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Scouts employ aggressive tactics in abuse defense

Organization often played legal hardball against accusers in molestation cases, say attorneys and families.

December 24, 2012|By Kim Christensen
  • Jerrold Schwartz pleaded guilty to four counts of sodomy and was sent to prison. Despite the conviction in a case involving a 13-year-old, the Scouts contended that the sex was consensual, records show.
Jerrold Schwartz pleaded guilty to four counts of sodomy and was sent to… (New York State Division…)

When a lawsuit alleged that two young brothers in Michigan had been molested “hundreds of times” by a troop leader, the Boy Scouts denied responsibility and pointed the finger at someone else — the boys' recently widowed mother.

The Scouts faulted the woman “for her failure to provide adequate parental supervision,” suggesting in court papers that she was responsible for any harm to her sons.

One of the boys' lawyers called that argument excessive.

“The day their dad died, the perpetrator began to befriend the boys,” Kelly Clark said. “Then the Boy Scouts turn around and file papers saying Mom was the problem?”

DATABASE: Tracking decades of allegations

The Scouts' legal tactics in the ongoing lawsuit are part of an aggressive approach that the youth group has long used in defending itself in child sex abuse cases, some victims, their families and lawyers say.

Since 1,247 confidential files were unsealed in October detailing allegations of sexual abuse in its ranks, Scouting has taken a more conciliatory stance.

“We have heard from victims of abuse and are doing our very best to respond to each person with our utmost care and sensitivity,” Scouting spokesman Deron Smith said in October, offering an apology, counseling and other assistance.

DOCUMENTS: A paper trail of abuse

But in the years before the files' release, some who alleged abuse say, their accusations were met with denial, blame and legal hardball.

“The knives are out and you'd better get your knife out because if you don't, they will tear you to shreds,” said Timothy Hale, who represents a Santa Barbara County teenager who was abused in 2007 at the age of 13 by volunteer Scout leader Al Steven Stein.

Stein had a history of inappropriate behavior with children but a local Scout official tried to keep the boy's mother from reporting the abuse to police, according to the teenager's lawsuit. She did anyway, and Stein later pleaded no contest to felony child endangerment.

FULL COVERAGE: Inside the Scouts' 'perversion' files

Some plaintiffs' lawyers, including Clark, say the Scouts deserve credit for the victims it has helped, even when it had no legal obligation. And the Boy Scouts is entitled to defend itself: It's not unusual for large organizations to employ aggressive legal strategies, including accusing plaintiffs of causing their own injuries.

Hale and others contend, however, that discouraging victims of sexual abuse from reporting crimes, or blaming them when they do, goes too far.

An Oregon man's lawsuit alleged that Scouting allowed troop leader Timur Dykes to continue in the group after he admitted molesting 17 boys in the early 1980s.

At the trial in 2010, regional Scouts official Eugene Grant faulted parents for letting their sons go to Dykes' apartment for merit badge work and sleepovers.

“His parents should have known better,” Grant said of one victim. “I think it's criminal.”

The jury rejected that assertion, finding the Scouts liable for nearly $20 million in damages.

The Scouts' files made public in October were submitted as evidence in the Portland, Ore., trial and spanned 1965 to 1985. More recent instances of the Scouts' tactics are detailed in court records across the country.

In 2002, Jerrold Schwartz, a 42-year-old former scoutmaster in New York, admitted abusing a boy in his troop in the 1990s. After being secretly recorded saying he “did something very, very wrong” and apologizing to the boy, Schwartz pleaded guilty to four counts of sodomy and was sent to prison.

Despite the conviction and the victim's testimony that Schwartz “raped me and forced me to perform oral sex on him,” the Scouts, in a motion to dismiss a subsequent lawsuit, contended that the sex was consensual, records show.

“To argue that an adult scoutmaster in his 30s can have consensual sex with a 13-year-old in his Scout troop is something dreamt up in pedophile heaven,” attorney Michael Dowd told the New York Law Journal in 2006 after a judge rejected the Scouts' motion. The lawsuit was later settled; terms were not disclosed.

Boy Scouts officials declined to be interviewed or make their lawyers in sex abuse lawsuits available. In a statement, the group stressed its multifaceted child protection efforts, enhanced in recent years to include criminal background checks for all volunteers and mandatory reporting to police of all suspected abuse.

“We deeply regret that there have been times when Scouts were abused, and for that we are very sorry and extend our deepest sympathies to victims,” it said.

The Michigan lawsuit, which is pending, alleges that Assistant Scoutmaster Roger E. Young, a 25-year volunteer, had raped or otherwise abused both Scouts repeatedly at their home, his house and the church where the troop met.

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