The Boy Scouts of America bills itself as a high-profile “values-based youth organization” aimed at molding impressionable children into upstanding citizens. But thousands of boys say they were preyed upon by the scoutmasters who were supposed to be their role models—and that Boy Scouts leadership long covered up their crimes.
TIME has confirmed that approximately 92,700 people have now filed sex abuse claims against the Boy Scouts of America ahead of the Nov. 16 deadline set to demand damages from the organization.
The Boy Scouts filed for bankruptcy in February under the mounting financial strain of sex abuse lawsuits. Under the Chapter 11 filing, the organization will reorganize and establish a victims’ compensation fund. A judge set the Nov. 16 deadline to allow alleged victims a final opportunity to file claims.
TIME reported last year that hundreds of men and boys were coming forward for the first time with accounts of rape and assault suffered as children at the hands of scoutmasters. The number of victims has since ballooned into the tens of thousands, in a moment reminiscent of the slew of abuse claims levied against the Catholic Church.
“Sadly there was an unspoken norm that sexual abuse of children would occur in the Boy Scouts,” Andrew van Arsdale, one of the attorneys representing the people alleging abuse, said in a statement to TIME. “Based on what we are hearing from survivors, sexual abuse was a rite of passage in troops across the country, similar to other tasks where children had to do perform certain duties to earn their coveted merit badges.”
The Boy Scouts of America said in a statement to TIME, “We are devastated by the number of lives impacted by past abuse in scouting and moved by the bravery of those who came forward.” They added that they are working to protect current scouts. “Over many years, we have developed some of the strongest youth protection policies found in any youth-serving organization, which are informed by respected experts in the fields of child safety, law enforcement, and child psychology.”
For the tens of thousands of people who say they were abused as scouts, the November deadline was the last opportunity to file a claim against the organization—and see justice done. Learn more about this far-reaching scandal, and what comes next:
Why did the Boy Scouts file for bankruptcy?
The Boy Scouts faced so many sex abuse lawsuits that their insurance companies began to refuse to pay out damages in 2018. The insurance companies argued that the organization was liable for the abuse because they could have taken steps to prevent it. The Boy Scouts filed for Chapter 11 in Delaware in February when faced with the burden of the financial awards granted to those who brought suits against the organization.
Now that the Nov. 16 deadline has passed, the organization will restructure, likely adopt a new name and, per terms laid out by the judge, will no longer be subject to additional sex abuse claims. Lawyers representing the claimants say some victims could still pursue legal action against local Boy Scout councils in states with extended statute-of-limitations laws, like New York and California.
At the time of the Chapter 11 filing, Boy Scout leadership acknowledged the historic widespread pedophilia problem in the organization. “While we know nothing can undo the tragic abuse that victims suffered, we believe the Chapter 11 process—with the proposed Trust structure—will provide equitable compensation to all victims while maintaining the BSA’s important mission,” Roger Mosby, the president and CEO of the Boy Scouts of America, said in a statement.
Lawyers representing alleged survivors of abuse have expressed skepticism about the organization’s motivation. “After this is over, [the Boy Scouts of America] can close the books on this chapter and move forward, and the thousands of sex abuse survivors out there can no longer be a thorn in their side,” Andrew Van Arsdale, an attorney representing abuse victims, told TIME in February. “It’s not about helping abuse survivors.”
How could the bankruptcy filing affect victims?
The Nov. 16 deadline pit survivors’ attorneys in a race against the clock—even as the pandemic raged—to gather as many accounts of abuse as possible. For many of these victims in their 50s, 60s and 70s, suing the Boy Scouts is their only chance at justice: Their abusers have died.
When the national organization declared bankruptcy, all previous lawsuits against the Boy Scouts of America were paused; bankruptcy court will deal with all the remaining cases. A bankruptcy judge will decide how best to divide the group’s assets among any claimants. Those claimants include both men who say they were abused as scouts and the insurance companies currently suing the Boy Scouts. According to the bankruptcy petition filed in Delaware, BSA lists their assets between $1 billion and $10 billion.
Do the Boy Scouts have a history of covering up sexual abuse?
Yes. Hundreds of sex abuse cases have been brought against the Boy Scouts over the last several decades, and courts have found evidence of the organization’s leadership attempting to cover up these complaints or firing the alleged assailants but not reporting the criminal acts to the police.
In 2010, an Oregon jury handed down a guilty verdict to the Boy Scouts in a sex abuse case. A court ordered that the organization pay $18.5 million to the victim and make public an internal list of men who had been accused of preying on boys, known within the Scouts as the “Perversion Files.” The Los Angeles Times published the list in 2012. In the 2010s, so many claims of abuse were filed against the Boy Scouts that the organization began to collapse under the debt of all the money owed to boys and men whom various courts found had been wronged by the organization or settled out of court.
