When a lawsuit alleged that two young brothers in Michigan had been molested “hundreds of times” by a troop leader, the Boy Scouts denied responsibility and pointed the finger at someone else — the boys’ recently widowed mother.
The Scouts faulted the woman “for her failure to provide adequate parental supervision,” suggesting in court papers that she was responsible for any harm to her sons.
One of the boys’ lawyers called that argument excessive.
“The day their dad died, the perpetrator began to befriend the boys,” Kelly Clark said. “Then the Boy Scouts turn around and file papers saying Mom was the problem?”
The Scouts’ legal tactics in the ongoing lawsuit are part of an aggressive approach that the youth group has long used in defending itself in child sex abuse cases, some victims, their families and lawyers say.
Since 1,247 confidential files were unsealed in October detailing allegations of sexual abuse in its ranks, Scouting has taken a more conciliatory stance.
“We have heard from victims of abuse and are doing our very best to respond to each person with our utmost care and sensitivity,” Scouting spokesman Deron Smith said in October, offering an apology, counseling and other assistance.
But in the years before the files’ release, some who alleged abuse say, their accusations were met with denial, blame and legal hardball.
“The knives are out and you’d better get your knife out because if you don’t, they will tear you to shreds,” said Timothy Hale, who represents a Santa Barbara County teenager who was abused in 2007 at the age of 13 by volunteer Scout leader Al Steven Stein.
Stein had a history of inappropriate behavior with children but a local Scout official tried to keep the boy’s mother from reporting the abuse to police, according to the teenager’s lawsuit. She did anyway, and Stein later pleaded no contest to felony child endangerment.
Some plaintiffs’ lawyers, including Clark, say the Scouts deserve credit for the victims it has helped, even when it had no legal obligation. And the Boy Scouts is entitled to defend itself: It’s not unusual for large organizations to employ aggressive legal strategies, including accusing plaintiffs of causing their own injuries.
Hale and others contend, however, that discouraging victims of sexual abuse from reporting crimes, or blaming them when they do, goes too far.
An Oregon man’s lawsuit alleged that Scouting allowed troop leader Timur Dykes to continue in the group after he admitted molesting 17 boys in the early 1980s.
At the trial in 2010, regional Scouts official Eugene Grant faulted parents for letting their sons go to Dykes’ apartment for merit badge work and sleepovers.
“His parents should have known better,” Grant said of one victim. “I think it’s criminal.”
The jury rejected that assertion, finding the Scouts liable for nearly $20 million in damages.
The Scouts’ files made public in October were submitted as evidence in the Portland, Ore., trial and spanned 1965 to 1985. More recent instances of the Scouts’ tactics are detailed in court records across the country.
In 2002, Jerrold Schwartz, a 42-year-old former scoutmaster in New York, admitted abusing a boy in his troop in the 1990s. After being secretly recorded saying he “did something very, very wrong” and apologizing to the boy, Schwartz pleaded guilty to four counts of sodomy and was sent to prison.
Despite the conviction and the victim’s testimony that Schwartz “raped me and forced me to perform oral sex on him,” the Scouts, in a motion to dismiss a subsequent lawsuit, contended that the sex was consensual, records show.
“To argue that an adult scoutmaster in his 30s can have consensual sex with a 13-year-old in his Scout troop is something dreamt up in pedophile heaven,” attorney Michael Dowd told the New York Law Journal in 2006 after a judge rejected the Scouts’ motion. The lawsuit was later settled; terms were not disclosed.
Boy Scouts officials declined to be interviewed or make their lawyers in sex abuse lawsuits available. In a statement, the group stressed its multifaceted child protection efforts, enhanced in recent years to include criminal background checks for all volunteers and mandatory reporting to police of all suspected abuse.
“We deeply regret that there have been times when Scouts were abused, and for that we are very sorry and extend our deepest sympathies to victims,” it said.
