Fifty-eight years ago, Edward Pittson says, the Scoutmaster who had taught him skills like how to use a compass and light a campfire said he was going to teach Pittson about sex. The Scoutmaster invited Pittson, who was 12, to his house and asked him to lie on the bed. The man assured the boy he had seen other Boy Scouts naked. “This is the normal way to learn about sex,” Pittson recalls the Scoutmaster telling him. “He said, ‘But don’t tell your parents what I’m doing. They wouldn’t think you’re mature enough. They wouldn’t understand.’” The man told him a “dirty story,” pulled down his pants and masturbated him. Pittson can’t remember if this happened one time, or if the Scoutmaster invited him over again a few weeks later, but he does remember pulling up his pants after a few minutes and walking out of the room. “He called after me, calling me a baby and trying to make me feel guilty,” Pittson recalls. “I just wanted to go home.”
About four years later, Pittson, around 16 and furious that the man remained a Scoutmaster, told his parents what had happened. He says his parents went to the bishop at their local church in Northern California, the same church that sponsored the Boy Scout troop, and the Scoutmaster was quietly removed from his position. Pittson says he also spoke to the bishop, but as far as he knows, nobody reported the Scoutmaster to the police. Now, Pittson is one of hundreds of men and boys hoping for a last chance at restitution if the Boy Scouts of America, in the face of a new wave of abuse allegations, files for bankruptcy.
On Thursday, a group of attorneys said they’d collected information from at least 428 men and boys whose accounts of rape, molestation and abuse indicate the Boy Scouts’ pedophile problem is far more widespread than the organization has previously acknowledged. These men are speaking out for the first time, and several of them detailed their allegations of abuse in interviews with TIME. (TIME was not able to confirm the men’s specific accounts but spoke with others who said they’d been told of the incidents. TIME also obtained a police report filed by one of the individuals alleging abuse.) If the Boy Scouts file for bankruptcy, the accusers will have a limited window to file claims against the organization, pitting the men and their lawyers in a race against time.
They hope to illuminate a problem that has plagued but never fully exposed the Boy Scouts, an institution that for 109 years has vowed to teach youngsters good manners, useful skills and a sense of right and wrong. For generations of men, the Boy Scouts have been central to their identity as good citizens. Presidents from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush have touted their scouting credentials as proof of a virtuous grounding. Lawyers for the ex-Scouts, though, paint a picture of an organization that has failed not only the boys and men who were abused, but the entire country. Because the Boy Scouts of America are a federally chartered non-profit, they must provide annual reports to Congress, and attorneys for the former Scouts say the organization has not included information about abuse accusations in those reports. “They were reporting…that they were a wholesome organization,” says Tim Kosnoff, one of the attorneys, “when they were kicking out child molesters at the rate of one every two days for 100 years.”
In a statement to TIME, the Boy Scouts deny withholding any relevant information from Congress or enabling abusers. “First and foremost, we care deeply about all victims of abuse and sincerely apologize to anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting,” the statement says. “For decades, the BSA has provided Congress with a yearly report that meets the requirements of our charter.”
This isn’t the first time the Boy Scouts have been accused of protecting pedophiles and allowing them to move from troop to troop. Hundreds of individual sex abuse cases have been brought against the Scouts over the last several decades, and in 2010, a judge ordered the organization to make public an internal list of men accused of preying on boys. Within Scout headquarters, the list was known as the “P Files” or “Perversion Files.” In January, a child abuse expert hired by the Boy Scouts to analyze the files testified that she found 12,254 boys had reported experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of at least 7,800 suspected assailants between 1944 and 2016. Academics who research child sex abuse tell TIME that number is likely a gross underestimation. Many boys were likely intimidated or shamed out of reporting their assailants, who often held influential positions in local churches, schools, or businesses.
The cascading claims of misconduct invite comparison to the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. In both cases, institutions entrusted with the spiritual care of boys responded by protecting themselves instead of the victims of abuse. The Catholic Church faced more than 10,000 accusations of child abuse in the U.S. alone between 1950 and 2002, according to one report, and costly court cases that dragged on for years.
