PORTLAND, Ore/SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Four Oregon men sued the Boy Scouts of America on Tuesday for $20 million over childhood sexual abuse they say they suffered at the hands of a pedophile knowingly appointed as their scoutmaster in the 1970s.
The four lawsuits, filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland, accuse the national Boy Scouts and its Cascade Pacific Council of negligence, fraud and sexual battery of a child in connection with the repeated molestation of the men, then aged 12 to 15.
The suits, each seeking $5.2 million in damages, 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 last year for a pedophile case from the 1980s.
A separate case was filed against the Boy Scouts last week by five women who say they were sexually abused as girls by the leader of a coed Scouting program in Montana during the 1970s.
The latest cases 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, said plaintiffs attorney Kelly Clark, whose Portland firm has spearheaded the legal action.
BSA officials say various sexual abuse allegations involve a small fraction of the 1.1 million adults who volunteer for the nonprofit organization, which last year reported cash and other assets in excess of $1 billion.
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.”
But the lawsuit claims the BSA was aware since the 1960s that “scouting posed a danger to adolescent boys because historically noticeable numbers of adult volunteers ... were discovered to be child molesters.”
As in the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church, whose hierarchy is accused of covering up misconduct by wayward priests, Tuesday’s suits claim the BSA “concealed the problem of child molestation by Scout leaders.”
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.
“Like the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts have been exposing children to sexual predators for decades,” said Grier Weeks, head of the child abuse prevention lobby PROTECT.
“In the process, they’ve also exposed themselves to enormous financial liability,” he told Reuters. “The question is, which did they care more about? If it was boys, there will be a long, clear trail of aggressive attempts to protect. If it was themselves, there will be a trail of silence.”
Clark cited some key differences between the Catholic church and the BSA, which he said was essentially targeted by outside pedophiles seeking easy access to boys.
“You don’t have to be trained or anything. You just show up and raise your hand and swear and you’re a volunteer,” he said. “So while the percent of volunteers in the Boy Scouts who were abusers is, we believe, much smaller, the numbers are relatively large, and the number of victims could be the same or worse (than in the Catholic church).”
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.
The four new plaintiffs 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.
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 April after serving about 20 years, Clark said.
A deposition Hill gave while incarcerated, and other corroborating evidence, suggests that the California Scouts council arranged for him to be transferred to Portland where, in 1976, he founded Troop 76, an elite group of 76 scouts whose mission was “high adventure” activities like river rafting and mountain climbing, Clark said.
Clark acknowledged no direct evidence that the national BSA knew of Hill’s transfer, but added, “We would argue that the local councils are ... agents of the (national) Boy Scouts of America. What an agent knows, the principal knows.”
Editing by Steve Gorman, Greg McCune and Cynthia Johnston