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As the Boy Scouts of America face a nationwide reckoning over accusations that it failed to keep children safe from sexual abuse, at least 26 local Boy Scout councils named in current sex abuse lawsuits have received loans from the Trump administration’s taxpayer-supported coronavirus relief fund.
In total, these councils garnered at least $8.2 million and up to about $20.9 million through the program.
These 26 councils represent a significant number of the 101 Boy Scout councils that secured loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, the $660 billion federal initiative meant to help small businesses survive the economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to government records reviewed by VICE News.
The lawsuits against the councils that received loans from the program include accusations of abuse that span states and decades. Some of the alleged abuse took place as recently as 2018. In some cases, the lawsuits say the abuse occurred a few times; in others, it purportedly happened again and again, as the adults around the young scouts failed to protect them.
Each Boy Scout council is incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, independent from the national Boy Scouts of America group. Facing a wave of sex abuse lawsuits, the national group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February. But the 261 local councils’ assets — reported to be worth a collective $3.3 billion — may escape the proceedings unscathed because of their legal separation from the parent organization.
That separation also helped enable the local councils to apply for Paycheck Protection Program money in the first place: The application form for the program warns that organizations that are currently in bankruptcy proceedings won’t be approved for a loan.
Records kept by the Small Business Administration, which runs the Paycheck Protection Program, don’t describe the precise amount of each program loan; instead, they only give a range. All together, the 101 Boy Scout councils that received money through the Paycheck Protection Program collected at least $28.7 million and as much as $71.6 million from the initiative.
The Small Business Administration did not release the names of organizations that received loans of less than $150,000. That leaves open the possibility that other Boy Scout councils facing sexual abuse litigation may have also received smaller loans through the program.
“Here they are skirting their responsibility to the harm they caused children while getting a handout from the federal government to sustain their entire business model,” said Andrew Van Arsdale, a lead attorney with Abused in Scouting, an alliance of law firms representing more than 5,500 men who say they were abused as children in Boy Scout programs. “It’s horrifying. When you look at the number of children that were abused in their care — I mean, really, they should be wrapped up and shut down, not given a lifeline to continue to sustain themselves.”
Allegations of abuse
One lawsuit against the Greater St. Louis Council, which received a loan somewhere in the range of $1 million to $2 million from the Paycheck Protection Program, was filed last year by a “John Doe” who was still a minor. According to the lawsuit, a man who worked at a camp run by the council allegedly sexually assaulted Doe three times in the summer of 2018.
The Greater St. Louis Council didn’t reply to VICE News’ requests for comment. In court documents, the council denied that its officials hadn’t done enough to prevent or stop the alleged assaults.
A lawsuit filed against the California Inland Empire Council alleges that a Boy Scout volunteer leader abused a boy described as “developmentally challenged” on at least two occasions in 2018.
“I know that you are going through an emotional roller coaster right now about who you are and what you want to be, but rest assured that you will always be my close friend and I love you,” the volunteer wrote to the boy in 2019, the lawsuit alleges. “I sure would have liked just one more time though. I hope that puts a smile on your face. I can’t get you out of my mind.”
A few months later, the abuser was arrested on sex crime charges and then killed himself, according to the lawsuit.
The California Inland Empire Council received a loan of at least $150,000 and as much as $350,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program. It didn’t reply to VICE News’ requests for comment.
Some lawsuits accuse the Boy Scouts of letting known predators continue to operate within Scouting’s ranks for years. One filed in Washington state, against a council now known as the Mount Baker Council, alleges that a leader at a local Boy Scout camp abused several boys between 1977 and 1987. Boys reported that he’d abused them, but the leader was only kicked out of the Scouts after being criminally convicted on an unrelated molestation charge, according to the lawsuit.
Another leader at the camp had been accused of “homosexual activities with the boys in the Troop” in 1967, before he started working at the camp, according to the lawsuit. But he was allowed to return to Scouting anyway, the suit alleges; the camp didn’t kick him out until 1987. Both men’s names can be found in the Boy Scouts’ perversion files.
The Mount Baker Council amassed a loan of at least $150,000 and as much as $350,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program. In an email, the council’s scout executive confirmed that the council had not been asked to return the money but declined to comment further on the loan or the lawsuit.
The Northeast Georgia Council is currently facing five sex abuse lawsuits. According to those suits, the council knew by 1955 that one scoutmaster had been accused of sexual misconduct against the young scouts in his troops. That scoutmaster continued to serve in the Boy Scouts until 1977; by that time, according to the lawsuits, he’d abused five different boys.
Each of those five lawsuits describes the moment that the allegedly abused boys, now men, realized they weren’t the only victims.
“New harm was done as the realization of these horrible facts set in for plaintiff: 1) you were not the only one, 2) the responsible adults knew about it and chose to hide it, and 3) the harm done to you that you have spent a lifetime trying to overcome could have been avoided if the responsible adults had done something about it,” the lawsuits allege.
The Northeast Georgia Council, which didn’t reply to VICE News’ requests for comment, secured a loan of at least $350,000 and as much as $1 million. In court documents for one of the lawsuits, the council denied that it knew about the sexual misconduct allegations against the scoutmaster. Plus, the council argued, the case should be dismissed because too much time has passed since the alleged abuse. It would be too difficult to gather evidence.