In fact, many of the former Scouts who have waited decades to come forward say they were inspired by other victims of long-ago abuse both in the church and in the entertainment, media and sports industries, who have gone public and seen perpetrators toppled from powerful positions and, in some cases, prosecuted. Those testimonies have also spurred several states to extend the statute of limitations on sex abuse cases, opening the door to more legal claims. The Boy Scouts quietly hired lobbyists to push against such laws, according to reporting by the Washington Post, for fear of facing an onslaught of criminal cases.
Kosnoff, who has brought more than 100 cases against the Boy Scouts since 2007, describes his work as a mission to expose what he says is a century-long cover-up by the Boy Scouts, who have been struggling under the financial burden of litigation. So many individuals have sued the organization alleging harassment, molestation and rape that insurers have refused to pay out settlements, arguing in court filings last year that the Boy Scouts could have reasonably prevented the abuse. Kosnoff had retired to Puerto Rico when he learned that the Boy Scouts were considering bankruptcy — a tactic some Catholic dioceses have used to stall lawsuits against them. Outraged, Kosnoff came out of retirement, and along with attorneys from two other law firms launched a national ad campaign in March to draw clients. Their goal is to lay the groundwork for possible legal action even if the organization files for bankruptcy and a judge sets a deadline for new claims to be filed.
“We’re struggling to keep up with the response,” says Kosnoff. The legal team says the men who’ve come forward so far have named more than 300 “hidden predators” who did not appear in the Perversion Files. TIME is not publishing their names because a suit identifying them has not been filed. However, Kosnsoff would like to push the Boy Scouts to report the names of the men his clients have accused in a public database. Based on his experience representing church abuse victims, Kosnoff argues that bankruptcy proceedings could bury the names of potential assailants: “The assailants who would otherwise be identified in lawsuits get enshrouded in darkness, and these predators can continue to operate.”
That’s Pittson’s fear as well. He has tracked down the man he says abused him on Google. “He’s still alive,” says Pittson, now a 70-year-old retired transit supervisor in Vallejo, California, with five sons. “I would love this guy to answer for what he’s done. It’s not too late.”
The man Pittson named, who’s now 86, denies ever being a Scoutmaster in California or knowing anything about Pittson’s allegation. He says he was in the military at the time the abuse would have occurred. “I don’t remember any of that. You must have the wrong person,” he told TIME before hanging up.
At its 1972 peak, membership in the Boy Scouts numbered more than 6 million. Families across the country were eager to enroll their sons in the organization, which offered boys mentorship from older males and promised bonding activities with other boys, including sleepovers and camping trips. It was on one such trip, in 1961, that Pittson says he first became aware of his Scoutmaster’s strange behavior.
Pittson and the rest of his troop were sitting around a campfire in the woods with the man, who like all Scoutmasters was an unpaid volunteer. He suggested the group of 12- and 13-year-old boys stand up and start pulling down each other’s pants — and the Scoutmaster’s pants as well, Pittson says. He called them “pantsing parties,” and Pittson says he frequently proposed them during Scout outings.
Another time, the Scoutmaster was driving Pittson and a few other boys to a Boy Scout meeting. Pittson recalls that one of the boys had started dating a girl, and his friends were teasing him about the romance. “I’ll pay you $5 if you have sex with her,” he remembers the Scoutmaster saying.
Pittson has never been shy about sharing his story. He has told family members and girlfriends, and he blames the abuse for broken relationships. “He planted this seed in my head. Boys talk about sex at that age, but not as much as he encouraged us to,” he says. “And then with what happened, I felt like I became obsessed with sex and its meaning in my life.” He hasn’t kept in touch with members of his Boy Scout troop, but in light of the Scoutmaster’s mention of encounters with other boys, he wonders if they were abused too, and how that’s affected their lives.
Many of the men who contacted Kosnoff believe that they were just one of many scouts abused by one perpetrator. Kendall Kimber, now 60, had risen through the Boy Scout ranks quickly: Growing up in northern California, he’d learned navigation on hunting trips with his father and developed a strong work ethic while peeling potatoes at his mother’s restaurant. By 12 or 13, Kimber had been tapped for an elite Scouting group, the Order of the Arrow, so he didn’t find it strange when his Scoutmaster offered to help him with a project he needed to complete to earn the honor. But Kimber says that when he arrived at the man’s house, the Scoutmaster handed Kimber a Playgirl and asked the boy to perform oral sex on him. Kimber, terrified, did so.