A child abuse expert hired by the Boy Scouts to analyze the files testified in a Minnesota court in January of 2019 that she found 12,254 boys had reported experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of at least 7,800 suspected assailants from 1944 to 2016. That year, child sex abuse experts told TIME that number was likely a gross underestimation since many boys were probably shamed out of reporting their assailants. A group of attorneys launched a national ad campaign last year to gather the testimonies of any person who had been abused by the Boy Scouts and not previously come forward in hopes of laying the groundwork for legal action against the Scouts.
In June of 2019, TIME reported that 428 men and boys whose claims of rape, molestation and abuse had not previously been detailed in the Perversion Files were speaking out about their abuse for the first time, several in interviews with TIME. The survivors’ accounts stretched from the 1950s to the very recent past. One mother who spoke to TIME said her son was abused in 2018, years after the Perversion Files were published. One man who spoke to TIME for the 2019 article said the same scoutmaster abused him and two of his family members. Another remembered a scout leader climbing into his sleeping bag during an overnight trip and abusing him there. A third reported an instance of abuse that took place at a scoutmaster’s home to his local church, which sponsored the Boy Scout troop, only for the Church to quietly remove the scoutmaster from his position and never inform parents or report the man to the police.
Since then, tens of thousands of men have added their claims to the suit.
Why are there so many new claims of sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts?
A 2019 ad campaign launched by lawyers for the alleged victims to get out the word about sex abuse in scouting is just one reason that tens of thousands of men have come forward with claims of abuse in the last several years.
The surge in claims can be at least in part attributed to the popularity of the #MeToo movement, which broke into the mainstream in 2017. One 17-year-old in Michigan, who spoke to TIME for a story on sex abuse in the Boy Scouts on the condition of anonymity, attributed his decision to join the suit to the wave of victims speaking out about sexual violence in other realms. “I have been hearing good things about this whole #MeToo movement,” he said. “I figured yeah, if I could help this not happen to other kids, then why not join?”
Psychologists and doctors who study child sex abuse say that men tend to disclose instances of assault much later than women because they face a different set of societal standards and in part fear facing homophobia, even if (or especially if) they do not identify as queer.
“There is a stigma of coming forward for both women and men,” Eli Newberger, a pediatrician who studies abuse at Boston Children’s Hospital, told TIME last year. “Unfortunately for men, there is the extra shame that you were not able to protect yourself, that you were found to be powerless.”
The #MeToo movement also compelled legislators in states like New York and California to extend the statute of limitations on certain cases of sexual abuse. That offered men who had been victims as children the opportunity to pursue legal action for decades-old allegations. But they had a small window in which to do so: These states still limit the amount of time that can pass before an allegation against an individual can be pursued.
No doubt, claims of sex abuse made against the Catholic Church also had a major impact on former Boy Scouts’ decisions to come forward. The cases have many parallels, including the fact that victims abused while boys were often shamed into not coming forward for decades.
Additionally, the Boy Scouts declared bankruptcy in February, limiting the amount of time that scouts who claimed abuse could bring a suit against the organization.
What happens next?
After the assets are distributed, a judge will rule over how the Boy Scouts reorganize and set up a victims compensation fund under the Chapter 11 filing. The Boy Scouts will likely continue to operate under another name. Some 130 million Americans have participated in the storied organization, but the organization’s numbers have dwindled in recent years. Currently, 2.2. million children belong to the Boy Scouts. (The Scouts began admitting girls in 2017 some argue to boost falling membership numbers among boys.) In a statement, the organization pledged that “scouting programs, including unit meetings and activities, council events, other scouting adventures and countless service projects, will continue throughout this process and for many years to come.”
The Boy Scouts have said they initially implemented many rules to stop abuse in the 1980s, but numerous complaints detail alleged abuses that happened after they first updated their policies. TIME obtained a letter sent by several members of Congress in November 2018 to the Boy Scouts’ national leadership asking for details on their process for screening scoutmasters and reporting on abuse. In response, Boy Scouts’ then-chief executive, Michael B. Surbaugh, wrote that Boy Scouts have “some of the strongest barriers to child abuse that can be found in any youth serving organization.”
In a recent statement obtained by TIME, the Boy Scouts also noted that “the BSA’s multi-layered process of safeguards in place today includes the following measures, all of which act as barriers to abuse: a thorough screening process for adult leaders and staff including criminal background checks, the prompt mandatory reporting of any allegation or suspicion of abuse to law enforcement, and a leadership policy that requires at least two youth-protection trained adults be present with youth at all times and bans one-on-one situations where adults would have any interaction alone with children – either in person, online, or via text.”
Meanwhile, lawyers representing the abuse victims suggested to TIME that their fight for justice will not end with the bankruptcy claims. Tim Kosnoff, a lawyer who has brought over 100 cases of abuse against the Boy Scouts, said in 2019 that the organization lied to Congress for decades and ought to face consequences in terms of the funding and regulation of whatever organization takes its place.
“They were reporting…that they were a wholesome organization,” Konsoff says, “when they were kicking out child molesters at the rate of one every two days for 100 years.”