“Because of changing societal mores and standards in the treatment of child abuse allegations, pedophiles, and the standard of care for youth-serving organizations, adjudication of the plaintiff’s claims now based on current social mores and standards is prejudicial,” the council wrote in one filing.
VICE News emailed the Boy Scouts of America a detailed list of questions in connection to this story. In response, the Boy Scouts of America sent a statement apologizing “to anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting.”
“We are outraged that there have been times when individuals took advantage of our programs to abuse innocent children. We believe victims, we support them, and we encourage them to come forward,” the statement read. “The Boy Scouts of America is committed to fulfilling our social and moral responsibility to equitably compensate victims who suffered abuse during their time in Scouting, while also ensuring that we carry out our mission to serve youth, families and local communities for years to come.”
The Boy Scouts of America also said it has taken several steps to curb the possibility of abuse, such as banning adults from being alone with children one-on-one. The organization now screens adult leaders and staff with criminal background checks and requires that all allegations of abuse be reported to law enforcement.
Shielding local councils
But accusations that the sexual abuse of children was rife within the Boys Scouts have repeatedly rocked the organization over the last several years. For decades, its leadership maintained secret “ineligible volunteer files” — or what became known publicly as the “perversion files” — which named volunteers who were banished from the Boy Scouts over allegations of child sex abuse but were not always reported to law enforcement.
In total, more than 7,800 adults are believed to have sexually abused more than 12,200 victims through Scouting programs between 1944 and 2016, according to an expert hired by the Boy Scouts to review the perversion files. A fraction of the files were publicly released in 2012.
The sheer volume of lawsuits are threatening to financially devastate the Boy Scouts. Over the last year, populous states like New York and California have opened up what are known as “lookback windows.” Those windows allow survivors of childhood sex abuse to sue their attackers no matter how much time has passed, and have already catalyzed an avalanche of lawsuits against the Boy Scouts.
By the time the Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy in February, the organization and its local councils were already facing nearly 300 abuse-related lawsuits.
In declaring bankruptcy, the national Boy Scouts of America may be able to shield its local councils from the worst of the financial fallout. Now, people who say they were abused in Scouting decades ago are being directed to file claims not against the councils but against the national organization, in bankruptcy court in Delaware. If alleged victims don’t file a claim by Nov. 16 and the bankruptcy is successful, they will be forever barred from suing the Boy Scouts.
Thanks to the bankruptcy proceedings, the Boy Scouts of America have also secured a court order that temporarily freezes abuse-related litigation against the group, including almost all of its councils. Still, the lawsuits have continued to pour in.
Court documents filed in early July list 403 “abuse actions” against the Boy Scouts of America, councils, and affiliated organizations that helped host Boy Scout activities, such as churches. Numerous councils have been named as defendants in multiple lawsuits. (Not all of the lawsuits deal with sexual violence: One Florida lawsuit reviewed by VICE News accuses young scouts of physically and verbally abusing another boy.)
In an email to VICE News, the Boy Scouts of America stressed that its councils are “legally separate, distinct and financially independent from the national organization.”
But attorneys like Van Arsdale argue that the Boy Scouts national organization and its local councils operate like one entity. The Boy Scouts of America retains the power to cancel a council’s charter; if it decides to do so, control of that council’s property is returned to the national council of the Boy Scouts of America, according to the organization’s bylaws.
“It’s our belief that the national creates them,” Van Arsdale said of the councils. “They have the power to create them, they have the power to destroy them. Therefore, it’s just a subsidiary of that entity.”
That kind of power sets the Boy Scouts apart from organizations like Planned Parenthood, which also had affiliates receive loans through the Paycheck Protection Program. On the surface, the two organizations are similarly structured: Like the Boy Scouts, Planned Parenthood includes a parent organization — Planned Parenthood Federation of America — as well as a network of affiliated 501(c)(3) nonprofits that each oversee a geographic region. But if a Planned Parenthood affiliate decides to leave the overarching organization, that affiliate gets to keep its property.
Congressional Republicans have demanded that Planned Parenthood affiliates return the money they amassed through the Paycheck Protection Program. The Small Business Administration has also sent letters asking affiliates to return the loans.
In a letter to a Delaware Planned Parenthood affiliate obtained by VICE News, the Small Business Administration argued that the affiliate was ineligible for the Paycheck Protection Program because it was part of a larger network with more than 500 employees and because it listens to Planned Parenthood Federation of America “on a number of management issues.” Planned Parenthood says that Planned Parenthood Federation of America doesn’t control its affiliates’ internal operations, and that affiliates with fewer than 500 employees are indeed eligible for the coronavirus relief.
The Boy Scouts of America told VICE News that it was not aware of any councils that had been asked to return their Paycheck Protection Program loans.
The Paycheck Protection Program has been plagued by reports of mismanagement since its creation. At least 94 publicly traded companies — some valued at more than $100 million — received loans through the program, the Associated Press reported in April. The U.S. Roman Catholic Church, which is still grappling with its own child sex abuse scandal, also received at least $1.4 billion from the Paycheck Protection Program, the AP also reported earlier this month.
The Small Business Administration declined to comment on this story.
Maxwell Strachan, Trey Strange, and Anya Zoledziowski contributed reporting to this story.
Cover: In this Feb. 12, 2020, photo, a statue stands outside the Boys Scouts of America headquarters in Irving, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)