In a move as sudden as it was surprising, the Boy Scouts of America announced Thursday it has settled a lawsuit brought by the family of a former Santa Barbara scout who was molested by a troop volunteer in 2007. The decision came just three days into a trial that was expected to last two weeks and shortly before stacks of BSA “perversion files” — which detail decades of abuse and cover-up — were publicly aired.
“We regret there have been times when the BSA’s best efforts to protect children were insufficient, and for that we extend our deepest apologies to victims and their families,” said Deron Smith, director of communications for Boy Scouts of America, in a prepared statement. The monetary details of the settlement were not disclosed. An East Coast jury recently found the BSA liable for $7 million; in 2010, an Oregon jury assessed BSA $18.5 million in an abuse case, but the Boy Scouts negotiated a settlement for an undisclosed amount by saying BSA would not appeal.
The victim’s parents were seeking actual and punitive damages against the national organization and its Los Padres Council. Their attorney, Tim Hale, argued that because of the Scouts’ long history of burying abuse cases in its so-called “perversion files” to protect its reputation, parents were unaware of the risks their children faced from potentially dangerous troop leaders. The practice was negligent and criminally irresponsible, he said. The Boy Scouts fought for years to keep the files private, but Judge Donna Geck had recently ordered them opened in the Santa Barbara case.
During trial this week, the jury heard how 400-pound, 29-year-old volunteer Al Stein pulled down the victim’s pants and fondled his genitals at a Christmas tree sale. The episode left the scout, 13 years old at the time, traumatized and fearful, which he detailed during emotional testimony. He was also teased and shunned by fellow troop members and their parents who refused to believe his account, even after Stein pleaded no contest to felony child endangerment and was eventually sentenced to two years in prison after authorities found child porn on his cell phone while he was on probation.
“I was afraid that he was going to do it again,” the victim testified. “It made it hard for me to trust people. I felt that anybody could do that.” The victim also described how he became reclusive and underwent therapy just so he could go from his house to his mailbox. Now 20 years old, he takes Santa Barbara City College courses online at home because it’s hard for him to feel safe on campus.
Hale said in an interview Thursday that the Boy Scouts were skeptical that the victim would come across as credible and sympathetic. But after his testimony, it became clear to everyone in the courtroom that the former scout had experienced real and terrible trauma. Before the settlement, Hale said, BSA attorneys had “dug in their heels,” essentially “flipped us the bird,” and made it clear they wanted to take the case “all the way.” Hale also noted that two BSA corporate executives were scheduled to travel from Irvine next week to testify and be cross-examined.
The only Scout representative to take the stand during the trial was executive David Tate, who was accused of trying to talk the victim’s mother out of contacting the authorities after the 2007 incident. Tate then filed a complaint with Child Protective Services as retaliation when the mother contacted detectives, and he warned Stein of the impending investigation, Hale claimed.
Of the decision to settle, Hale said his client is “feeling great.” He said the result was “very validating” considering the pointed skepticism the boy received after he reported the abuse. Hale described a “huge smile” on the victim’s face upon hearing the news, but he explained it was not related to the dollar amount. “People may finally believe this happened,” Hale described the victim saying, and he’s been reassured he did the right thing by speaking out.
On Monday, a hearing is scheduled to determine possible monetary damages against Stein himself, who is living in Salinas as a registered sex offender. The ruling will be largely symbolic because Stein is unable to pay any debts, Hale said, but it would represent another example of justice being served in the case.
Scout spokesperson Deron Smith said Thursday morning, “The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is pleased that this matter has been resolved and that we reached a settlement. The behavior included in these reports runs counter to everything for which the BSA stands. While we can’t comment on the specifics related to this matter, even a single instance of child victimization or abuse is intolerable and unacceptable.”
Nothing is more important than the safety of BSA members, Smith went on, and its “Ineligible Volunteer [IV] Files” are only compiled to “keep out individuals whose actions are inconsistent with the standards of Scouting.” Scouts are safer because the files exist, he said.
“The BSA has always cooperated fully with any request from law enforcement,” Smith concluded. “While a majority of files indicate the involvement of law enforcement, in 2012 the BSA National Council reviewed all IV Files from 1965 to the present and reported to authorities any files that did not clearly indicate a prior report.”
Hale, who has been involved in multiple sex abuse cases against Franciscan friars since 1998, said it’s only a matter of time before the “perversion files” are permanently released from their shroud of secrecy. In just five years, he noted, he’s gotten further along in their public disclosure than he did working for 13 years on previously protected Franciscan documents. “We’ll keep fighting on,” he said.