Depending on how you look at it, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was punished last month for trying to keep out child molesters, or for covering up the problem to protect its image.
A civil jury in Portland, Ore., hit the BSA with $18.5 million in punitive damages – the largest civil award ever against the BSA, and perhaps any youth-serving organization, for sexual abuse. Unlike other civil damages, which are designed to compensate the victim, punitive damages are specifically aimed at punishing the losing party.
The BSA has said it will appeal.
The star of the lawsuit was the BSA’s Confidential Files, which lists people banned from the organization for various offenses, including alleged child molesting. The system was set up to protect children from unfit leaders, but the victim’s lawyers argued that the existence of the files showed that the BSA knew for decades that it had a significant problem with child molesters in its ranks, that its protection system was fundamentally flawed, and that the organization didn’t do enough to help local Scout leaders combat the problem.
The BSA said it did all that it could, based on what was known about child molesting in the 1980s, when the abuse that was the basis of this lawsuit occurred.
John Patterson, a veteran nonprofit risk management consultant who has helped the BSA improve its child protection system, said the jury and the news media “completely misinterpreted” the Confidential Files as a cover-up tool rather than an admirable child protection effort. He fears the decision will dissuade other youth organizations from creating similar systems to track unfit volunteers and employees.
Unlike most previous trials involving sexual abuse in the BSA, the Portland jurors rejected one of the BSA’s central defenses: that the national office is not responsible for abuse of Scouts by locally chosen leaders. In addition to the punitive judgment, the jury had already awarded $1.4 million in actual damages, with most of the responsibility attributed to the BSA and the rest to the local Scout council and the Mormon church that sponsored the troop.
The lawsuit in Multnomah County was brought by a 38-year-old former Scout who was repeatedly abused by Assistant Scoutmaster Timur Dykes. 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 he molested more boys, including the plaintiff in this lawsuit.
In 1987, another Oregon jury delivered a $4.2 million verdict against the Scouts in an abuse case. At least half of that amount was overturned on appeal.
From 1984 through 1992, the BSA was sued by victims 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.
Patrick Boyle is author of Scout’s Honor: Sexual Abuse in America’s Most Trusted Institution, which is available for free at http://www.youthtoday.org.