A team of lawyers filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court in Washington, D.C., seeking to establish the nation’s capital as a venue for men across the U.S. to sue the Boy Scouts of America for allegedly failing to protect them from long-ago sexual abuse at the hands of scoutmasters and other leaders.
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The eight plaintiffs in the potentially ground-breaking lawsuit, identified as John Does 1 through 8, live in states where statute of limitations laws would prevent them from suing the BSA based on claims of sex abuse that occurred decades ago.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers contend that federal court in Washington is an appropriate venue for such a lawsuit because the Boy Scouts were incorporated there in 1910 and obtained a congressional charter in 1916. Along with several states -- including New York, New Jersey and California -- the District of Columbia eased its statute of limitations in 2019 to accommodate claims like those in the new lawsuit.
The Boy Scouts, in an email to The Associated Press, said it cannot comment on pending litigation. It reiterated its previous apologies to “anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting.”
“We believe victims, we support them, we pay for counseling by a provider of their choice and we encourage them to come forward,” the BSA said.
The lawyers handling the new lawsuit, from the Washington firm of Zuckerman Spaeder, are affiliated with Abused in Scouting, a nationwide legal team that is signing up hundreds of clients across the U.S. who seek to file sex-abuse claims against the BSA.
The lawsuit contends that the BSA has known since its early years that it attracted pedophiles into its ranks of adult leaders, yet avoided public acknowledgement of the dangers for decades even as it kept secret files of men known or suspected of committing sex abuse.
The lawsuit notes that the BSA submits an annual report to Congress summarizing its recent activities.
“However, never once in 103 years of reporting to Congress has BSA disclosed the fact that its programs were, and are, magnets to tens of thousands of pedophiles,” the lawsuit says. “Instead, BSA’s Reports to the Nation have miscast the organization as a bastion of moral authority.”
The lawsuit’s premise that the Washington, D.C. federal court has jurisdiction because of the BSA’s congressional charter has not been tested and will likely be challenged, but Aitan Goelman, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, says it’s worth a try.
“We’re intentionally trying to make this a venue for a national case against the Boy Scouts,” he said. “We’re doing it conscious of the fact that it’s unusual and we explain why we believe it’s legally sound.”
A key element, he said, is the inconsistency of statute of limitations laws in the states.
“If you were raped in California, as opposed to Texas, you have a potential avenue for some measure of justice – but it shouldn’t depend on the vagaries of geography,” Goelman said. “The Boy Scouts are a national organization. It cannot be, just based on luck of the draw, that some of these men are completely shut out of the courts and some are not.”
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs live in eight different states — Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia.
The plaintiff from Hawaii, although identified in the lawsuit as a John Doe, chose to speak on the record with The Associated Press. He is Dave Henson, a 39-year-old Navy officer who says he was abused by an assistant scout leader in Lake Dallas, Texas, starting in 1991 when he was 11 and continuing for five years.
Henson said that after years of enduring anxiety, shame and depression, he felt relieved to be part of litigation that could benefit abuse victims across the U.S.
“The abuse occurs once you’re isolated from the rest of the group, and you stay in that isolation for years,” he said.
Without specifying any dollar figures, the lawsuit seeks compensatory damages for physical and emotional injuries, as well as punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.
The BSA has been entangled for years in costly litigation with men accusing Scout leaders of abusing them as children. Hundreds of new lawsuits now loom after several states enacted laws making it easier for victims of long-ago abuse to seek damages.
The organization, headquartered in Irving, Texas, says it's exploring "all options available" to maintain its programs and pay fair compensation to victims who were abused as scouts. The BSA has not ruled out the possibility of filing for bankruptcy.
Last month, the Scouts confirmed it has designated its national properties, including the vast Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, as collateral to help meet financial needs, including rising insurance costs related to sex abuse litigation.
There’s also another new blow: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — for decades the largest sponsor of Boy Scout troops — is pulling more than 400,000 young people out of the BSA and moving them into a new global program of its own. The move is expected to reduce the BSA’s youth membership from about 2.2 million to roughly 1.8 million — the first time since the World War II era that the figure will fall below 2 million. At the group's peak in the 1970s, more than 4 million boys were Scouts.