PORTLAND, Ore/SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Four Oregon men sued the Boy Scouts of America on Tuesday over childhood sexual abuse they say they suffered at the hands of a pedophile knowingly appointed as their scoutmaster in the 1970s.
The lawsuits, filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland, accuse the national Boy Scouts organization of negligence and fraud in connection with the repeated molestation of the men, then aged 12 to 15, their Portland-based lawyer Kelly Clark said.
The suits are the latest in a barrage of such claims facing the Boy Scouts, headquartered in Texas, since the group was found liable and ordered to pay nearly $20 million in damages last year for a pedophile case from the 1980s.
Clark brought a separate case against the Boy Scouts last week on behalf of five women who say they were sexually abused as girls by the leader of a coed Scouting program in Montana during the 1970s.
The Montana suit and the impending cases in Oregon bring to at least 35 the number of individuals who have lodged child sexual abuse claims against the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in 11 states since 2007, Clark said.
BSA officials say allegations of sexual abuse over the years represent a small fraction of the organization’s 1.1 million adult volunteers.
The group cites new safeguards instituted during the past decade, including tighter screening of volunteers, though it acknowledges that criminal background checks for existing volunteers only became mandatory in 2008.
“Youth protection is part of the DNA of our program,” said Deron Smith, a spokesman for the Boys Scouts of America, adding that while the group is “proud of the program and volunteers, even one incident of abuse is too many.”
The mounting litigation has tarnished the wholesome image a 100-year-old largely volunteer organization that prides itself on building good character, citizenship and personal fitness among the 2.7 million youth — mostly boys aged 8 to 17 — who are its members.
The nonprofit group reported cash and other assets in excess of $1 billion last year from sources that included dues, fund-raisers, corporate giving and private donations.
Clark said publicity from last year’s trial in Portland had prompted hundreds of former Scouts to contact his law firm.
He likened the “domino effect” of that case to the tide of allegations against Roman Catholic priests in the United States triggered more than a decade ago by reports of clergy abuse that surfaced in the Boston Archdiocese.
“What these institutions have in common is the sense that their mission is important and that they can’t afford to have their good works sullied by what they consider isolated incidents,” Clark told Reuters earlier this week.
Last year’s trial shed light on records the BSA kept on suspected or confirmed sexual abuse by leaders and volunteers. The jury was permitted to review 20,000 pages from what were termed the “perversion files” or “ineligible volunteer files,” dating from 1965 to 1985, before rendering a verdict.
Those files show that during the 20-year period, an average of nearly 60 leaders or volunteers a year were discovered molesting children, Clark said.
The Boy Scouts dispute that figure, and the organization is fighting to keep those documents from being made public in a case awaiting a ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court.
All four bringing suit in the new case claim they were abused in the 1970s by then-scoutmaster Steven Terry Hill, who was put in charge of their troop even though the Boy Scouts learned he had been accused of molesting three other boys while serving as a Scout leader in California, Clark said.
The plaintiffs also say that the Boy Scouts organization became aware that Hill was molesting boys in Portland’s Troop 76 but did nothing to stop it.
Hill was acquitted in the late 1970s of sex abuse charges related to the Boy Scouts in Portland. But he was convicted in 1991 on four counts of sodomy and furnishing drugs and alcohol to a minor stemming from an unrelated sex-abuse case involving a 17-year-old boy. He was released from prison in 2011 after serving 20 years, Clark said.
Editing by Steve Gorman, Greg McCune and Cynthia Johnston