Eight men filed a suit in Washington on Monday for abuse they say they suffered as scouts.
BY BEN WIEDER
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – For nearly three years starting in 1993, several Boy Scouts members were subject to sexual abuse at the hands of an assistant scoutmaster in their Gainesville, Fla., troop, one of the scouts says in lawsuit.
The alleged abuse occurred at a Boy Scout camp, in the assistant scoutmaster’s truck and at parties at the assistant scoutmaster’s house, which the former scout said he and the rest of the troop were encouraged to attend by the troop’s leaders.
“It skewed my trust in people,” said the former scout, who asked not to be identified. “Looking back, there are so many red flags that were overlooked.”
The former Gainesville scout, who now lives in Colorado, is one of eight men who filed suit Monday in Washington, D.C., against the Boy Scouts of America for abuse they say they suffered as scouts in the organization.
A novel approach
While it’s more common for such lawsuits to be filed in the jurisdiction in which the alleged abuse occurred, the eight men in the suit were allegedly abused in states in which they would currently be barred from suing the organization because the statute of limitations has passed on filing for civil claims.
The lawsuit, brought by a consortium of law firms called Abused in Scouting, takes a novel approach by seeking to take advantage of a two-year window in Washington, D.C., law — from May 2019 until May 2021 — in which victims of childhood sexual abuse previously subject to the statute of limitations on bringing legal action can bring civil suits against perpetrators or institutions.
If successful, the lawsuit could open the floodgates for other former scouts who were victims of sexual abuse to bring suit against the organization, even if they are barred from bringing suit under the laws in those states in which the alleged abuse took place.
“I think this is an opportunity for people who otherwise might not have any avenue,” said Aitan Goelman, one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit. “We are hopeful that this will not be the last suit of its kind.”
While the Boy Scouts of America is headquartered in Texas, the lawsuit argues that the District of Columbia is a suitable venue for the suit because the organization was federally chartered in 1916, six years after the organization first incorporated there.
Federal code lists Washington, D.C., as the organization’s permanent home and requires the group to provide an annual report to Congress.
The organization did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Over the past two decades, as revelations have emerged about sexual abuse of children in organizations such as the Boy Scouts and the Catholic church, 16 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws opening up windows of varying lengths for victims of childhood sexual offenses to bring civil claims against their abusers, and in some cases, against organizations or the government for inaction to prevent the abuse from occurring, according to CHILD USA, a nonprofit group focused on child abuse.
“What they remedy is the way that the legal system has silenced the victims,” said Marci Hamilton, the founder of the nonprofit group and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Many times the victims would come to lawyers when they were ready and what the lawyer would say is you’re out of options.”
Florida is not among the states that have opened up such a window, but a bill introduced in December by state Sen. Lauren Book, a Democrat from Plantation, herself a victim of childhood sexual abuse, would give victims of childhood sexual abuse previously barred by statute of limitations laws a one-year window to file civil claims.
Book has said that she was inspired to introduce the legislation in part by the Miami Herald’s Perversion of Justice series, which detailed the case of serial sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein, who victimized underage girls more than a decade earlier.
The Washington, D.C., lawsuit argues that the scouting organization was negligent in not taking steps to “prevent, respond to, and warn of child sex abuse in its ranks.” The suit also claims that the organization “fraudulently concealed” from Congress and the public its knowledge that pedophiles had served in the organization.
The lawsuit reflects a growing understanding of the role that organizations played in allowing abuse to occur, said Rose ZoltekJick, a law professor at Northeastern University.
“What we have now understood in a way that we did not a couple of decades ago is the rampant cover-up,” Zoltek-Jick said. “The idea of corporate or organizational responsibility is now coming into the courts.”
The Boy Scouts has maintained records for more than 100 years of “ineligible volunteers” who were barred from serving in the organization, many of whom were pedophiles, the lawsuit states.
The organization was forced to reveal the names of some of the abusers in sealed lawsuits, but the names weren’t publicly revealed until a Los Angeles Times investigation in 2012 that presented the names of more than 5,000 abusers in the records, which have come to be known as the “perversion files.”
The former Gainesville scout said he was dismayed not to see his former assistant scoutmaster’s name among those revealed publicly.
The assistant scoutmaster, George V. Cooper, was arrested in 1997 for sexually abusing a player on a youth baseball team he coached and registered as a sexual offender after being convicted of a lewd and lascivious act on a child in 1998.
Cooper didn’t respond to multiple messages left at a phone number connected to his address.
The former scout said no one associated with the scouts ever contacted him or his family to alert him to the conviction of the former assistant scoutmaster or to ask whether he had experienced anything similar.
The organization, subject to hundreds of lawsuits brought by former scouts who were abused by scoutmasters and leaders, indicated in 2018 that it is considering the possibility of filing for bankruptcy.