Boy Scouts of America has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to protect the organization and its multibillion-dollar assets from seizure amid hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits. A once-venerable institution, credited by generations of business and military leaders with grounding them in the fundamentals for success in life, finds itself in the same kind of crisis of trust facing the Catholic Church.
The Boy Scouts knew of the problem — it even kept a secret “perversion file” to internally track molestation allegations against scoutmasters — but didn’t take forceful action when abuse cases surfaced. In covering up the problem rather than dealing with it, the organization may have sealed its own fate. Its insurers are threatening not to cover losses from these lawsuits.
America’s largest youth organization was founded in 1910 to promote character, citizenship and self-reliance. Americans who have credited scouting with influencing their lives include Martin Luther King Jr., astronaut Neil Armstrong, basketball great Michael Jordan, filmmaker Steven Spielberg and many U.S. military and political leaders, including several presidents.
But behind the merit badges and camping trips, a darker legacy grew. Some 300 men claim in pending lawsuits that they were sexually abused as boys by scoutmasters or volunteers. Their stories are being told only now because many states have overhauled their laws to give sexual abuse victims more time to report their abuse, unleashing a wave of lawsuits previously prevented by statutes of limitation.
They’re likely the tip of the iceberg, given that the organization has been aware for at least half a century that it had an abuse problem. Boy Scouts of America maintained “perversion files” — a trove of 14,000 documents dating back to the 1960s — that were finally opened by a court in 2012. The files exposed decades of sexual-abuse cover-ups not only by scouting officials but police, prosecutors and pastors. The cover-up was aimed at protecting the good name of a storied organization that should instead have been protecting the kids.
By filing for bankruptcy, the Boy Scouts will effectively freeze the pending lawsuits in place, which could end up being either cynically self-serving or responsibly constructive, depending on what happens next. The organization says it plans to set up a compensation fund for victims. A recent open letter to those victims, offering apologies and encouraging them to come forward, is a far better approach than the denial and evasion of the past.
It should have come much earlier, given the glaring example the Catholic Church has provided for many years of how not to handle sexual abuse in its ranks. The organization whose motto is “Be prepared” let its own problem fester because officials weren’t prepared to confront it. Faced now with an existential crisis, Boy Scouts of America should show the character it has long preached and right these wrongs.
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