In a Boy Scout abuse trial with national implications, a former Scout testified in Santa Barbara Superior Court on Monday that he was traumatized and fearful to leave the house after a 400-pound, 29-year-old volunteer molested him.
The case is being watched closely in national legal circles to see if the jury awards actual and punitive damages and, if so, how much. They could run into the millions.
Since the former volunteer has pleaded no contest to charges of pulling down the then-13-year-old Goleta boy’s pants in 2007 and fondling his genitals at a Scout Christmas tree lot, the question before Judge Donna Geck and the jury is whether Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and the local Los Padres Council of Scouts were negligent by not warning the general public and parents of the dangers of abuse in scouting.
An East Coast jury recently found BSA liable for $7 million in actual damages, with punitive damages still to be determined. In 2010, an Oregon jury assessed BSA $18.5 million in an abuse case, but BSA settled the case for an undisclosed amount by agreeing not to appeal.
The boy’s parents seek not only actual damages but punitive damages on grounds that because of BSA’s long history of hiding thousands of so-called “perversion files” involving abuse cases from the public, parents were kept in the dark about the risks their scouts faced.
Although BSA has fought to keep the files private, courts have in recent years been ordering them opened, available to attorneys seeking to show that they prove the BSA negligent.
The Los Angeles Times analyzed about 1,900 files from 1970-1991 and found that the Scouts often failed to report abuse cases to authorities and repeatedly covered up allegations to protect BSA’s reputation.
In the Santa Barbara case, the lawsuit filed by attorney Tim Hale contends that a local Scout executive tried to persuade the boy’s mother not to report the molestation to authorities and to allow BSA to handle it internally. She insisted on doing so, however.
The boy said Al Steven Stein, a frequent volunteer, molested him at a 2007 Scout Christmas tree sale. The former Scout, now 20, testified that while he was there with his mother, Stein backed him against a tree and molested him after asking the mother to perform a task elsewhere on the lot.
After that, the young man said he lived in constant fear. “I was afraid that he was going to do it again,” he testified under questioning by his Santa Barbara attorney Tim Hale. “It made it hard for me to trust people. I felt that anybody could do that.”
He said he dropped out of school, no longer belonged to the Scouts, and gave up a cherished dream of playing high school baseball. He said that until then, he enjoyed being a Scout. A photo shown in court showed the boy standing proudly in uniform. After the molestation, “I didn’t want to be in Scouting anymore.”
Stein pleaded no contest and served time in prison after he violated probation. At last report, he was a registered sex offender living in the Salinas area. He did not attend the trial Monday.
Although BSA attorney Nicholas Heldt painstakingly explained to the jury BSA’s intensive child-protection safeguards, Hale charged that BSA “failed miserably” in its duty to the public and Scouts. But Heldt said that the files worked “pretty well” to keep the wrong kind of people from becoming Scout leaders.
Due later in the trial are the thousands of so-called files detailing Scout abuse since the 1920s, “a long and sordid history,” Hale told the jury.
The trial is expected to take about two weeks.
In a related development, the California Supreme Court last week prohibited state judges from belonging to nonprofit groups that practice discrimination, such as the Boy Scouts. The BSA has lifted its ban on gay scouts but still bans gay or lesbian adults as staff or volunteers, meaning that an undetermined number of judges will have to resign from Scouting.