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the 'perversion files'

Geography determines justice for Scout abuse victims

Statutes of limitation vary by state, allowing some alleged victims to win damages, while others have no recourse.

October 20, 2012|By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • Kerry Lewis, left, leans against his lawyer, Paul Mones, after a jury found the Boy Scouts of America negligent for repeated sexual abuse by an assistant scoutmaster.
Kerry Lewis, left, leans against his lawyer, Paul Mones, after a jury found… (Jamie Francis / Associated…)

Ron Morgan and Kerry Lewis grew up in adjoining states — one in Idaho, the other in Oregon.

Both belonged to Boy Scout troops during the 1980s, and decades later, both alleged in lawsuits that the Scouts failed to protect them and other boys against known molesters, citing detailed evidence from the organization's confidential files.

In 2010, Lewis won a jury verdict of nearly $20 million against the Scouts, the largest such award in the organization's history. Morgan's case was never considered on its merits. The Idaho Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that, under state law, it was filed too late.

FULL COVERAGE: Inside the 'perversion files'

"Our state ... turned us away," Morgan said. "His didn't."

With the release this week of more than 1,200 confidential files on suspected sexual abuse from past decades, the Boy Scouts of America faces the prospect of a new wave of lawsuits and potentially costly damages. But as in past child sex abuse cases, alleged victims' ability to get their cases before a jury will vary dramatically by state.

Many states have strict statutes of limitation on such allegations, and experts say the likelihood of even finding a lawyer to take decades-old cases can be difficult.

Multimillion-dollar verdicts are possible in states such as Oregon and Washington with loose time limits — especially if juries find the Scouts acted recklessly and award punitive damages.

But recourse for alleged victims could prove far more elusive in states like Alabama and New York, unless their tight time limits are changed or set aside.

"Geography determines justice. That's the problem," said Paul Mones, an Oregon-based attorney who represented Lewis.

Defense attorneys argue that statutes of limitation exist for a reason: It's hard to mount a defense against old accusations, particularly for institutions that may have severed ties with the alleged abuser decades ago. Key witnesses are often infirm or dead, documents have disappeared and time has eroded memories, said Don Steier, who represents priests accused of abuse in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

"No one wants it to be more difficult for children to seek justice," said Darren McKinney, a spokesman for the American Tort Reform Assn., a coalition that supports limiting civil liability. "I think we want justice available to all, not just the accuser."

For the Scouts, the financial stakes are considerable and the legal terrain daunting.

To settle similar claims in the last decade, dioceses in the Roman Catholic Church were forced to file for bankruptcy and sell off property. The church scandals and the conviction this year of retired Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky for child sexual abuse have made judges and jurors more sympathetic to allegations of sexual abuse and institutional coverups, plaintiffs' attorneys said.

But in its 2010 treasurer's report, the Scouts' National Council said the cost of resolving suits then pending against the organization would probably be covered by its insurance and reserves, as the Lewis verdict was. If the Scouts need to dip into other funds, the report said, officials could probably do so without harming the organization's finances or operations.

In December 2009, the Scouts' total assets were valued at nearly $1 billion, according to testimony in the Lewis trial. That year, the Scouts set aside $65 million to pay for settlements and jury awards.

The organization's exposure depends largely on its insurance policies, the details of which are not public. Since the late 1980s, most commercial insurance policies have not covered sex abuse claims. But it's common now for nonprofits that work with children to buy specialty insurance to fill that gap.

In a statement, Boy Scouts spokesman Deron Smith said the group, which since 2010 has required members to report suspicions of abuse to law enforcement, was not focused on potential lawsuits, "but rather on continuing to enhance our multitiered policies and procedures to help keep kids safe."

"As for statute of limitations," Smith added, "the BSA respects the decisions which are made by lawmakers and the judicial system."

In general, it's difficult to bring a lawsuit now based on abuse that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, said Marci Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University's law school. "I am floored at how many strong cases are capable of going nowhere because of a statute," she said.

In some states, lawyers can argue that normal time limits shouldn't apply because an institution covered up sexual abuse.

Minnesota attorney Jeff Anderson said he recently persuaded a Nevada judge not to dismiss a lawsuit by a man who said a Catholic priest groped him in the 1980s. In court papers, he argued that only in 2008 did the man learn that church officials knew that the priest had previously been accused of sexually assaulting others.

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