The Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the release of 1,247 confidential Boy Scouts of America files, the first step toward publicly lifting the veil on 20 years of alleged child sexual abuse by troop leaders and others within the organization.
Also known as the "ineligible volunteer" or "perversion" files, the 20,000 pages ordered to be unsealed span two decades beginning in 1965, a portion of such records the Scouts have kept under lock and key since the 1920s.
The files played a key role as evidence in a landmark Oregon lawsuit in 2010 that resulted in the largest judgment ever against the Scouts in a molestation case. A jury awarded nearly $20 million to a man who was molested by an assistant scoutmaster in the early 1980s, ruling that the Scouts had failed to protect him.
Afterward, the Boy Scouts petitioned to keep the files closed, a move opposed by media outlets seeking their full disclosure. On Thursday, the Oregon Supreme Court sided with the Oregonian newspaper, the Associated Press, the New York Times, Oregon Public Broadcasting and other outlets.
The court ordered that the files be made public after names of victims and others who reported sexual abuse are redacted. That process is expected to take weeks, according to Portland attorney Charles Hinkle, who represented the media outlets.
Hinkle said he was pleased with the release of the files, but troubled by some aspects of the court's ruling, which held that the public did not have a right to see all evidence presented at trial.
The effect of that part of the ruling is that "courts can make decisions based on secret evidence, and that's a mistake," he said in an interview. "Our position was that whatever evidence was before the court should be available to the public."
The Scouts' confidential files detail incidents and allegations of sexual abuse and are intended to keep molesters out of the organization. Scouts officials have long contended that the records must be kept confidential to protect the privacy of victims and those who report sexual abuse, as well as those who face unproved accusations.
In a statement Thursday, the organization said it respected the court's decision, but even with redactions, the release of the files could have a chilling effect on the reporting of abuse. Scouts Chief Executive Robert Mazzuca posted a Web video statement explaining the organization's position.
"We've kept these files confidential because we believe that victims deserve protection and that confidentiality encourages prompt reporting of questionable behavior," he said. "It removes the fear of retribution and assures the victims and their families that they receive the privacy that they deserve."
Mazzuca also acknowledged, however, that the files had not always succeeded in preventing abuse.
"We have a long history of incorporating new, best practices into our youth protection program," he said. "But unfortunately, there have still been times when the best practices of the time were insufficient, and for that we're deeply sorry."
Victims rights advocates, plaintiffs' lawyers and others who have sought to make the files public contend that they have been used to keep secret widespread sexual abuse within one of America's oldest youth organizations. Some of them hailed the decision as a major step forward in dealing with child sexual abuse.
Paul Mones, one of the plaintiff's lawyers in the 2010 case, said the vast majority of molested Scouts have never reported the abuse. Although the organization has made "great strides" in protecting boys in recent years, he said, its history of widespread sexual abuse should not be buried.
"These kids were raped, these kids were sodomized," he said. "Many of them were molested for months and years. Many had devastating physical injuries and they remained silent. These files represent opening a window on that tragic period of time."
In the Portland lawsuit, former Scout Kerry Lewis said the organization failed to protect him as a 12-year-old from a known molester. The judge allowed into evidence the 1,247 files, including those covering Lewis' time in the Scouts.
Similar suits seeking access to the files are pending around the country. In Santa Barbara, lawyers for a former Scout, who was 13 when a volunteer leader allegedly abused him in 2007, are seeking access to confidential files, contending they will expose a "culture of hidden sexual abuse" in the organization and its failure to adequately warn boys and their parents.
A Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge ordered that files dating from 1991 to the present be turned over to the boy's lawyers but not made public. The Scouts have asked California's 2nd District Court of Appeal to reverse the decision.
Tim Hale, one of the boy's lawyers, said the Oregon decision was not binding on the California appellate judges, but that he hoped they considered it in reaching a decision.
Frank Bartlett, a Connecticut plaintiff's attorney who is seeking access to confidential files for four pending lawsuits, said the decision was "a great precedent" for his cases. In one, the Boy Scouts of America allegedly was aware that a scoutmaster accused of sexually abusing a young Scout had acted inappropriately with Scouts three previous times, according to court records.
"The more information the public has about what has happened in the past and what to look for, the better we can protect our youth," Bartlett said.