In just a few months, the Boy Scouts of America could face a deluge of lawsuits from countless survivors who have accused the organization’s leaders of sexually abusing them as children.
The Boy Scouts’ so-called “perversion files” include the names of nearly 8,000 volunteers accused of abusing more than 12,000 victims. Portions of those files originally came out in 2012 as part of a sex abuse lawsuit in Oregon, but a lawyer catapulted them back into the spotlight during a New York press conference on Tuesday, when he accused the Boy Scouts of hiding away potential abusers and demanded the century-old organization release their names.
Although volunteers named in the files were kicked out of the Scouts, the records reveal that, at the time of the allegations, the organization often failed to report suspected child abusers to law enforcement.
Since late February, another 186 people have also come forward with allegations of sexual abuse within the Boy Scouts, Tim Kosnoff, an attorney with one of the three firms representing the survivors, told VICE News. Those allegations include 166 alleged pedophiles whose identities have never been made public, he said.
In 2018, only five victims of sexual abuse, out of 2.2 million participants, came forward to the Boy Scouts, Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh said during a press call Wednesday. Kosnoff, however, said that his youngest clients include teenagers who say they were abused in recent years.
Just a few months ago, many of the victims would have had no way to seek justice. The allegations date back to the 1940s, and child sex abuse survivors are frequently barred from filing civil lawsuits or pursuing criminal charges against their attackers because of statute of limitation laws.
But this year, the New York and New Jersey state Legislatures passed bills to open up “lookback windows,” or periods of time where any survivor of child sex abuse, no matter how long ago the crime occured, can sue. In press conferences on Tuesday, lawyers said nearly 200 Boy Scout leaders in New York and New Jersey sexually abused children.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is widely expected to sign his state’s bill into law, and New York’s window will officially open up on Aug. 14. When those laws take effect, advocates expect countless survivors to file lawsuits, which could plunge the Boy Scouts into lethal legal jeopardy.
“They’ve [the Boy Scouts] known that they have this issue for decades and have not settled or solved their problems yet,” said Marci Hamilton, CEO of the anti-child abuse group Child USA, which advocates for statute of limitation reform. “So they knew this was coming.”
Hamilton pointed out that the Boy Scouts have settled with survivors in western states, like Oregon, where statute of limitations laws sometimes give child sex abuse victims more time to come forward. And as of last week, another seven states and Washington, D.C., have pending legislation to introduce their own lookback windows, according to Child USA.
The Boy Scouts have reportedly lobbied against such windows, as have institutions like the Catholic Church (which is also all but certain to face a flood of lawsuits once New York and New Jersey’s windows open). But in a statement to VICE News Wednesday, the Boy Scouts apologized for any abuse and reiterated that they “care deeply about all victims of child abuse.”
"They knew this was coming."
“Nothing is more important than the safety and protection of children in Scouting, and we are outraged that there have been times when individuals took advantage of our programs to abuse innocent children,” the statement continued, adding that the organization had paid for “unlimited counseling” by a provider of survivors’ choice.
The Boy Scouts also said they’d now turned over all allegations of child sex abuse to law enforcement, including decades-old allegations that may not have been reported at the time. They never knowingly let an abuser work with children, the Boy Scouts said, and now have strict protocols to protect children.
“We steadfastly believe that even one instance of abuse is one too many,” Surbaugh said. During the press call, Boy Scouts officials called for the creation of a national database of suspected pedophiles, even those that haven’t been convicted of a crime, in order to better protect children.
Not every claim in the perversion files — which Surbaugh called “the volunteer screening database” — has been substantiated. And once they’re reported to law enforcement, the Boy Scouts don’t track what happens to individuals, to see what evidence police may dig up.
“The march of victims”
One of the first cases to rely on the perversion files, which Kosnoff eventually helped expose to the public, resulted in a hefty settlement in 2010. The Boy Scouts were ordered to pay $18.5 million to a man who’d been sexually abused by an assistant troop leader in the 1980s. (At the time, the settlement was the largest verdict ever rendered against the Scouts in a jury trial.)
People who participate in large-scale settlements in child sex abuse cases — like the recent settlement against former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar — tend to receive smaller awards, according to Hamilton.
“The averages tend to be about $1.4 million,” she said. “That means some of the victims are getting $20,000 and some are getting $3 million, depending on how bad the damages were.”
Still, those awards can easily add up. Michigan State University, where Nassar worked, ended up agreeing to pay more than 300 of his alleged victims $500 million, in total.
Any future lawsuits could strike at more than the Boy Scouts’ coffers. They would also likely force the organization to participate in discovery, a process that could further expose devastating records of abuse.
“A lot of these individuals have been told ‘no’ for 10, 20, 30 years. ‘No you don’t have a case.’ ‘No we didn’t know any victims, other victims, other than you.’ Well, now we have an opportunity, by and through discovery, to see if that’s really true,” said Jordan Merson, a New York attorney. Merson said he has clients who plan to file lawsuits against the Boy Scouts as soon as the window opens; one, he said, has been waiting for this opportunity since the 1940s.
Any litigation enabled by a lookback window, however, would grind to a halt if the Boy Scouts filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. In December, the Wall Street Journal reported that the group was exploring the option, as it dealt with growing legal expenses over abuse allegations.
“Our board is looking at all possible options,” Surbaugh told reporters Wednesday, when asked about filing bankruptcy. “We have made no decisions.”
While survivors could still be compensated in a bankruptcy proceeding, the details of their allegations would remain confidential. Any records of abuse within the Boy Scouts could remain sealed, perhaps forever.
Kosnoff, who worked on the lawsuit that first revealed the existence of the perversion files, had planned to retire before news of the Boy Scouts’ potential bankruptcy broke. When he heard, Kosnoff decided he had to start practicing again. He’s positive that the Boy Scouts will file for chapter 11.
“One, they want to stop the hemorrhaging,” Kosnoff said. “Two, they want to be able to move all of this horror into the shadows of bankruptcy court, so that victims won’t get their day in court to say what happened.”
Alongside two other law firms, Kosnoff is now running a national ad campaign targeted at people who may have been abused by Boy Scout leaders. About a dozen of the 186 clients they’ve signed since February are based in New York, Kosnoff said.
With his colleagues, Kosnoff is now exploring the possibility of filing a large-scale suit. They’re also deliberating over the best way to share their list of alleged perpetrators, in the interest of public safety, he said.
“Statute of limitations is no longer gonna stop the march of victims coming forward and bringing these claims,” Kosnoff said.
Cover image: Victims' rights Attorney Jeff Anderson speaks to media during a press conference on April 23, 2019, in New York. (Photo credit should read EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)