A settlement reached Thursday by the Boy Scouts of America with the family of a Santa Barbara County man molested by a Scout leader in 2007 effectively ends the possibility, for now, that recent files maintained by the organization documenting suspected misconduct will be made public.
The settlement was reached after three days of trial in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, during which the victim, now 20, described the trauma he experienced after his abuse by volunteer Scout leader Al Steven Stein in a Goleta Christmas tree lot.
The victim’s family sued the Scouts, saying that officials were negligent in how they handled the abuse and that they could have done more to protect the 13-year-old.
“We regret there have been times when the BSA’s best efforts to protect children were insufficient, and for that we extend our deepest apologies to victims and their families,” Scout officials said in a statement. Details of the settlement were not disclosed.
The Santa Barbara County case was significant because it sought to unlock files that had never been turned over by the Scouts, including all documents since 2005. It also alleged wrongdoing that took place relatively recently, even as the Scouts stepped up protective efforts.
The settlement effectively means that the organization’s “ineligible volunteer files” — documents that have been maintained since the 1920s and are intended to keep suspected molesters and others accused of misconduct out of Scouting — will remain secret for now.
The youth group has long resisted releasing the files, contending that confidentiality is necessary to protect the privacy of victims, those who report abuse and those wrongly accused.
Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Donna Geck ruled this month that recent “perversion files,” as they are also called, could be used as evidence in trial, opening the door to their release to the public.
Timothy Hale, the attorney for the Santa Barbara County victim, said he was pleased for his client that a settlement was reached but disappointed that the files will remain closed for now.
“I’m thrilled for my client because they put that kid through the wringer for five years, all the way up to the California Supreme Court, to get those files,” Hale said. “Those files need to be made public, but they aren’t going to be made public through this.”
In October 2012, more than 1,200 files from 1965 to 1985 were made public by order of the Oregon Supreme Court after they were admitted as evidence in a lawsuit that resulted in a nearly $20-million jury award to an abused former Scout.
The Times’ analysis of a slightly larger batch of files — about 1,900 covering 1970 to 1991 — revealed that the Scouts often failed to report abuse to authorities and repeatedly covered up allegations to protect the organization’s reputation.
Steve Crew, a plaintiff’s attorney in the Portland, Ore., case, said the Scouts may have settled the Santa Barbara County case because molestation continues to be a serious issue in the organization.
“Those files would show if this is still a problem and if this is still going on,” Crew said. “I suspect it’s still going on because the Boy Scouts still haven’t changed their policies. They don’t want [the files] to ever get out.”
Paul Mones, another plaintiff’s attorney in the Portland case, also sued the Boy Scouts in sex abuse cases in Minnesota and Texas. Both of those lawsuits, which sought to use the files as evidence, settled before trial. Mones cautioned against reading too much into the Scouts’ willingness to settle.
“I don’t think you can say that one party or the other wants to settle,” Mones said. “My experience doing these cases is that when the parties settle, it is clearly in my clients’ interest. And on the other side, whether it is the Boy Scouts or the Church or a school, they always settle because it is in their interest.”
The net effect of the settlements in such cases is that the question of releasing the files was preempted because they were never used as evidence in a trial, Mones said.
“The files are not going to be released,” he said. “They won’t be made public because they were not used [in a public trial]. Other than that, they are the property of the Boy Scouts of America.”
It is unclear if one side or the other initiated negotiations that led to Thursday’s settlement. But Jody Armour, a law professor at USC, said the Boy Scouts probably weighed the potential damage to its image and its coffers — from a big jury award or the public release of additional files, or both — against the cost of the settlement.
“I think they did a cost-benefit calculation, and said, ‘How much will this hurt our brand and tarnish our image?’” he said. “And they may have decided it would cost a lot less to settle it than to have a lot more of this stuff come out.”
In the Santa Barbara County case, Stein, who was 29 at the time, also was charged with abusing two other boys. He pleaded no contest to a felony child endangerment charge and was placed on five years’ probation, which he violated when nude photos of children were found on his cellphone. He was sentenced to two years in prison but was paroled early and is now a registered sex offender in Salinas.