In 2010, an Oregon jury awarded $18.5 million in damages to former Boy Scout Kerry Lewis, who had been the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his scoutmaster, Timur Dykes, two-and-a-half decades earlier. At the time, it was the largest amount ever awarded to a single plaintiff in a child abuse lawsuit. It also exposed an issue the Boy Scouts of America had spent decades and gone to great lengths to conceal from the public. That coverup involved thousands of files that the BSA had kept on suspected pedophiles over the course of its 100-year history.
It was not the first case of its kind – nor the last. In 2009, former Utah scoutmaster Gary Wade Brown pleaded guilty to charges of sexual abuse. Based on a psychological evaluation, Brown was given three-year probation and ordered to undergo treatment. In 2013, four unidentified plaintiffs filed suit against the BSA and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in an Idaho federal court, alleging “physical, sexual and emotional abuse” by scoutmasters throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, when the four plaintiffs were young teens.
This week an Arkansas man named William Stevens filed suit against the BSA for allowing scout leader Samuel Otts to sexually assault boys under his care and supervision, and allowing Otts to relocate to another community and do more of the same. That is the common denominator. In each case, the BSA allegedly knew about the perpetrator's pattern of behavior, and deliberately failed to take action that would have protected and spared the victims from being subjected to what no child or young person should ever experience.
In fact, the BSA began keeping its Ineligible Volunteer Files (also known as “perversion files”) soon after the organization's founding in 1910. Within the first twenty-five years of the BSA's existence, more than 1,000 adult scoutmasters had been removed for sexually abusing boys under their supervision and care. However, by the mid-1950s, BSA policies had shifted from dismissal of offenders to a clandestine probation program that allowed the perpetrators to continue working with the boys.
According to Stevens' complaint: “Defendant BSA went to significant lengths to keep the existence of their ‘perversion file’ system and the problem of pedophile Scout Leaders a secret from scouts and the public. Local councils were instructed – and agreed – not to keep perversion file materials at their offices, but rather to send everything to BSA national and destroy any copies.”
All of this information became public when the Oregon Supreme Court ordered the release of approximately 14,500 documents in 2012. Even before that, however, the late James L. Tarr, who served as the BSA's chief executive between 1979 and 1984, admitted that sexual abuse “...[has] been an issue since the Boy Scouts began.”
Tarr's acknowledgment was made to journalist Patrick Boyle whose exposé, Scout's Honor, was published in 1994. The book, parts of which had previously appeared in the Washington Times during 1991, revealed that over an 18-year period between 1971 and 1989, nearly 380 male scoutmasters and camp volunteers had been banned or arrested for misconduct ranging from attempted seduction to rape.
During those years, over 1,000 boys were reported to have been abused – some of them repeatedly. And according to the director of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse at the time, the actual figures were probably far greater.
Boyle wrote, “Scout officials tried to hide the sex abuse problem from the public and press, and sometimes from parents and police. National Scout officials have given the news media incorrect information about the extent of abuse in Scouting, and in a few cases local Scout officials may have violated child abuse reporting laws by not reporting suspected abuse to authorities.”
Shockingly, perpetrators often became scoutmasters and volunteers even when they had criminal records or had left other troops or youth organizations under a cloud of suspicion. Boyle also reported that between 1986 and 1991 the BSA and its local chapters had agreed to pay $15 million to settle lawsuits brought by parents of victims.
Today, thanks largely to the Internet and the availability of decades of records online, the BSA can no longer hide its “dirty little secret.” Even the statute of limitations – which would normally have expired for such cases – cannot protect the organization. Attorney Joshua Gillespie, who represents plaintiff William Stevens in the Arkansas case, says the statute of limitations does not apply because his client “...did not know or have reason to know the basis for his claims of negligence and fraud against these defendants until recently, when plaintiff discovered online the defendants’ heretofore secreted ‘perversion file’ on Samuel Otts.”
In addition, State of Georgia's legislature is considering a law that would extend the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases.
The Stevens case, and those that have recently come before it, are just the tip of a very large and ugly iceberg. Gillespie speculates that the issue of child molestation in the BSA may well become as large as it has been in the Roman Catholic Church.
If so, it is a reckoning that is long overdue.