WASHINGTON, D.C. – Boy Scouts of America faces mounting legal liability as lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by leaders and volunteers continue to roll in, thanks in part to loosening statutes of limitations across the country.
Today, lawyers with Abused in Scouting filed suit in Washington, D.C., on behalf of eight men who say they were abused as kids by Scout leaders and volunteers. The District in May eliminated time restrictions for sexual abuse survivors to pursue civil litigation and opened a two-year window for survivors under the age of 40 to file suit regardless of the date of the incident.
Separately, attorneys Gilion Dumas and Ashley Vaughn plan to file suit in California on behalf of 14 plaintiffs with similar claims. That "mass action" suit comes days after California’s Assembly Bill 218 took effect, allowing victims of child sexual assault to file suit until age 40 and opening a three-year window for those abused as children to sue for past incidents.
Attorney Paul Mones, who along with Dumas won a landmark $19.9 million verdict against the Scouts in 2010, said he expects a “flood of litigation” in California.
“With the advent of all this consciousness of abuse in Boy Scouts, and all the things that happened in the last few years, there’s going to be a tidal wave of cases against them.”
Mones filed suit on behalf of a 17-year-old client in December in San Bernardino County Superior Court and estimates his firm has an additional 75 suits filed against Boy Scouts and as many as 200 more in the works.
In a statement, Boy Scouts expressed outrage "that there have been times when individuals took advantage of our program to abuse innocent children."
"The Boy Scouts of America is committed to fulfilling our social and moral responsibility to fairly compensate victims who suffered abuse during their time in Scouting," the statement reads. "The BSA has a multi-layered process of safeguards informed by experts, including the following, all of which act as barriers to abuse: a leadership policy that requires at least two youth-protection trained adults be present with youth at all times and bans one-on-one situations where adults would have any interactions alone with children – either in person, online or via text; a thorough screening process for adult leaders and staff, including criminal background checks and the prompt mandatory reporting of any allegation or suspicion of abuse."
California and D.C. join a wave of states and territories that are extending time for survivors of child sexual abuse to press charges and seek civil damages. Since 2009, lawmakers in 38 states have introduced such bills, according to a USA TODAY analysis. Twenty-nine states have enacted laws, including New York, where at least a dozen cases have been filed against the Scouts since the new law took effect in August.
The push to extend statutes of limitations or eradicate them altogether came about in part through better understanding of how long it can take survivors grappling with trauma to come forward. The average age of disclosure is 52, according to CHILD USA, a think tank that focuses on preventing child abuse and neglect. Some people never disclose what happened to them.
“Grooming is very powerful. The predators who learn how to groom know how to isolate people and know how to do it very well,” said Dave Henson, one of the eight "John Does" in Monday’s suit in D.C.
Henson, now 39, said he was abused by an assistant Scout leader over a span of five years, starting when he was 11. The grooming was so meticulous, Henson said, that he didn’t realize the late-night touching that turned into penetration was abuse until years later, when he told his high school sweetheart.
“I wanted to be open and honest with her, and said, ‘Hey, I've had a homosexual relationship, and she kind of looked at me weird. I explained to her what kind of happened, she again looks at me and said, ‘You didn’t have a homosexual relationship; you were abused.’”
“Even after her revelation it didn’t really sink in. I didn’t really understand why I had all these emotions of shame and guilt, which led to drinking, a lot of drinking,” Henson said. “That’s why these windows and statutes of limitations are so important, because it takes so long sometimes to come to that realization.”
Henson’s attorneys are hoping to set a new precedent for survivors who live in states that have not opened so-called "look-back windows" or changed their statutes. The group, which has been running TV and Google ads encouraging victims to come forward, says it has signed more than 1,600 clients since last spring, many of whom live in states with restrictive statutes of limitations.
All eight of the plaintiffs in Monday’s suit, including Henson, live in states that have not yet opened windows.
“The problem with Boy Scouts is this is a national organization, and it’s really a national problem,” said attorney Aitan Goelman of D.C.-based Zuckerman Spaeder, an Abused in Scouting member firm. “To have such disparate treatment of survivors based on an arbitrary geographical factor is not fair. It’s not just.”
Goelman says D.C. is a proper venue for the suit because a congressional charter incorporated Scouts in the nation’s capital in 1916. The charter also required an annual report to Congress on the activities of the organization.
The suit, along with nearly all reviewed by USA TODAY, alleges that Boy Scouts knew it had a rampant child sexual abuse problem as far back as the 1920s but concealed the issue to protect its wholesome image. In several cases, survivors accuse the Scouts of failing to stop known abusers from returning to their ranks and abusing again.
Dumas said her firm has successfully brought cases in Montana, Iowa, Idaho and Oregon on claims that Boy Scouts committed fraud by concealing their knowledge of the threat of sexual abuse within the organization.
A suit filed in Arkansas in November alleges abuse against two former Scouts who say they were assaulted by a leader who had previously been reported to the Boy Scouts of America for abuse in Georgia. According to the suit, the leader had been added to the ineligible volunteer files but was later allowed to become a leader in Arkansas.
“Boy Scouts could have gotten ahead of this early on but literally chose not to,” said Mones, who says his client in San Bernardino was abused up until 2018. “I believe they’ve been trying to look at that problem, but the problem is that it’s a day late and a dollar short.”
The organization has begun to show the strain of mounting legal bills. Last year, reports began to emerge of a potential bankruptcy filing. Boy Scouts has denied a filing is imminent but said it is exploring all available options.
In October, the organization raised annual membership fees from $33 to $60, and last month it confirmed it had mortgaged the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, one of its most prized properties where troops from across the country go for days-long treks. It said similar liens are in place for other properties, according to the Associated Press, including its headquarters in Irving, Texas, and bases in Florida, Minnesota and West Virginia.
On Jan. 1, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints followed through on its plan to pull hundreds of thousands of Mormon youth out of Scouts in favor of its own program. That withdrawal means an 18% drop in already declining membership for Scouts, predicted to dip below 2 million for the first time since World War II.
Cara Kelly is a reporter on the USA TODAY investigations team, focusing primarily on pop culture, consumer news and sexual violence. Contact her at email@example.com, @carareports or CaraKelly on WhatsApp.
Contributing: Marisa Kwiatkowski, USA TODAY; Tom Kisken, Ventura County Star
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Boy Scouts face flood of lawsuits claiming child sex abuse