The Boy Scouts of America has filed for bankruptcy in the first step toward creating a huge compensation fund for potentially thousands of men who were molested as youngsters decades ago by scoutmasters or other leaders.
- The Boy Scouts estimate 1,000 to 5,000 victims of abuse will seek compensation
- The bankruptcy claim will enable the organisation to continue operating and raise money for a victims’ fund
- The organisation’s finances have been strained in recent years by declining membership and sex-abuse settlements
The 110-year-old organisation resorted to Chapter 11 in the hope of surviving a barrage of lawsuits, many of them made possible by recent changes in US state laws to allow people to sue over historical sexual abuse.
Bankruptcy would enable the organisation to put those cases on hold for now and continue operating. But ultimately the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) could be forced to sell some of its vast property holdings, including campgrounds and hiking trails, to raise money for a victims’ fund that could top $US1 billion ($1.5 billion).
The Boy Scouts estimated 1,000 to 5,000 victims would seek compensation.
“The BSA encourages victims to come forward to file a claim as the bankruptcy process moves forward,” the organisation said in a statement.
James Kretschmer of Houston, one of those suing, said he was molested by a Scout leader in the mid-1970s in the Spokane, Washington, area.
The bankruptcy, he said, was “a shame because, at its core and what it was supposed to be, the Boy Scouts is a beautiful organisation”.
“But you know, anything can be corrupted,” he added.
“And if they’re not going to protect the people that they’ve been entrusted with, the children, then shut it down and move on.”
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More than 12,000 boys have been molested by 7,800 abusers since the 1920s, according to Boy Scout files revealed in court papers.
Evan Smola said two new victims had already called his law office in Chicago on Tuesday morning, bringing the firm’s total to 319.
“The opportunity to tell your story is a cathartic and healing experience,” Mr Smola said. “It’s very painful when they actually do it, but getting it off your chest is a big step.”
It will be up to the court to set a deadline for filing claims. The amount of money each victim will receive is likely to depend on what assets are turned over and how many people come forward.
The filing in Wilmington, Delaware, sets in motion what could be one of the biggest, most complex bankruptcies ever seen, given the Scouts’ presence in each US state.
The Boy Scouts are the latest major American institution to face a heavy price over sexual abuse. Roman Catholic dioceses across the country and schools such as Penn State and Michigan State have paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years.
The bankruptcy represents a painful turn for an organisation that has been a pillar of American civic life for generations and a training ground for future leaders.
Achieving the rank of Eagle Scout has long been a proud accomplishment that politicians, businessmen, astronauts and others put on their resumes and in their official biographies.
“I’m sad for all the victims who were preyed upon by people entrusted with their care. I’m sad that no amount of money will undo their trauma,” Jackson Cooper, an Eagle Scout who is now a prosecutor in Louisville, Kentucky, said.
“Whatever consequences come for BSA are no concern of mine. I only hope, if they continue to operate, they build robust systems to protect the young people in their care.”
The Boy Scouts’ finances have been strained in recent years by declining membership and sex-abuse settlements.
The number of youths taking part in scouting has dropped below 2 million, down from a peak of more than 4 million during the 1970s.
Its membership rolls took a big hit on January 1 when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cut ties with the organisation and withdrew more than 400,000 scouts in favour of programs of its own.
Most of the new cases date to the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, before the Boy Scouts adopted mandatory criminal background checks, abuse-prevention training for all staff and volunteers, and a rule that two or more adult leaders must be present during all activities. Many of the lawsuits accuse the group of negligence and cover-ups.
Wayne Perry, a member of the organisation’s national board and a past president, said Scout families would not notice any differences as a result of the bankruptcy. He touted the protections now in place for young people.
“Today, we are really, really good. Were we always good? No, nobody was good 50 years ago, 40 years ago, 30 years ago,” Mr Perry said.