Boy Scouts abused in other states sue in N.J. using untested strategy
The out-of-state men say they have grounds to sue because the abuse occurred when the Boy Scouts of America was headquartered in New Jersey.
Updated 1:52 p.m.
Already considering bankruptcy to cope with hundreds of sex-abuse claims, the Boy Scouts of America now faces a new lawsuit in New Jersey by out-of-state men using a novel legal strategy.
Former scouts allegedly abused in Indiana, Texas, Wisconsin and Arkansas say they have grounds to sue in New Jersey because the abuse occurred when the Boy Scouts of America was headquartered in the state from 1954 to 1979.
Even though the scouts were allegedly assaulted by volunteers and employees in local scouting groups, the staffing and business decisions that failed to protect them originated in the Garden State, said Michael Pfau, an attorney representing the men.
“The policies, the practices and the procedures — and the omissions — during that time period that led to children being abused were all made by Boy Scout leadership in New Jersey,” Pfau said.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, four former scouts name five former scout leaders whose sexual misconduct against children were documented in internal BSA documents — known as “perversion files” — on volunteers unfit to serve. A sixth scout leader is anonymous.
The filing cites internal BSA communications on official letterhead with a New Jersey address and phone number.
The former scouts — now adults — are suing under a recently enacted New Jersey law that lets victims revive old claims. Many victims in New Jersey and elsewhere were previously blocked from suing by statutes of limitations that put a deadline on when they could file complaints.
Attorney Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of the advocacy group CHILD USA, says it’s unclear whether New Jersey judges will allow this first-of-its-kind lawsuit to proceed.
But if they do, it could open the door for scouts in states with more restrictive laws to seek damages in New Jersey.
“If Indiana isn’t going to do the right thing, then at least somebody is doing the right thing to get this topic the proper exposure and the proper closure for all of us,” said William, one of the scouts named in the new lawsuit who wishes to be identified only by his first name.
The former scouts’ stories are at once harrowing and tragic.
William, the former scout from Indiana, said in an interview that he denied the sexual advances of a man who just years earlier had been banned from volunteering over allegations of child sex abuse, but was reinstated after he received treatment and was deemed “cured” by a psychiatrist and a minister.
“After reading that, it just horrified me that they gave him a second chance and he did it again to me and my friends,” said William, now 53.
Another former scout says in the lawsuit that he was one of more than 10 teenagers abused in Wisconsin by Larry Hahn, who was sentenced in 1989 to 20 years in prison for molesting boys over the course of two decades, including one allegedly at knifepoint, and forcing them to pose for explicit photos.
According to news reports, a veteran local police officer and other adults allegedly were told about Hahn’s abuse some 15 years earlier but did not take steps to stop it.
Yet another former scout said he was abused in Arkansas by two different scout leaders over the same time period. One of the leaders, Thomas Neal Bowen, was later sentenced to 12 years in prison for raping a 10-year-old boy, according to internal BSA documents. (That boy is apparently a different person than the victim named in the lawsuit).
And the fourth scout, who asked to be identified only by his first name David, said he suffered two years of fondling and oral sex by an otherwise beloved scout leader in Texas starting at age 11. That leader, David said, promoted a culture of near-nakedness among a group of boys excited about Native American culture by saying things like, “Real Indians don’t wear underwear with their loincloths.”
“I don’t think I’d ever have the chance to make my voice heard in this state on its own,” David, now 54, said about seeking justice in Texas, adding of his motivation for suing: “I just think that this trend has to stop. … I don’t want that kind of world for my kids or my grandkids.”
The dates of the alleged abuse range from 1973 to 1982 and each victim says at least some of the abuse occurred when the Boy Scouts of America was headquartered in New Jersey.
Since 1979, the organization has been headquartered in Irving, Texas.
A BSA spokesperson declined to comment on pending litigation but acknowledged in a statement that “there were some instances in our organization’s history when cases were not addressed in a manner consistent with our commitment to protect Scouts.”
The BSA has implemented several reforms in more recent decades, including youth-protection training, criminal background checks for volunteers, mandatory reporting of suspected abuse to law enforcement and a “two-deep leadership” policy that bans one-on-one interactions between adults and children.
The organization also offers a 24/7 Scouts First Helpline and email address to access counseling and report any suspected abuse or inappropriate behavior.
“We care deeply about all victims of child abuse and sincerely apologize to anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting,” the spokesperson said.
The organization is already facing tremendous financial pressure in the face of hundreds of sex-abuse claims across the country.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that BSA has drawn up a strategy to protect its assets that includes a bankruptcy filing covering its national governing body but excluding 261 local councils.
Hamilton, of CHILD USA, said the threat of bankruptcy has encouraged attorneys to file lawsuits against BSA sooner rather than later.
“They are generally better off being at the table when that happens than in the wings,” she said in an email. “They want to be part of the group that makes decisions as part of the creditors committee that will be formed and have input” on the court-imposed deadline to file additional claims.
The former scouts in the New Jersey lawsuit are represented by the law firms Rebenack, Aronow & Mascolo of New Brunswick and Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala of Seattle.
WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.