The recent revelation that more than 95,000 claims of sexual abuse have been filed against the Boy Scouts of America has been all but lost in the news cycle dominated by President Trump’s refusal to concede his election defeat and the latest deadly surge of COVID-19 infections. But it should be a shock to the system of every American, given the staggering breadth of alleged abuse of children by those who took an oath to God and country to obey the law, help others, and live honest and moral lives.
As the organization seeks to restructure, settle those claims, and reemerge from this crisis to reclaim its place as a treasured American institution, it is also incumbent on members of Congress — and the Americans they represent — to ask: How did this happen, and should an organization that fostered such widespread abuse be allowed to survive at all?
In February, the Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy in light of hundreds of lawsuits filed against it by people who allege sexual abuse over the course of decades. That triggered a reorganization in bankruptcy court to create a compensation fund to pay out settlements to abuse survivors who assert credible claims. Survivors were given a deadline of Nov. 16 to file claims, which brought tens of thousands more people forward. In a statement, the organization has said it is “devastated by the number of lives impacted by past abuse in Scouting and moved by the bravery of those who have come forward.”
Attorneys representing those alleging that they were sexually abused by members of the organization say they believe the total number of sex abuse victims is far greater than 95,000.
According to the organization, there are more than 2 million current scouts and more than 130 million alumni of the organization.
It’s now urgent that the Boy Scouts give a total and transparent accounting of just how such abuses were allowed to take place for so long, that former scouts who suffered abuse are given ample time come forward, and that justice is done in the civil courts to compensate victims as well as in the criminal system to hold abusers fully responsible. And unless the organization can prove it has reformed its culture and the systems that led to such rampant abuse, there should be no place for the BSA in American society. No amount of good the organization does can possibly outweigh the lasting damage that sexual abuse does to families and the lives of survivors.
For months the BSA and attorneys representing survivors encouraged those who suffered abuse within the organization to file claims in the bankruptcy action before the Nov. 16 deadline. The organization said in a statement that it “worked with experts to create and implement a multimedia noticing campaign to ensure that victims of past abuse in Scouting could come forward.” That campaign included print, television, and social media advertising as well as e-mails to more than 9.7 million people within the Boy Scouts community.
Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer known for representing survivors of the Catholic Church sexual abuse crisis who is representing about 100 Boston-area former Boy Scouts in the bankruptcy proceeding, said he believed that with more publicity there would have been far more claimants.
The organization says most of the cases of alleged abuse are from decades ago, and that it has instituted background checks and abuse prevention training since the 1980s. But cases from the recent past are also emerging, and more could be forthcoming.“Victims need time. They can only come forward when they’re ready to, deadline or no deadline,” said Garabedian.
While the bankruptcy court could — and should — extend the deadline to give claimants more time to join the action and to publicize it when not in the midst of a presidential election cycle, members of Congress can also take action, since the nonprofit holds a congressional charter.
The charter serves mostly as a status symbol and does not provide lawmakers any enhanced congressional oversight authority, according to a report by the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service.
However, the charter does give lawmakers the ability to hold congressional hearings to consider whether that charter should be revoked — and in the process, call witnesses to testify and provide documents to give Americans answers outside of the largely closed bankruptcy court proceedings.
A congressional investigation could also examine the extent to which local Boy Scouts chapters, which are not a part of the bankruptcy action, were responsible for allowing such abuse to take place, and what civil and criminal responsibility they should bear.
In the end, it may be the sheer volume of abuse claims — and the potential inability of the organization to pay them all before running out of money — that may bring about the end of the Boy Scouts of America. The pandemic, which immediately followed the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing and drastically affected the ogranization’s revenue streams, dealt an additional massive financial blow to the group, which has seen declining membership for years.
That’s all the more reason for Congress to act quickly to investigate and bring greater transparency to this crisis and ensure the abuses never happen again.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.