pay for a victim’s counseling and “fairly compensate” people who were abused while serving in the Scouts.
“We care deeply about all victims of child abuse and sincerely apologize to anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting. We are outraged that there have been times when individuals took advantage of our program to abuse innocent children,” the group said. “Nothing is more important than the safety and protection of children in our Scouting programs — it is our top priority.”
If the case does move forward in federal court, the accusers may be able to gather records from across the country, uncovering reams of information about what the Boy Scouts knew about the alleged abuse and when they knew it, according to Marci Hamilton, CEO of Child USA.
But federal courts have far less experience than state courts in dealing with childhood sex abuse cases, which are complex and often riddled with misconceptions about what sex abuse looks like, the nature of trauma, and why victims can take so long to come forward.
“I think that it has a good chance,” Hamilton said of the lawsuit. “We are living in an era of fertile ideas of trying to get justice for these victims.”
Cover image: In this Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019 photo, Greg Hunt holds a school photo of himself in St. Petersburg, Fla. Attorneys for victims from around the country of alleged childhood sex abuse by Boy Scout officials say they are preparing to sue the organization in New Jersey when the state's new civil statute of limitations goes into effect. Hunt, 62, is planning to be on the suit in New Jersey. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)