Apr 14, 2010 10 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – A $1.4 million jury award to an Oregon man who filed a sex abuse lawsuit against the Boy Scouts has become an unwelcome reminder that an American institution based on trustworthiness has to account for past problems.
And there could be more financial damage to come, with jurors set to go back to court next week to decide whether the Scouts must pay up to $25 million in punitive damages.
The verdict delivered Tuesday by a Portland jury was based partly on the introduction as evidence of more than 1,000 so-called “perversion files” secretly kept by the Boy Scouts of America at the group’s national headquarters from 1965 to mid-1984.
The Boy Scouts already plans to appeal and argue that those files are outdated and do not reflect current prevention efforts or even past policy.
“The safety of the young people currently in the Scouting program has never been in question during these legal proceedings,” said Deron Smith, a spokesman for the Scouts at their national headquarters in Irving, Texas.
Patrick Boyle, editor of the Youth Today newspaper and author of a book about sex abuse within the Scouts, said the damages so far are not a huge financial hit for the organization.
But it reminds people about the problems the Scouts have had with abusers among their leaders and volunteers in the pastâ€”and that secret files have been kept to identify them.
“The bigger hit is the potential damage to their image,” said Boyle. “This case has gotten more national attention because of the files.”
According to Boyle and trial testimony, the practice of keeping secret files on Scoutmasters and volunteers dates back to shortly after the Scouts were founded in 1910.
The documents were first revealed in 1935 when The New York Times reported a speech by James West, the first chief scout executive, who said the Boy Scouts kept a “red flag list” of leaders who had been removed for various causes.
The files were later nicknamed “perversion files” but were mostly forgotten and eventually labeled “ineligible volunteer” or “IV” files, held under lock and key at headquarters.
Lawyers for the Scouts argued the files helped weed out suspected child molesters.
But the attorneys for Kerry Lewis, the man who filed the lawsuit, argued that keeping them secret meant that parents, children and volunteers were not warned about the risk of sexual abuse.
Worse, said attorneys Kelly Clark and Paul Mones, was the failure of the Scouts to set up a system to prevent and report abuse, and make it a top priority among all its membersâ€”despite decades of files.
The lawyers focused on the files from 1965 to mid-1984 in their case, calling them the “tip of the iceberg” because sex abuse is considered to be greatly underreported, especially in that era.
Clark and Mones said the abuse that Lewis, 38, endured as a boy in the early 1980s was an illustration of the scope of the problem.
A former assistant Scoutmaster, Timur Dykes, acknowledged in early 1983 that he had abused 17 Boy Scouts.
But despite the admission to a bishop for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsored the Scout troop, Dykes continued to associate with Lewis and other Scouts. Lewis’ parents did not learn the truth about Dykes until a police officer made a routine traffic stop during a camping trip and discovered that Dykes had a record, and arrested him in front of Lewis and other boys.
Dykes was later convicted three times of various abuse charges involving boys and served time in prison. Shortly before the Portland trial, he acknowledged in a deposition to abusing Lewis.
The jury on Tuesday found the Boy Scouts negligent, which the organization had denied, pointing the finger instead at Dykes and suggesting at times that parents and the Mormon church shared some blame. It was the charter organization for an estimated third to half of the Boy Scout troops in the nation in the 1980s.
One witness for the Scouts even called parents “criminal” for allowing them to repeatedly sleep over at the man’s house.
The church settled its portion of the Portland case before trial. Its $350,000 of the $1.4 million award, or 25 percent, was considered to be part of the settlement, so that money has already been paid, said church attorney Steve English.
“We settled these claims well over a year ago and were able to give the victims compensation to start their healing process,” he said, adding that “the LDS church absolutely condemns any kind of child abuse.”
The Boy Scouts must pay $840,000, or 60 percent, of the $1.4 million verdict while the Cascade Pacific Council in Portland must pay 15 percent, or $210,000. Neither the church nor the local council are subject to punitive damages.
Attorneys for the Scouts, Chuck Smith and Paul Xochihua, had argued the abuse problem was tiny compared to the size of the organizationâ€”which currently has about 2.7 million Scouts and 1.1 million volunteers spread around about 300 councils nationwide.
But that small fraction of victims may cost the organization millions of dollars with at least five similar cases pending in Oregon alone.
Boyle said it was at least the second time an Oregon jury has ruled against the Scouts for sex abuse after a $4.2 million verdict in 1987 in Corvallis, with about half overturned on appeal.
Complete figures are not available, but from 1984 through 1992, the Scouts were sued at least 60 times for alleged sex abuse with settlements and judgments totaling more than $16 million, Boyle said.
But the Scouts’ image may suffer more, he said.
“The real impact is not about money. It’s about potential damage to the Boy Scout brand,” Boyle said.