NEW YORK >> Sharing their stories doesn’t come easily for these middle-aged men. At times, their eyes well up or their voices crack as they describe being sexually abused in the Boy Scouts and suffering from emotional damage long afterward.
Looking back, they all remember vividly how excited they were to become Scouts.
“I was real gung-ho about getting my badges — fishing and campfires and all of that,” said Darrell Jackson, now a 57-year-old New Yorker. “It was good at the beginning.”
Jackson, whose unit leader was convicted of sodomy and imprisoned for about 18 months, is among hundreds of men across the U.S. who have recently contacted lawyers for help suing the Boy Scouts of America for sex abuse they say they suffered at the hands of scout leaders.
Many of the men are from New York, which this year adjusted its restrictive statute-of-limitations law. The changes allow victims of long-ago abuse to sue for damages during a one-year window starting in August. New Jersey enacted a similar law this month. California is on track to follow suit.
Some of the lawyers told The Associated Press they have evidence that the BSA was inaccurate when the organization said in recent press statements that it had never “knowingly allowed a perpetrator to work with youth.”
The Boy Scouts acknowledge that sex-abuse litigation poses a financial threat and have not ruled out seeking bankruptcy protection.
Jackson joined a Cub Scout pack in Brooklyn in 1972 and the next year testified against his pack leader, Freddie Modica.
His initial fascination with the Boy Scouts was simple: He liked the uniforms. “It was like G.I. Joe dolls,” he recalled.
He soon learned that some boys in the unit were making visits to the pack leader’s home.
“They made it seem like it was a big thing — and I felt out of the loop,” Jackson said. “When I got a chance to go, I was like ‘OK.’”
The allure, Jackson recalled, was that the scoutmaster — while posing as a supportive father figure — let the boys engage in taboo pastimes such as smoking and drinking.
Jackson now refers to what ensued as “the ugliness” — repeated sexual molestation by the scoutmaster until Jackson summoned the nerve to tell his grandmother, who was raising him. Initially skeptical, she eventually went to police.
In the years after the trial, Jackson says, he was often mocked with anti-gay slurs. He responded at times with belligerence and mistrust.
“It caused me to go into crime, drugs, everything, just to block stuff out,” he said. “It basically messed up my life.”
Despite receiving psychological counseling over the years, his marriage broke down. His childhood dreams of becoming an oceanographer faded. He cobbled together a career in home remodeling and maintenance.
Why sue the Boy Scouts? He says the organization should be held accountable, and he wants children to be safe.
“I don’t want nobody to go through what I went through,” he said.
SCARS AND SHAME LASTED DECADES
Raymond Luna says he still has psychological scars from being abused as a scout in New York City in the 1970s.
“In my head, there’s still anger,” said Luna, 56, who now lives in Poughkeepsie, New York, and runs a fire-alarm installation company.
He recalls that the scoutmaster befriended many of the single moms — including his own — who had sons in the troop. Luna was among several boys who began visiting the scoutmaster’s house. He says that’s where the molestation took place.
He said he never reported the abuse to others.
“The shame was so big — like it was a secret,” he said. “During my teenage years up to when I was 33, I totally blocked it out.”
Even during a 26-year-marriage — which produced five children before ending in divorce — Luna says he never told his wife. He abused drugs and alcohol to keep the bad memories at bay and underwent years of therapy.
The counseling “helped me realize that I was a victim and not a participant,” he said.
Luna says he’s increasingly at peace. He has shared his full story with his current girlfriend. But he snapped to attention when he saw a TV ad seeking survivors of Boy Scout sex abuse to join in litigation. He and Jackson signed on with the same Seattle-based law firm.
After searching the internet for references to his former scoutmaster, he learned nothing about the man’s whereabouts but found him listed in a database of the Boy Scouts’ “ineligible volunteer” files, which list thousands of adults barred from scouting because of confirmed or suspected acts of molestation.
An expert hired by the Boy Scouts testified earlier this year that 7,819 suspected abusers were identified in the files, as well as 12,254 victims.
Luna’s former scoutmaster was placed in the files in 1964 after an arrest for abusing a 12-year-old boy, yet he rejoined New York City’s scouting ranks in the early 1970s. He remained a scoutmaster until 1975, roughly a year after Luna quit the organization in shame and anger, the paperwork showed.
“The BSA needs to know how much pain the abuse caused me and so many others,” Luna said.
‘IT WASN’T THEIR FAULT’
Jason Amala, one of Jackson and Luna’s lawyers, said scout officials failed to take reasonable steps to protect the boys from the foreseeable harm of being sexually abused by scout leaders. The claims will seek unspecified compensatory damages for pain and suffering and punitive damages based on an allegation that the BSA intentionally concealed their knowledge of the danger.
“We get people who call us virtually every day who still think it’s their fault. And until the Scouts are fully transparent and accountable, you’re going to have that problem,” Amala said. “It wasn’t their fault — not their parents’ fault, not their moms’ fault. It was the Boy Scouts’ fault.”
The BSA has repeatedly apologized and says it now has policies to curtail abuse, including making mandatory criminal background checks for all staff and volunteers and requiring two or more adult leaders to be present with youth at all times during scouting activities.
“We believe victims, we support them,” said the BSA’s chief executive, Mike Surbaugh. “We encourage them to come forward.”
William Stevens, 50, came forward last year in Arkansas, filing a lawsuit alleging he was molested by his scoutmaster at least six times over a two-year period after joining the Scouts’ Webelos program shortly before his 10th birthday in 1978.
The BSA’s files show that the scoutmaster accused by Stevens, Samuel Otts, was caught sexually abusing a boy while a scoutmaster in Georgia in 1977. Yet Otts subsequently registered as a scout leader in Arkansas and remained active until 1980.
Rather than call police, the Scouts “allowed him to transfer and did nothing to warn the parents and scouts” in his new troop, said Peter Janci, one of Stevens’ lawyers.
Last year, an Arkansas judge ruled against Stevens, saying his lawsuit was precluded by the state’s statute of limitations. Janci hopes that ruling will be reconsidered if his legal team can prove the Boy Scouts made false claims about their abuse-prevention efforts.
The Boy Scouts say they report all suspected abusers in their database to law enforcement.
But Janci and his partner, Stephen Crew, say they have identified multiple cases in the Boy Scouts’ database in which adult volunteers implicated in child abuse were allowed to return to scouting assignments on a probationary basis.
Asked about the lawyers’ assertion, the BSA pointed to its current anti-abuse policies, but added, “We recognize, however, that there were moments in our organization’s history when certain cases were not handled the way they would be addressed today.”
Stevens went on to forge a successful life. He’s married, has a daughter and is human resources director for a Little Rock-based trucking company.
Yet his experience in the Scouts in Hot Springs, Arkansas, has haunted him.
“For the past 40 years, I’ve always felt like I was damaged goods,” he said. “I’ve lived with the shame and embarrassment and guilt because of the abuse I suffered. I pushed people away and didn’t let them get close to me.”
Only in 2016, Stevens says, did he come across an online database that included the Boy Scouts’ file about Otts and learn of the abuse that was documented in Georgia. Stevens reached out to Janci’s Oregon-based law firm and decided to go public with his story, speaking occasionally to small groups in abuse-recovery programs.
“That was the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life,” Stevens said, “but also the most rewarding.”