People filed more 90,000 claims of sexual abuse against the Boy Scouts of America before a court-imposed Nov. 16 deadline in the organization’s bankruptcy case — a mass of claims that lawyers say surpasses the volume of cases brought against the Catholic Church, and which some are concerned could potentially have implications for churches that have sponsored or chartered Boy Scout troops.
The allegations of sexual abuse go back for decades and involve Boy Scout troops and camps from around the country. On Feb. 18, 2020, the century-old Boy Scouts of America declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and the bankruptcy court in Delaware established the deadline for bringing claims that could be part of a victims’ compensation fund.
Boy Scouts of America released a statement saying “we are devastated by the number of lives impacted by past abuse in Scouting and moved by the bravery of those who have come forward. We are heartbroken that we cannot undo their pain.”
In bringing the claims, former Boy Scouts have publicly told their own stories of what happened to them — allegations of abuse on camping trips and sleepovers and in the woods, molestation from male leaders they trusted and were told to view as authority figures.
In 1992, the Los Angeles Times published stories based on an examination of internal Scout records involving confidential documents the Boy Scouts kept and that were known as the “perversion files,” chronicling allegations of sexual abuse involving volunteers and employees, and used to try to keep those people from having continuing contact with Scouts.
Now there are concerns the claims brought in the bankruptcy case or through other litigation could have ramifications for congregations that have sponsored Boy Scout troops — in part, because the sponsoring relationship between the church and the troop goes beyond just letting the troop meet at the church. “If you are the sponsoring organization, you own the troop,” and it’s often seen as part of the congregation’s ministry, said Amanda Ballenger Harrison, communications director for the National Association of Presbyterian Scouters.
That led some to encourage congregations that sponsor or charter troops and are worried they could possibly be named in a sexual abuse claim to file a “proof of claim” with the bankruptcy court by the Nov. 16 deadline — documents that could be important for a chartering organization that might have a claim against the Boy Scouts of America and its assets.
The United Methodist News posted a story Oct. 29 stating that the General Council on Finance and Administration was urging Methodist conferences to encourage congregations that charter Boy Scout troops to file a proof of claim with the court.
At least some presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) provided information to congregations before the Nov. 16 deadline encouraging them to take action if needed – for example, see notices posted online from the Presbytery of Newton and Presbytery of Nevada.
The PC(USA)’s Legal Services office released a question-and-answer document on the matter “for general information purposes only,” stating that it is not intended to “constitute legal advice. After reviewing this document, you should consult with your local attorney for additional guidance.”
The document states that “if your congregation has ever hosted a Boy Scout troop, by charter or otherwise, it is possible that if a claim of sexual abuse is made against the Boy Scouts by a former scout in that troop, your congregation may also be named in the lawsuit. Some states have allowed claims to be filed decades after the time of the abuse.”
That document said congregations that either have or previously had a charter with Boy Scouts of America might consider filing a general proof of claim with the bankruptcy court prior to the Nov. 16 deadline — which could provide a way of seeking payment from the Boy Scouts of America should a claim be brought against the congregation.
The document states that “if your congregation does not file a timely proof of claim, you may have no recourse against the Boy Scouts of America if Scouting abuse claims emerge against your congregation.”
It also states that “the decision to continue or end your congregation’s relationship with the Boy Scouts should be made with the protection and well-being of children as your primary focus.”
The website of the National Association of Presbyterian Scouters states that “Presbyterian congregations have used the Scouting program in conjunction with other phases of the youth ministry for nearly 80 years. … More than 140,000 youth members are involved in more than 3,800 Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops, Varsity Scout troops, and Venturing crews.”
Philip E. Melberg, president of the National Association of Presbyterian Scouters, said in an interview that he has not been receiving questions from Presbyterian congregations wanting information about filing proof of claim forms, and is not aware of any PC(USA) congregation named in a sexual abuse claim involving the Boy Scouts.
Melberg said the Boy Scouts of America has had a robust youth protection policy in place for years, including training of leaders and mandatory background checks, and that most claims of sexual abuse being brought go back decades. “The Boy Scouts of America have had a very conscientious and very diligent youth protection plan in place for many, many years,” he said.
Despite that, some lawsuits already have been filed involving alleged sexual abuse involving Boy Scout troops at Presbyterian churches — including by William Moran, who alleges that he was sexually abused from about 1968 to 1972 by a scoutmaster then at House of Hope Presbyterian Church in Bellerose, in Nassau County, New York, when Moran was roughly 11 to 14 years old.
Last summer, two unnamed persons filed lawsuits in state court in Monroe County, New York, accusing a former assistant scoutmaster of Troop 138, chartered at Park Presbyterian Church in Newark, New York, of sexual abuse and naming the church as a party to the litigation — with one suit bringing allegations from approximately 1972 to 1974, when the person bringing the complaint was about 11 to 13 years old, and the second from about 1972, when the person was about 13.
Given the number of sexual abuse claims filed nationally in the bankruptcy case, there may well be more.
That creates a difficult environment for Boy Scout troops at Presbyterian churches, many of which are continuing to try to do community service work and allow Scouts to earn merit badges despite the limitations imposed by COVID-19 pandemic, Melberg said. For example, the Cub Scout pack from his congregation, Gaithersburg Presbyterian in Gaithersburg, Maryland, recently conducted a drive-by food collection to help people who are food insecure.
Ballenger Harrison said that in South Carolina, where she lives, many churches “are going on with their business, straight ahead” – helping Scouts earn badges and do community service.
“We want to acknowledge any harm done, but we also want to take advantage of doing the good we can do in the name of God,” she said.
Not all churches are keeping close relationships with the Boy Scouts. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints announced in 2018 that it was ending its long relationship with the Boy Scouts of America, creating a new global youth program of its own.
Also at stake in the bankruptcy proceeding: what will happen to the assets of the Boy Scouts of America, which exceed $1 billion, and to the assets of local councils — assets all potentially up for consideration as litigation involving sexual abuse allegations proceed.