The Michigan lawsuit, which is pending, alleges that Assistant Scoutmaster Roger E. Young, a 25-year volunteer, had raped or otherwise abused both Scouts repeatedly at their home, his house and the church where the troop met.
The abuse occurred in 2006 and 2007, when both boys were younger than 14, according to the lawsuit. It also says that local Scouting officials knew of Young’s inappropriate behavior, including time he spent alone with the boys — in violation of the Scouts’ child-protection policies — but ignored warnings by police and others.
In 2007, a member of the Big Sister organization found the boys not wearing pants while alone with Young at their home and at a motel where the family was staying, according to court papers and a police affidavit. In at least one instance, Young was in his underwear, the records state.
Local Scouts officials took no action, allowing Young to continue with the troop even after police raised red flags about him, the lawsuit states. In October 2009, he was charged with possessing child pornography and criminal sexual conduct involving one of the boys.
He killed himself the next month.
Two years later, in November 2011, the Scouts filed court papers saying the mother had in effect abdicated her role and delegated “parental authority” to Young after her husband died.
“For the Scouts to say this is her fault, when they have said to single mothers all over the country … ‘We know you’ve got it tough: Give us your boys and we’ll help you raise them’ — to me, this is absolutely astonishing,” said Clark, the boys’ lawyer.
In at least one case, local Scout leaders faulted the victim and defended the perpetrator.
“They threw my son under the bus,” said the father of a Florida Scout who was 12 when a 16-year-old Scout lured him into a tent and molested him in March 2007.
The boy was so traumatized that he told no one for months, he and his father said in an interview. When the boy did speak up, local Scout leaders accused him of lying.
“[He] is quick to make up stories,” the troop’s merit badge counselor, Chuck Janson, wrote in a two-page memo supporting the assailant, who later admitted to the sexual assault in a plea deal.
The abuse occurred on a camping trip when the older Scout, Robert “Robbie” Brehm, who as senior patrol leader was the top elected troop member, invited the Sarasota boy into a tent to play cards, court records show. Instead, Brehm pulled a knife from a duffel bag and put it to the boy’s throat.
“I told him I wanted him to perform oral sex on me,” Brehm later said in a lengthy sworn statement. “I told him that he had to or else I was going to hurt him.”
Brehm testified that he also threatened the younger Scout if he told anyone.
“I was just so freaking scared, like, I didn’t know what the hell to do,” the boy, now 18, told The Times. “I just went back into my tent.... I was in shock. I was so violated.”
Six months later, he revealed his secret to his high school counselor, who notified authorities.
Local Scout leaders including Janson, who had clashed with the boy’s father over troop issues, sided with Brehm and said the boy was lying.
He and at least two other adult leaders planned to testify for the accused, according to interviews and Brehm’s sworn statement.
“The worst thing you can do to a child victim is call him a liar,” said Adam Horowitz, the victim’s lawyer in a pending lawsuit. “The reason so many children don’t come forward in the first place is that they fear adults won’t believe them.”
In a recent interview and a follow-up email, Janson defended his actions.
“I came up with an honest interpretation of what I knew,” he said. “Can you fault someone for having an honest opinion?”
The boy said he felt betrayed by Janson and the other leaders.
His father said their support of Brehm made it nearly impossible for his son to get justice.
For more than three years, he said, he pressed prosecutors to file charges. When they did, and confronted Brehm with the prospect of 15 years in prison, he confessed to the sexual assault and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of aggravated battery.
“Looking back, I was a bully,” Brehm said in statement.
The victim’s father calls the five-year ordeal “beyond a nightmare.” His son’s relationships have been affected, his grades have suffered and he’s had flashbacks, the father said.
At times during the first year after the attack, he said, the boy was in twice-weekly therapy, with only part of its cost covered by his health plan.
Had the Boy Scouts stepped up early on, he said, his son’s lawsuit might never have been filed.
“After we got the conviction, one would have thought they’d say, ‘Oh, my God, we were wrong in our assumptions. What can we do to help this child and his family?’” he said. “But it was just more of the same — attack, attack, attack.”