In what appears to be biggest judgment ever against an American youth-serving organization for sex abuse, an Oregon jury today hit the Boy Scouts of American (BSA) with punitive damages of $18.5 million for abuse committed by a Scout leader.
What’s more, the civil jury completely rejected a foundation of the BSA’s legal arguments in lawsuits across the country: that the national headquarters is not responsible for abuse committed by leaders selected by the local organizations that run Scout units. The jury leveled all of the punitive awards against the national organization.
The BSA said it would appeal.
The lawsuit was brought in Multnomah County by a man who was molested by his assistant Scoutmaster in the 1980s; several more lawsuits by other victims are pending.
Last week, the jury awarded $1.4 million in actual damages to the victim.
But the real impact is not about money; it’s about potential damage to the Boy Scout brand. The lawsuit had already drawn more national attention than any other abuse case against the Scouts, and now the public knows that the BSA has been found negligent and has known about abuse in its ranks for decades – much like the Roman Catholic Church.
At issue was not only whether Scout officials acted properly after learning of the allegations in this particular case, but also whether national BSA was negligent in dealing with abuse allegations throughout Scouting despite keeping records on such incidents for most of its 100 years.
The lawsuit was brought by a 38-year-old former Scout who was abused by Assistant Scoutmaster Timur Dykes (who admitted the abuse). One star witness, so to speak, was a set of more than 1,100 “perversion files” about alleged sex offenders in the BSA from 1965 to 1985, which the judge ordered the organization to provide to the plaintiffs. Those were part of the BSA’s Confidential Files system, which it used to keep track of people who were banned from Scouting for various offenses. The Scouts have stated that the files submitted in Portland, most of which involve alleged child molestation, accounted for about 70 percent of all of its Confidential Files during that time.
In this case, Dykes admitted abusing some of his Scouts and was removed from his position around 1983 by the Mormon bishop at the stake that sponsored the troop. But in a move that mirrored a few other Scout abuse cases from that era, Dykes was allowed to continue working with the troop unofficially and molested more boys, including the plaintiff in this lawsuit.
This is at least the second time an Oregon jury has nailed the BSA for sex abuse. In 1987, another Oregon jury delivered a $4.2 million verdict against the Scouts in an abuse case. (Wilson v. Tobiassen, Benton County Circuit Court.)
But if history is any guide, the BSA has reason for optimism about its appeal. At least half of that amount was overturned on appeal.
From 1984 through 1992, the BSA was sued at least 60 times for alleged sex abuse by Scout leaders. During that time, settlements and judgments totaled more than $16 million. The two largest jury verdicts against the BSA appear to be the $4.2 million verdict in Oregon in 1987 and a $3.75 million verdict in California in 1991.
Starting in the early 1990s, the BSA tightened its procedures for handling and reporting abuse allegations, and produced various materials to educate Scout leaders and Scouts about abuse.
Youth Today published an explanation of the Boy Scout sex abuse issue here, along with several television reports about the problem of sex abuse in Scouting.
Youth Today’s editor, who has read more than 2,000 of the BSA’s Confidential Files on alleged child molesters, has also suggested what the Scout files teach us about child molesters, and urged the BSA to analyze its files to help combat sex abuse.