“I was very small in stature for my age and was kind of intimidated anyway because of that,” he says. “I felt cheated because the only thing I was good at was being a Scout. But after that happened, I just walked away [from Scouting]. I was done.”
Kimber did not know it then, but the same man allegedly abused two of Kimber’s close relatives in the same troop. The men revealed their trauma to one another after one of them saw the lawyers’ ad urging victims to come forward. Kimber suspects that the Scoutmaster also abused his younger brother, but he’ll never know: Kimber says his brother died of complications from drug abuse years ago.
The relatives kept the abuse to themselves when they were kids, but the secret grew like a tumor inside the family. Each boy began to show signs of trauma. Two turned to drugs. One drank heavily. “Me? I don’t really know how to describe me,” says Kimber, pausing. “I don’t smoke and I don’t do drugs. But I guess I’m extremely jaded towards people.”
He adds: “It makes me sick to my stomach. He went after everybody in my family. I guarantee you he has gone after many others.” TIME was unable to obtain updated contact information for the man Kimber says abused him.
James Kretschmer, 56, says a scout leader targeted him during a treasure hunt during a retreat at a Boy Scout camp in Washington state. The man gave the group of 11- and 12-year-old boys different coordinates that would lead them all to the same point and promised that the boy who reached that point first would be rewarded with a bag of candy. Kretschmer won.
“Of course, when I look back, I think wow, the coordinates all led back to the Scout Leader’s tent,” Kretschmer says. The Scoutmaster congratulated Kretschmer, and things seemed normal until the boys crawled into their green sleeping bags later that night. Kretschmer left his open.
“They’re made out of down, and if it’s not colder than heck, you don’t zip them up because you’ll sweat to death in them,” Kretschmer says. “And then I felt breath on my neck and felt somebody fondling me. I just froze up and pretended like nothing was happening. I thought maybe it would go away.”
This is the one memory that sticks with him. He’s blocked out most of the rest and can’t remember the name of his abuser. He calculates, though, that the abuse lasted for four or six months. As an adult, Kretschmer struggled with alcohol problems and spent years in and out of counseling and on antidepressants. “I’ve been married and divorced four times. And I will stand up and say right now it’s probably because of the simple fact that I built a shell to protect myself because of the trauma,” he says.
Studies show that survivors of child sex abuse are at increased risk of psychological and physical ailments, ranging from PTSD to depression, drug-abuse, diabetes, heart attack and stroke. The lawyers say “many” of their clients have turned to drugs or alcohol or even crime to cope with their pasts. “Imagine being sodomized as a 7-year-old and trying to process that,” says Kosnoff. “It’s a ticking time bomb in your soul. It just erodes a person from the inside out.”
Experts say boys struggle with such a violation of trust differently than girls do. Eli Newberger, a pediatrician who studies child abuse at Boston Children’s Hospital and who has testified in cases involving pedophilia in the Boy Scouts, says men tend to disclose instances of assault at a much later age than women.
“There is a stigma of coming forward for both women and men,” he says. “But unfortunately for men, there is this extra shame that you were not able to protect yourself, that you were found to be powerless.” He adds that in certain parts of the country, men who were abused by men additionally fear coming forward and facing homophobia, even if—or especially if— they do not identify as queer.
A 60-year-old Massachusetts man who says he and several boys in his troop were assaulted and raped over a dozen times in the woods by a Scoutmaster when they were teenagers still cringes when someone he does not know comes too close. “Even to this day, I don’t like strangers touching me at all. Even on the shoulder,” says the man, who did not want to be identified. “I jerk away.”
A 17-year-old from Michigan is still struggling to process the abuse. He says his Scoutmaster targeted him around the age of seven, just as his parents had separated and he was at his most vulnerable. “He did stuff below the torso area, if you get my drift,” he says. (Attempts to reach the man he accuses by phone and on social media were unsuccessful.)
