I have represented victims of sexual abuse for over 35 years. When I started out, the issue barely registered on the cultural Richter scale — newspapers rarely reported it and politicians paid it little mind. Now, the Boy Scouts of America, the most iconic youth organization in the nation, has 110 years almost to the day after its founding in the United States, declared bankruptcy under the weight of its awful sexual abuse. Never in all my years of practice did I ever believe there was a realistic chance of this happening. So why now?
The answer squarely lies in the 2010 Portland, Oregon trial of Lewis v. Boy Scouts of America where a jury returned a 19.9 million dollar verdict on behalf of a 38 year-old man who was sexually abused by his scoutmaster. While the jury’s verdict — the largest in the nation’s history against the Boy Scouts — in part reflected the damage experienced by Mr. Lewis, the crux of the verdict was the 18.5 million dollar punitive award which reflected the jury’s intent to punish the Boy Scouts for concealing its decades’ long problem of sexual abuse by its adult leaders. The history of the abuse and the facts of this cover-up were documented in stark, meticulous and disturbing detail in the Boy Scout’s infamous “Perversion Files” released as a result of the case. This mountain of files, along with the callous and indifferent testimony of BSA executives, conclusively proved the organization’s knowledge of the its problem and its concerted effort to conceal it from scouts, their parents and the public.
In one file from the early 1980’s, a local scout executive wrote the Boy Scout official in charge of the Perversion Files that he wanted an adult leader removed because he showed cub scouts pornography. The reply reflected the Boy Scout’s tone-deaf thinking on the subject of sexual abuse: “I will need more information, if you wish me to place him on our Confidential Files so that he cannot register in the future. I agree that sleeping in the nude and showing boys pornographic books indicated very poor judgment with dealing with Cub Scouts. I do not know, however, that this is a serious enough offense to refuse registration anywhere he might try to register unless there are more instances.”
Scouts’ reckless disregard
Despite the files’ voluminous details of sexual abuse, the trial testimony of the Boy Scout executives demonstrated a reckless disregard for the safety of scouts. Not only did the jury hear top Boy Scouts of America officials admit that the organization had never informed scouts or their parents of the problem of sexual abuse by adult leaders, but remarkably, the assistant chief scout executive, the number two in command, professed ignorance as to their contents:
Q: Are you aware of any sexual abuse at all that’s represented by the perversion files, sir?
A: No, sir.
And as if these responses would not be enough to convince the jury of leadership’s cold indifference to the agony of thousands of loyal boys, the Scout official tasked with running the Perversion Files testified in response to my question about his awareness of the “…problem of scouts being molested by adult leaders,” by asserting that he was, “Not quite sure it’s a problem…”
After the verdict was rendered, the Boy Scouts of America had a clear choice. It could have changed course by reaching out to the thousands of adult victims and offered them compensation and counseling for their injuries. Instead it dug in its heels by going to court to prevent the public release of the Perversion Files. The Oregon Supreme Court denied that request, and in 2012 the it ordered the files released to the general public.
The release of the Perversion Files was the beginning of the end for the Boy Scouts. Within the next year we were contacted by hundreds of men throughout the nation who were sexually assaulted by their scout masters; remarkably, the vast majority of the leaders were not even in the Perversion Files which proved that the files only contained a minority of scout sexual abuse cases. These men, doctors, truck drivers, military veterans — all of whom took the solemn Boy Scout oath to do their duty to God and country and to “help people at all times,” were consumed by anger, hurt and disappointment. Within a short while, the Boy Scouts of America was inundated with lawsuits from all over the nation.
Scouts not alone
Over the next 8 years, it was not just the financial strain caused by an ever increasing number of claims that would eventually bring the Boy Scouts to insolvency, but as well, it was a fundamental ground-shift in public attitudes about sexual abuse in institutions — a change the organization could neither predict nor control. During this time, our nation’s consciousness shifted from a focus on the evil perpetrator to one in which the institution was targeted for its abject failure to protect the children it was meant to serve. Between 2012 and 2019 prestigious cultural icons — Penn State, elite private schools like Horace Mann, the St. Paul’s School, Choate Rosemary Hall and Olympic sports programs like USA Swimming and USA Gymnastics to name just a few, all were exposed as protecting their predator employees and volunteers at the expense of trusting, innocent children. The outrage at that these exalted institutions which willingly sacrificed the most vulnerable to protect their reputations was palpable. Fueling the public fury, was the scathing 2018 report by Pennsylvania Attorney General which renewed the focus on the unforgivable cruelties perpetrated by the Catholic Church.
As a consequence of this new sexual abuse consciousness, a groundswell of support grew in legislatures around the nation demanding that obsolete, draconian statute of limitation laws, the main bulwark protecting institutions like the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church, be reformed to allow victims, previously prevented from suing, to get through the courthouse door. Look-back windows — statutes meant to give older victims of sexual abuse a defined period of time in which to sue their abusers — began to gain momentum in 2012 when Hawaii enacted a statute giving victims of sexual abuse two years to sue. By 2019 when New York, New Jersey, California, Arizona, Washington D.C. and North Carolina enacted look-back windows, the BSA’s bankruptcy was all but guaranteed because of the flood of litigation these new laws generated.
We are at critical tipping point in our history where hallowed cultural institutions are finally being brought to justice after years of enabling unspeakable crimes against the most powerless of our society. The Boy Scouts of America is now shattered, and it has only itself to blame. And its bankruptcy should serve as a blunt warning that if this new insurgency for sexual abuse victims can take down this sacred institution, it is only a matter of time when the Sword of Damocles will come down on churches, schools and youth organizations throughout the nation. Whether they heed this warning, will determine their future.
Paul Mones is an attorney who resides in Los Angeles and specializes in representing victims of sexual abuse throughout the nation. He has represented abuse victims suing the Boy Scouts of America. Follow him on Twitter @MonesPaul