Boy Scouts face big payouts over sex abuse files, experts say
The Boy Scouts of America face signficant legal exposure over sexual abuse claims, expert said.
The Scouts this week released 1,200 confidential files on suspected sexual abuse from past decades.
Experts said it's to early to determine how large potential payouts could be, adding it depends on several factors.
To settle similar claims in the last decade, dioceses in the Roman Catholic Church were forced to file for bankruptcy and sell off property. The church scandals and the conviction this year of retired Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky for child sexual abuse have made judges and jurors more sympathetic to allegations of sexual abuse and institutional coverups, plaintiffs’ attorneys said.
But in its 2010 treasurer’s report, the Scouts’ National Council said the cost of resolving suits then pending against the organization would probably be covered by its insurance and reserves, as the Lewis verdict was. If the Scouts need to dip into other funds, the report said, officials could probably do so without harming the organization’s finances or operations.
In December 2009, the Scouts’ total assets were valued at nearly $1 billion, according to testimony in a civil trial. That year, the Scouts set aside $65 million to pay for settlements and jury awards.
The organization’s exposure depends largely on its insurance policies, the details of which are not public. Since the late 1980s, most commercial insurance policies have not covered sex abuse claims. But it’s common now for nonprofits that work with children to buy specialty insurance to fill that gap.
In a statement, Boy Scouts spokesman Deron Smith said the group, which since 2010 has required members to report suspicions of abuse to law enforcement, was not focused on potential lawsuits, “but rather on continuing to enhance our multitiered policies and procedures to help keep kids safe.”
“As for statute of limitations,” Smith added, “the BSA respects the decisions which are made by lawmakers and the judicial system.”
But as in past child sex abuse cases, alleged victims’ ability to get their cases before a jury will vary dramatically by state.
Many states have strict statutes of limitation on such allegations, and experts say the likelihood of even finding a lawyer to take decades-old cases can be close to impossible. Multimillion-dollar verdicts are possible in states such as Oregon and Washington with loose time limits — especially if juries find the Scouts acted recklessly and award punitive damages.
But recourse for alleged victims could prove far more elusive in states such as Alabama and New York, unless their tight time limits are changed or set aside.
“Geography determines justice. That’s the problem,” said Paul Mones, an Oregon-based attorney who represented Kerry Lewis.
Lewis belonged to Boy Scout troops in the 1980s and decades later alleged in lawsuits that the Scouts failed to protect him and other boys against known molesters, citing detailed evidence from the organization’s confidential files.
Defense attorneys argue that statutes of limitation exist for a reason: It’s hard to mount a defense against old, incendiary accusations, particularly for institutions that may have severed ties with the alleged abuser decades ago.
Key witnesses are often infirm or dead, documents have gone missing and time has eroded memories, said Don Steier, who represents priests in the clergy sex abuse case involving the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
“No one wants it to be more difficult for children to seek justice,” said Darren McKinney, a spokesman for the American Tort Reform Assn., a coalition of corporations and professional groups that support limiting civil liability. “I think we want justice available to all, not just the accuser.”
-- Ashley Powers
Photo: Map shows locations of troops and units referenced by the Boy Scouts of America in the expulsions of thousands of men following allegations of sexual abuse. Credit: Ken Schwencke / Los Angeles Times