The first person he told, years later, was his grandmother, “because she’s the wisest woman I know.” Since the abuse had happened long ago, it didn’t seem like there was much they could do. “I sort of dropped it, and she sort of dropped it, until a few months ago when I was on my computer and she was watching TV,” he says. His grandmother spotted the lawyers’ advertisement and tapped her grandson on the shoulder.
She suggested the teen might find closure, but he also wants the decades of abuse against children to stop. “I have been hearing good things about this whole #MeToo movement,” he says. “I figured yeah, if I could help this not happen to other kids, then why not join?”
The Boy Scouts say that they’ve made changes in recent years to identify and eliminate abusers from the organization, including creating the 24-hour “Scouts First helpline” to report misconduct. The phone line “is one of many resources we provide volunteers, staff, parents and others to support reporting of any account of suspected abuse or behavior that might put a youth in our programs at risk,” the Scouts said in their statement to TIME.
But a Maryland mother who says her then-14-year-old son was sexually abused by two older teen-age counselors at a Boy Scouts camp last year didn’t find it helpful. When she called, she says the person who answered was not an expert trained in handling abuse allegations, but a volunteer working from home: She could hear their dogs barking in the background. She also says the person who answered told her she would have to visit the police station with her son and file a report if she wanted to alert authorities.
The distressed mother says she called the helpline after first contacting the camp director. She told the director that the two counselors had shoved their penises into her son’s shorts pockets while taunting him in a changing room. “Boys will be boys,” she recalls the camp director telling her. After several more calls to various members of the Boy Scouts organization, she and her son went to their local police station and filed a report. The accused camp counselors, who were both minors, denied the allegations to police and to the camp’s director, and no charges were filed.
Every Boy Scout knows the Scouting oath by heart: Be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. “My son recited those words every single week,” says the teenager’s mother. “What we as a family just cannot get over is the fact that those values were completely violated.”
In their statement, the Boy Scouts say their policy is to encourage helpline callers to contact law enforcement themselves, “because the person reporting the abuse typically has the most information about the matter and the authorities, therefore, will want to receive the report directly from them.”
Today, the Boy Scouts count about 2.4 million young members and a million adult volunteers in their ranks. In the face of public pressure to be more inclusive, and to bolster membership, the Boy Scouts dropped the ban on adult leaders who are “open or avowed homosexuals,” and began admitting girls and transgender kids in 2017. Conservative organizations have protested the changes, while liberal groups have argued they’ve moved too slowly. But nothing has affected Scouts’ public image like a landmark sex abuse lawsuit in 2010. That year, an Oregon jury ordered the organization to pay $18.5 million in damages to a sexual abuse victim. The judge ruled that the Boy Scouts must make public the so-called “Perversion Files.”
The lawyers who represent the latest men coming forward say that about 90% of the names of their alleged abusers do not appear in the files. They sent a letter to the Boy Scouts on May 6 to ask how the organization planned to deal with the information. The Boy Scouts responded that, if provided with the full list of names, they would report all the suspected perpetrators to the police. “We believe victims, we support them, we pay for counseling by a provider of their choice, and we encourage them to come forward,” the Scouts said in their statement to TIME. “It is BSA policy that all incidents of suspected abuse are reported to law enforcement.”
The lawyers have also asked U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier of California to pressure the Boy Scouts to explain how they plan to curb pedophilia in the organization. Last November, Speier and several other lawmakers sent a letter to the Boy Scouts’ national leadership asking for details on their screening process for potential Scoutmasters and on the reporting process for abuse victims. In response, the Boy Scouts’ chief executive, Michael B. Surbaugh, wrote that the organization has “some of the strongest barriers to child abuse that can be found in any youth serving organization.” These include background checks on potential Scout leaders and requirements that they alert authorities to suspected child abuse.
The lawmakers say those assurances don’t go far enough, and they’ve demanded more information in a second letter, including the extent of the organization’s lobbying efforts to limit lawsuits against them. After years of prioritizing its own reputation “to the detriment of many of its scouts,” Speier wrote, the organization must lift “the secrecy that placed generations of children and adolescents at risk.”
In the absence of accountability, Pittson says a great burden falls on the victims. “I always felt guilty that I haven’t done enough, that this guy was out there probably molesting other kids,” Pittson says. “I have always wondered about those kids through the years.”