Boy Scouts’ bankruptcy creates rift with religious partners

A close-up of a Boy Scout uniform.
A Boy Scout uniform.
(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

Amid the Boy Scouts of America’s complex bankruptcy case, there is worsening friction between the organization and the major religious groups that help it run thousands of Scout units. At issue: the churches’ fears that an eventual settlement — while protecting the Boy Scouts of America from future sex-abuse lawsuits — could leave many churches unprotected.

The Boy Scouts sought bankruptcy protection in February 2020 in an effort to halt individual lawsuits and create a huge compensation fund for thousands of men who say they were molested as youngsters by scoutmasters or other leaders. At the time, the national organization estimated it might face 5,000 cases; it now faces 82,500.

In July, the Boy Scouts of America proposed an $850-million deal that would bar further lawsuits against it and its local councils. The deal did not cover the more than 40,000 organizations that have charters with the organization to sponsor Scout units, including many churches from major religious denominations that are now questioning their future involvement in Scouting.


The United Methodist Church — which says up to 5,000 of its U.S. congregations could be affected by future lawsuits — recently advised those churches not to extend their charters with the Boy Scouts of America beyond the end of this year. The United Methodist Church said these congregations were “disappointed and very concerned” that they weren’t included in the July deal.

Everett Cygal, a lawyer for Catholic churches monitoring the case, said it is unfair that parishes now face liability “solely as a result of misconduct by Boy Scout troop leaders who frequently had no connection to the parish.”

“Scouting can only be delivered with help of their chartered organizations,” Cygal told the Associated Press. “It’s shortsighted not to be protecting the people they absolutely need to ensure that Scouting is viable in the future.”

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Sept. 25, 2021

Officials of several other denominations — including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — have advised their churches to hire their own legal counsel if they fear possible sex-abuse litigation.

The Presbyterian Church said its national leadership can’t act on behalf of member churches because they are separate corporations. The leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church also said its congregations were on their own, legally speaking, and must decide for themselves whether to continue any relationship with the Boy Scouts of America.

“As a result of the bankruptcy, the congregation cannot confidently rely on the BSA, the local council, or their insurers to defend it,” the Lutheran church warned. “The congregation needs to make sure that it has sufficient insurance and that its own insurance will cover them.”


The Boy Scouts, in a statement provided to AP, said its partnership with chartered organizations, including churches, “has been critical to delivering the Scouting program to millions of youth in our country for generations.” It said negotiations with those organizations are continuing, and it hopes to conclude the bankruptcy proceedings around the end of this year.

Negotiators face a challenging situation.

According to lawyers representing different parties in the bankruptcy case, the Boy Scouts have suggested chartered organizations have some protection from liability for abuse cases that occurred after 1975, because of an insurance arrangement that took effect in 1976. The Boy Scouts of America has said there’s little or no protection, however, for the many pre-1976 cases, and the best way for organizations to gain protection for that era would be to make a substantial financial contribution to a settlement fund.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took such a step last week, agreeing to contribute $250 million to a compensation fund in exchange for a release from further liability. The denomination, widely known as the Mormon Church, pulled its units out of the Boy Scouts of America on Jan. 1, 2020, after decades as the biggest sponsor.

One key distinction: The Latter-day Saints has a centralized governing structure, making possible a contribution covering its vast former network of Scout units. The remaining faith-based charter organizations are more decentralized, complicating the question of how contributions to the compensation fund would be mandated and organized.

Jeremy Ryan, a lawyer representing United Methodist churches, said his clients believe there is some pre-1976 insurance available to them under policies the Boy Scouts of America and its local councils held at the time.

Cygal, the lawyer representing Catholic churches, made a similar argument but said some chartered organizations eventually may have to make an appropriate financial contribution “to put an end to this dispute once and for all.”


Another complication in the negotiations: differing views on how much blame lies with the churches.

Some of the churches argue that they merely provided a venue for a local Scout unit to meet, while Scout leaders were responsible for hiring decisions that might have led to sexual abuse. Some lawyers for the plaintiffs disagree, saying church leaders were often actively involved in those decisions.

“The Scouts had plenty of fault due to their negligence, but the local institutions had plenty of fault also,” said Christopher Hurley, whose Chicago law firm says it represents about 4,000 men who filed claims in the bankruptcy.

“It’s just not OK to pass the buck on this,” Hurley said. “Everybody’s got to suck it up and make a fair contribution to get justice for these guys.”

Stephen Crew, whose Oregon-based law firm represents about 400 plaintiffs, said he sympathizes with faith-based chartered organizations who “worry about being hung out to dry.”

“But survivors also have a lot of anxiety,” Crew said. “And the problem now is that the insurance companies are balking at everybody.”


A third lawyer for plaintiffs, California-based Paul Mones, blamed the churches’ predicament on the Boy Scouts of America, saying its initial bankruptcy strategy failed to properly anticipate the effect on chartered organizations.

“For decades, the religious organizations have been the backbone of the BSA,” Mones said. “They did not sign up thinking they’d have any kind of liability ... and all of a sudden they’re being told, ‘You’re going to get sued.’ It’s a hot mess.”

Some church leaders, such as United Methodist Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr., have been blunt in their dismay over the bankruptcy fallout.

“This is a very sad and tragic matter that has occurred within our nation and the Church,” Saenz said in a recent letter to the clergy he oversees in Kansas and Nebraska. He said there might be 110 abuse claims in the bankruptcy case potentially connected to United Methodist churches in his region.

Saenz said the Boy Scouts of America might struggle to move forward post-bankruptcy without participation of the United Methodist Church, the biggest active sponsor of Scout units.

But because of Boy Scouts of America positions in the case that are detrimental to the United Methodist Church, Saenz wrote, “we simply cannot currently commit to the relationship with the BSA as we have in the past.”