The Boy Scouts of America’s recent bankruptcy filing marks a sad milestone for one of the country’s most venerable youth organizations. Millions of boys have grown to adulthood imprinted with a sense of honor and duty to God and country thanks to the Scouts’ influence. How many adults today can still ramble off a few points of the Scout Law, if not all 12, and if not in order?
At the heart of the Boy Scouts’ plea for court protection, however, is the fact that its history and legacy has a painful dark side. For a significant part of the organization’s history of more than 110 years in the United States, some adult leaders preyed on the children they were obliged to protect. When identified, many of these individuals were barred from the Scouts and records of their abuse put on file. Still, authorities were not always notified.
Now victims of abuse are seeking justice. Many are compelled by laws prying open old statutes of limitation. The vastness of their claims, and the potential liability they carry, has the Scouts ducking for shelter in bankruptcy court so that the organization and its many affiliates are not completely overrun. In just one case, an Oregon jury awarded a victim $18.5 million in punitive damages.
It makes sense to organize these cases lest some victims get justice at the expense of others, the only difference being their timing. But the Scouts are wrong to contort this process to other interests, including the organization’s long-term survival. The weighty responsibility before the Boy Scouts now — truly, their only responsibility — should be making right by those boys, now men, who found no shelter from the Scouts when they most needed it.
It’s unclear how many there are. The Scouts’ bankruptcy filing notes 275 pending claims and says the organization knows of 1,400 others. Other reports suggest the numbers could be much greater. An expert reviewing files kept by the Scouts testified in an unrelated case last year that she’d discovered names of 7,819 “perpetrators” accused of abuse from 1944 to 2016, involving 12,254 victims. That averages to 170 child victims per year.
Many of those files have been made public, and they range in nature from raw, unverified accusations to cases that received widespread publicity as they were prosecuted. In public statements, the Boy Scouts’ national leaders have been remorseful and apologetic.
But they’re also responding to an existential threat. As they’ve explained to the bankruptcy court, the cost of addressing former abuse claims is “unsustainable” and the national organization cannot “continue to address these claims through piecemeal litigation and remain viable as a non-profit corporation.”
The Scouts’ bankruptcy case goes to lengths to hold back the flood waters. It asserts, for example, that each local Scouting organization — there are 261 local councils — are somehow buffered from these claims, and the real target should be the national group. Indeed, in public statements this week, the Boy Scouts point out that local councils are financially independent and did not file for bankruptcy.
This is a sticking point with attorneys who represent abuse victims, who believe the local councils (and their assets) should be fair game. Indeed, it’s hard to rationalize how local organizations like the local Spirit of Adventure Council can be both part of the national organization and the setting of some of these abuse cases, yet exempt when it comes time to award damages to victims.
Passing through bankruptcy, leaders of the Boy Scouts of America want to preserve the group’s basic infrastructure — with a goal of continuing their mission for current and future Scouts. The problem is when that constrains the damages for those who’ve been victimized and must bear the mental and emotional scars for the rest of their lives.
As noble as Boy Scouts mission may be, it cannot override their obligation to those former Scouts, even if the ultimate price to be paid is the existence of the organization itself.