PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - The Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the release of 20,000 pages of confidential Boy Scouts of America records, dubbed the “perversion files,” documenting suspected or confirmed sexual abuse by the group’s leaders and volunteers.
The state high court ruled that the names of the victims and those who reported abuse be redacted before the six cartons of documents are made available to the public. Attorneys said it was not immediately clear whether the identities of accused perpetrators would remain secret.
The documents came to wide public notice when they were admitted as evidence in a 2010 civil trial in which an Oregon jury found the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), headquartered in Texas, liable in a 1980s pedophile case and ordered the organization to pay nearly $20 million in damages.
Child protection advocates have said the files proved that like the Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts exposed children to sexual predators for decades.
Attorney Kelly Clark, representing abuse victims, has said the documents revealed that an average of nearly 60 Boy Scout leaders or volunteers a year were discovered by the organization to have been molesting children from 1965 to 1985.
“The released documents represent the largest and most comprehensive data collection system on child sexual abuse maintained by an organization in the nation,” Paul Mones, another lawyer for abuse victims, said in a statement. “Not even the Catholic Church has such a system.”
Attorneys for abuse victims said the documents, consisting of more than 1,200 individual files, could be ready for release to the media and the public within a few days.
The decision to unseal records the BSA itself had once referred to as “perversion files” came as public attention was riveted on the high-profile child sex abuse trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
The Boy Scouts of America, which had fought to keep the documents confidential, said it kept such records to exclude “individuals whose actions are inconsistent with the standards of Scouting, and Scouts are safer because those files exist.”
Strict confidentiality of the files “encourages prompt reporting of questionable behavior, removes the fear of retribution and ensures victims and their families have the privacy they deserve,” the organization said in a statement.
The Boy Scouts said the organization remained concerned that even with redactions, release of the records could have a “chilling effect on the further reporting of abuse.”
Clark, in a statement after Thursday’s decision, said, “Child abuse thrives in secrecy and secret systems are its putrid breeding ground.”
Release of the files was sought by several news media organizations, including the New York Times, which argued they should be deemed public records under Oregon law.
Last year, four Oregon men sued the Boy Scouts in separate cases for more than $5 million each over childhood sexual abuse they say they suffered at the hands of a known pedophile who was their scoutmaster in the 1970s.
Clark, whose Portland firm has spearheaded such legal action, estimated the Boy Scouts currently face 50 to 75 pending child sexual abuse claims in as many as 18 states.
Mounting litigation against the Boy Scouts has tarnished the wholesome image of a 100-year-old largely volunteer organization that prides itself on building good character, citizenship and fitness among its 2.7 million members, who are mostly boys aged eight to 17.
As in the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church, whose hierarchy is accused of covering up misconduct by priests, recent lawsuits against the Boy Scouts have claimed the organization concealed child molestation by its Scout leaders.
But Clark said that in the overwhelming majority of abuse cases uncovered by the Scouts, accused perpetrators have been excluded from the organization rather than harbored.
Instead, the chief complaint has been that despite 60 years of extensive record-keeping on sexual abuse, the Boy Scouts did little to improve prevention measures within its ranks or to warn parents and children of the problem, Clark said.
Boy Scout officials say the allegations involve only a small fraction of the 1.1 million adults who volunteer for the nonprofit organization.
The group also has cited new safeguards instituted during the past decade, including tighter screening of adult volunteers, although computerized criminal background checks only became mandatory for new volunteers in 2003 and for existing volunteers in 2008.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Burns and Bill Trott