TRENTON, N.J. >> The Boy Scouts of America is facing a threat from a growing wave of lawsuits over decades-old allegations of sexual abuse.
The Scouts have been sued in multiple states in recent months by purported abuse victims, including plaintiffs taking advantage of new state laws or court decisions that are now allowing suits previously barred because of the age of the allegations.
More litigation is on the way.
A lawyer representing 150 people who say they were abused as Boy Scouts is planning a suit in New Jersey when the state’s new civil statute of limitations law takes effect Dec. 1. New Jersey was home to the Boy Scouts’ headquarters for about 25 years until 1978.
Among the plaintiffs is Greg Hunt, 62, of St. Petersburg, Florida. He said he was abused during a camping trip in about 1969 in Pennsylvania, where his family lived at the time.
“It’d be nice to have the Boy Scouts account for their lack of ability to do the right thing,” he said. “It would be nice for me to have the Scouts say we did wrong by you and by these other boys and by your parents.”
The lawsuits raise the possibility that the Boy Scouts, one of the largest youth organizations in the U.S., might be staring at many millions of dollars in settlements or judgments that could lead it to declare bankruptcy, as several Roman Catholic dioceses have done amid litigation over abusive clergy.
The New Jersey suit will come on top of at least 24 that have been filed against the Scouts in New York since Aug. 14, when that state opened a one-year window in which victims of child sex abuse will be able to sue over encounters outside the usual statute of limitations.
Another lawsuit was filed against the Boy Scouts this month in Philadelphia by lawyers who say they have identified hundreds of victims, after a Pennsylvania appeals court ruled that the state’s statute of limitations could be set aside if a victim could prove that abuse was concealed by fraud.
Hundreds of other lawsuits filed in Guam and other states have already strained the Boy Scouts finances and have led the organization to consider bankruptcy, among other options.
“The Boy Scouts are going to have to come to grips with the issues of their past,” said Michael Pfau, Washington state-based attorney planning the New Jersey lawsuit.
In a statement responding to the pending New Jersey suit, the Boy Scouts said it apologizes to the victims and encourages them to report abuse to law enforcement.
“We believe victims, we support them, we pay for counseling by a provider of their choice, and we encourage them to come forward,” the organization said. It added that policies have also been changed to include mandatory criminal background checks. It also added a rule that at least two adult leaders must be present with children at all times during activities.
New Jersey’s law, signed in May, allows child victims to sue up until they turn 55 or within seven years of their first realization that the abuse caused them harm. The current statute of limitations is age 20 or two years after first realizing the abuse caused harm. The bill also opens up a two-year window to victims who were previously barred by the statute of limitation. It also allows victims to seek damages from institutions.
That has opened the door to lawsuits by people like Charles Wright, 75, of Salt Lake City, who said he was sexually assaulted by a “Scout commissioner” in Southern California when he was about 11.
“I kept it all a secret for years. I became an alcoholic. I wanted to become a Baptist minister. Instead I became an alcoholic. I became addicted to numerous types of drugs,” he said. “It’s not easy with this thought rolling through your head about what happened to you when you were a kid.”
The Associated Press does not usually identify people who say they were sexually assaulted unless they give permission, as both Wright and Hunt have.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys say estimating how much the Boy Scouts have paid out to date and could be liable for is hard because the organization seeks confidentiality in settlements.
Paul Mones, the plaintiff’s lawyer in a 2010 case that resulted in a nearly $20 million judgment against the Boy Scouts, said the organization never expected to face such staggering financial liabilities because of statutes of limitations, which barred many purported victims from suing and which states are now beginning to change to help those who say they were abused.
“We are witnessing now, not just with the Boy Scouts, a major transformation (in) how victims of abuse and society view these institutions,” Mones said.
The Boy Scouts also said in a statement that they’re considering “all options available so we can live up to our social and moral responsibility to fairly compensate victims who suffered abuse during their time in Scouting.”
If the suits in New Jersey and across the country lead the scouts to pursue bankruptcy, that would offer the organization a chance to come up with a plan to repay any plaintiffs, who would have to sign off on the plan, according to Pamela Foohey, a bankruptcy expert at the Maurer School of Law and Indiana University.