LOS ANGELES » A lawsuit brought by a 20-year-old man who was molested by a Boy Scout leader in 2007 could force the organization to reveal 16 years’ worth of "perversion" files documenting sex abuse allegations.
Files that were kept by the Boy Scouts of America between 1960 and 1991 already have been made public through other civil cases.
The release of the more recent files — from 1991 to 2007 — could reveal how much the Boy Scouts have improved their efforts to protect children and report abuse after several high-profile cases.
In 2012 the Oregon Supreme Court ordered the Scouts to make public a trove of files from 1965 to 1985. The records showed that more than a third of abuse allegations never were reported to police and that even when authorities were told, little was done most of the time.
Those documents came to light after a jury in 2010 imposed a nearly $20 million penalty against the Scouts in a molestation case in Portland, Oregon.
Since then, plaintiff attorneys in several states, including Texas and Minnesota, have sought to publicize the more recent records through similar lawsuits. Those cases have settled before trial, leaving the records sealed.
Now the issue moves to Santa Barbara County, where a judge will hear arguments Friday on whether to admit the documents as evidence. Jury selection is set to begin next week.
The issues at play with the Scouts are similar to legal battles over the release of confidential Roman Catholic clergy abuse files, said Jody Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California.
The judge in the Boy Scouts case faces a balancing act between the privacy rights of the Scout leaders in the files and the duty to protect children.
However, "the Boy Scouts just aren’t in a very sympathetic position," Armour said. "They seem to be trying to shield themselves from liability behind confidentiality and privacy."
In the Santa Barbara case, the lawsuit states, a 29-year-old Scout volunteer, Al Stein, pulled down the pants of a 13-year-old boy and fondled him while the child was working at a Christmas tree lot fundraiser. According to the civil complaint, the boy had bruising and lacerations at his beltline.
Stein had done something similar to a boy six months before, but the incident never was reported to the Boy Scout leadership even though another Scout volunteer knew of it, said Tim Hale, the plaintiff’s attorney.
In the Oregon case, plaintiff’s attorneys argued that Scout leaders knew about the background of the perpetrator. Those lawyers said the Boy Scouts referred to a subset of personnel documents that detail sex abuse as "perversion" files.
The jury found the organization negligent for allowing former assistant scoutmaster Timur Dykes to associate with children after he acknowledged to a Boy Scout official in 1983 that he had molested 17 boys.
Stein, now 36, pleaded no contest to felony child endangerment in 2009 and was sentenced to two years in prison and paroled early. He was most recently living in Salinas, California, as a registered sex offender. He was banned from the Boy Scouts in 2007.
The Associated Press does not identify sex abuse victims unless they request it.
Hale called the files "by far the biggest evidence of this policy of secrecy and the shortcomings of the education provided" on sexual abuse.
"They had this wealth of information in the files that they could have used. Instead, they just sat on it," he said.
Paul Ryan Ortuno and Sheyanne Bane, attorneys for the Boy Scouts, did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
The Boy Scouts of America said in an emailed statement that Stein’s behavior was "absolutely unacceptable" but did not address the larger issue of why the perversion files should remain private.
In court papers, the organization has argued that the files were used to keep track of unacceptable volunteers and keep them out of scouting and that releasing them is a violation of privacy. Stein did not have a "perversion" file when the incident occurred.
The Scouts instituted mandatory reporting for suspected child abuse in 2010 and now has a requirement that children be accompanied by at least two adults at all times.
In 2012, Santa Barbara County Judge Donna Geck ordered the Scouts to turn over all files from 1991 to the present to Hale but ordered them kept under seal.
Last year, she narrowed the scope of the trial to exclude negligence in hiring and supervision, among other things, but ruled that the plaintiff could pursue punitive damages for negligent failure to educate and warn parents and volunteers about childhood sexual abuse.
If Hale prevails on Friday, he will be allowed to try to introduce certain documents from the files as evidence during trial. Documents that are not part of the trial will remain sealed, but the media and other interested parties could petition the judge to make them public.
That’s what happened in Oregon. After the 2010 verdict, the Oregon Supreme Court ordered the Scouts to release the files with the victims’ names redacted after The Associated Press and other media outlets sought their release.