NEW YORK — Hoping to contain a growing deluge of sexual-abuse lawsuits, the Boy Scouts of America took shelter in bankruptcy court Tuesday, filing for Chapter 11 protection that will let it keep operating while it grapples with serious questions about whether the century-old Scouting movement has a viable future.
The bankruptcy filing affects only the national organization, not the state and local councils that run Scouting programs day to day. Even so, the case sets up one of the most complex and uncertain financial restructurings in American history.
The Boy Scouts, whose mission to promote patriotism, courage, self-reliance, and kindred virtues was enshrined in a rare congressional charter in 1916, said it plans to continue its work “for many years to come.”
The bankruptcy court in Delaware that is handling the case is likely to freeze the lawsuits against the group and set a deadline for filing any more claims. But Jim Turley, the group’s national chairman, said in an open letter to victims of sexual abuse that the Boy Scouts were not trying to dodge responsibility for compensating them. Instead, he said, the organization wanted to do so as equitably as possible through a victim’s compensation trust, rather than piecemeal in lawsuit after lawsuit.
“I want you to know that we believe you, we believe in compensating you, and we have programs in place to pay for counseling for you and your family by a provider of your choice,” Turley said.
Over the span of a century, more than 130 million Americans have participated in the Boy Scouts. But membership has been dwindling in recent decades, as shifting attitudes pulled many families away from the God-and-country oaths and outdoorsy survival skills that Scouting offered. Then, in more recent years, lawsuits brought to light a long history of sexual abuse problems that the organization strove to keep secret.
The Boy Scouts have maintained internal files about abuse cases at their headquarters almost since the group was founded in 1910s. In a 1935 article in The New York Times, the organization described having files on hundreds of people who had been leaders in the Scouts but had been labeled “degenerates.” In recent years, an expert hired by the organization reported that there were nearly 8,000 “perpetrators.”
The Boy Scouts fought the release of some of the files in an Oregon case in the early 2000s — a case that led a jury to hold the Scouts liable for $18.5 million in punitive damages in 2010.
Paul Mones, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in that case, said he recalled musing with a colleague that those files might be the tip of an iceberg that could ultimately drive the Boy Scouts toward bankruptcy. But instead of trying to establish a compensation fund for victims over the years, he said, the organization continued trying to protect its reputation.
Mones expressed concern that the bankruptcy filing Tuesday would rob other victims of the opportunity to hold the Scouts accountable in court. “The justice that they so well deserved will unfortunately escape them in the end, and that is a true tragedy,” he said.
With the group now seeking bankruptcy protection, he said, “If you’ve ever considered coming forward, now is the time.”
In response to dwindling numbers, the Boy Scouts have tried to shift closer to evolving societal norms. Membership requirements were changed to allow openly gay Scouts in 2013 and then openly gay leaders in 2015. The Boy Scouts expanded to allow girls to participate starting in 2017.
Former Scouts include Presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, astronaut Neil Armstrong, civil rights icon Ernest Green, and film director Steven Spielberg.