18 February 2020
The Boy Scouts of America, BSA, asked a federal court in the United States for legal protection Tuesday.
The group wants to be declared bankrupt – meaning it is unable to pay its debts. The BSA says the move will help it to pay the fines courts have awarded to men who suffered abuse while taking part in its programs as boys.
There has been a growing number of cases against the Boy Scouts of America in recent years. The main reason for this is a change to state laws. Until recently, many states had a statute of limitations, SOL, law that required people who suffered from abuse as children to report it by the time they were 21 years old.
The CHILD USA research group notes that 2019 was a big year for SOL reforms. Nineteen states approved laws allowing people who suffered abuse as children to bring legal action later in life. The group says that most victims of childhood sexual abuse reported it at around age 48.
Several thousand men have accused local or regional Boy Scout leaders of unwanted sexual contact. Many cases relate to incidents dating back to the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
Effect of prevention policies
BSA says there were only five known abuse victims in 2018. It credits the change to a number of prevention policies enacted since the 1980s. The group now requires criminal background investigations and abuse-prevention training for all employees and volunteers. There is also a rule that two or more adult leaders must be present during all activities.
Paul Mones is a lawyer representing men who have brought cases against the Boy Scouts of America. He says the group's leaders knew about the sexual abuse for years and tried to hide it. Mones believes they "made their decision to protect their reputation over the safety of innocent children."
Roger Mosby is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Boy Scouts of America. He said in a statement that "the BSA cares deeply about all victims of abuse and sincerely apologizes to anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting."
Until last spring, the organization had said it never permitted an abuser it knew about to work with young people. But in May, The Associated Press (AP) reported that lawyers for abuse victims had shown cases where the BSA permitted leaders who carried out sexual abuse to return. The following day, Mike Surbaugh, who was then Boy Scouts' chief executive, wrote to a congressional committee that BSA had allowed abusive leaders to return.
Reports of secret files
The AP reports that BSA has secretly kept records since the 1920s listing employees and volunteers involved in sexual abuse. The purpose of these files, they say, was to keep abusers away from Scouts. Court papers as of January show the files listed 7,819 suspected abusers and 12,254 victims.
The size of the legal fines could be huge because the Boys Scouts of America operates in all 50 states.
BSA's declaration of bankruptcy could temporarily delay payments to thousands of victims. But in the end the legal action could force the group to sell some large properties, including campgrounds and wilderness paths. The organization said in its court papers that it is worth between $1 billion and $10 billion, and it owes from $500 million to $1 billion.
BSA's finances have suffered recently because of lower membership and payments to victims of abuse. In the 1970s, the group had up to 4 million members. Now, there are fewer than 2 million. The Boy Scouts began including girls in 2017.
Like the Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America is paying a high price for sexual abuse. One difference between BSA and the Catholic Church is that the church's finances are based on local groups of churches, while the Boy Scouts are a national organization.
Mike Pfau is a lawyer in Seattle. His law office is working with many men who claim they suffered sexual abuse as Scouts. He said. "A Boy Scout bankruptcy would be bigger in scale than any other child abuse bankruptcy we've ever seen."
James Kretschmer of Houston is one of the men bringing a case against the BSA. He says, "It is a shame because at its core and what it was supposed to be, the Boy Scouts is a beautiful organization."
"But you know, anything can be corrupted," he added. "And if they're not going to protect...the children, then shut it down and move on."
I'm Jill Robbins.
And I'm Anne Ball.
The Associated Press reported this story. Jill Robbins adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
statute of limitations – n. a law that states the amount of time that must pass before a crime can no longer be punished or a right can no longer be given
regional – adj. of or related to an area or territory
bankruptcy – n. a condition of financial failure caused by not having the money that you need to pay your debts
church – n. a building where Christians or other people gather for religious services.