Brian Toale shows a photo of himself at 16. Toale, 66, is one of the leaders in the fight to pass New York’s Child Victims Act. He says he was molested by an employee at a Catholic high school he attended on Long Island. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)
Columnist

The year must have been 1972. The scene was our family room. Our friend Bud was paying a visit, and somehow the question arose whether I would continue with scouting past the Webelos program and become a bona fide Boy Scout.

In his typically salty way, Bud announced that under no circumstances would he allow any boy he knew to join the Scouts, which he considered to be a nest of child molesters. My father agreed with that assessment, and that was the end of my Scouting career. Over the years since, I’ve known any number of boys who thrived as Scouts — and yet Bud’s concern was no figment of imagination. Today, the Boy Scouts of America is weighing bankruptcy as a way of managing an onslaught of lawsuits over past sexual abuses.

This story sprang to mind on Aug. 14, when the Child Victims Act took effect in New York. This law opens a year-long window in the statute of limitations, allowing alleged victims of abuse to seek damages for crimes committed long ago. By noon on the first day, more than 350 suits had been filed, and the number is expected to rise into the thousands. In New York City alone, a dozen judges have been assigned to handle exclusively these cases for as long as it takes to clear the backlog.

It’s good that these men and women are finally having their days in court, but it’s exasperating that so many of the offenders — the victimizers and their enablers not just in scouting, but in churches, schools and hospitals, too — are no longer around to face the music. They escaped justice not because their crimes were secret, but because society didn’t care enough to intervene.

The abuse of Boy Scouts was common knowledge. Bud knew it, my dad knew it — and the people who ran the Scouts knew it, too. Forty years after that evening in the family room, the Oregon Supreme Court forced the release of BSA files documenting thousands of cases. They knew, but pretended not to know.

Same with altar boys: The problem of child-molesting priests was well-known. My Roman Catholic friends were warned by parents or older brothers to watch out for certain danger signs in the sacristy. That, too, was covered up by conspiracies of silence, the unmasking of which is shaking the worldwide church to its core. Nor was the problem exclusive to the Catholics. In a powerful series of stories earlier this year, two Texas newspapers documented decades of evasion by America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists.

Schools, too: My sisters knew to evade overly attentive teachers or coaches — though I guess I was more naive. When, several years after the family-room scene, a counselor new to our school invited me to go off-roading with him in his Jeep, I thought it sounded fun. I told mom; she mentioned it to the principal; he canceled the trip and advised me to steer clear of the counseling office. Only later did I hear through hallway gossip that the man had been reassigned to our school after a hushed-up scandal at a school across town.

Somehow, all this common knowledge rarely ended up where it belonged: the courthouse. So when people wonder why old cases are only now coming to light, or when experts talk about children feeling too ashamed to report abuse, the explanation is inseparable from this context of widespread avoidance. If everyone knew, everyone whispered, everyone warned their kids — yet nothing changed — why would children think there was any value in reporting?

Yet many brave children revealed their truths anyway, only to be ignored. Among the lawsuit targets in New York is the prestigious medical research facility Rockefeller University Hospital. For decades, the university employed an alleged child molester who reportedly fondled boys and photographed them naked in the course of physical exams. Years of complaints were buried in files while the handsy doctor continued to practice.

I find it baffling that leaders of these institutions could ever have believed they were protecting the reputations of their churches, their schools, the Scouts and so on. In truth, they were only building reputations for hypocrisy. We knew, or suspected, that the world was not ordered with our best interests at heart, and I think we would have felt better — not worse — about any institutions that stood tall on behalf of victimized kids, even if that meant putting pastors and scoutmasters in jail.

Instead, there’s the colder comfort of seeing the hypocrisy confirmed and punished at long last. I hope every state will adopt some version of the Child Victims Act, even though valuable institutions will be damaged, some perhaps irreparably. It’s not the victims who are doing the damage by suing, nor the government by allowing them to sue. The injury was self-inflicted.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.