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Boy Scouts lobby in states to stem the flow of child abuse lawsuits

A Boy Scout works on a canoe at camp Maple Dell in 2005 outside Payson, Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images)

The Boy Scouts of America, which acknowledged last year that it has taken a financial hit from settlements in child abuse cases, has lobbied against proposals in multiple states that would expose the organization to more lawsuits, according to victim advocates and proponents of the legislation.

The group retained lobbyists in Georgia and New York, where lawmakers say such action helped stall proposals that included “lookback” windows allowing adults to take legal action over decades-old claims. It has hired lobbyists in Michigan, where similar proposals are being debated. The bills would give adults who were abused as children a second chance to file suit if they missed their first opportunity under state law.

The Boy Scouts’ lobbying push comes as the 108-year-old group, an institution long associated with leadership training and outdoorsmanship for American boys, sees pressure on multiple fronts. In addition to declining membership, the group has faced financial uncertainty and public relations problems related to accusations of child sex abuse against former adult volunteers.

Those accusations have led to dozens of lawsuits against the Boy Scouts in recent years, some of which have resulted in expensive settlements. The group’s exposure to lawsuits over sex abuse has drawn comparisons with the Catholic Church.

Opponents of the state proposals, including the Boy Scouts and Catholic archdioceses, argue that open-ended “lookback” periods violate due process and would put groups in the tough position of defending themselves in cases from the distant past.

“It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to defend cases decades old in which evidence has been lost, or witnesses are unavailable,” Effie Delimarkos, director of national communications for the Boy Scouts, wrote in an email.

Proponents called the bills crucial for holding groups such as the Boy Scouts accountable for past abuse.

“It’s reprehensible that the Boy Scouts of America has hired lobbyists to kill legislation that would help the adult survivors of child sexual abuse,” New York bill sponsor Brad Hoylman, a Democratic state senator, said in an interview.

The Boy Scouts, like the Catholic church, has faced a steady stream of lawsuits alleging it knew about child abuse perpetrated by its adult leaders. With 2.3 million youth members and more than 900,000 adult volunteers, the organization has been a defendant in at least 200 federal lawsuits since 2008, many alleging abuse of young members. Some suits are still playing out in court.

Some experts said the number of lawsuits rose after 2010, when an Oregon jury ordered the Boy Scouts to pay $18.5 million in damages to a former scout who claimed he was abused during the 1980s. Two years later, the Oregon Supreme Court approved the release of more than 14,500 pages of Boy Scouts records that exposed alleged abuse dating back to 1965.

The Boy Scouts’ lobbying efforts in the states have taken place against the backdrop of the group’s simmering financial woes.

The Boy Scouts hiked annual membership fees from $24 to $33 late last year in what some regional councils said was an effort to bolster the insurance fund used to pay victim settlements. In his financial report for 2016, Boy Scouts Treasurer and Vice President for Finance Joseph P. Landy stated that the group’s financial condition in the coming years will depend “in large part” on the outcome of victims’ legal claims.

Declining membership has also been a problem for the group.

On Tuesday, the Mormon Church said it was ending its century-old affiliation with the Boy Scouts, a move that could deprive the group of up to 20 percent of its youth members. The BSA is admitting girls for the first time in a move to bolster its numbers, and announced last week that it will drop “Boy” from its title and go by the name Scouts BSA starting in 2019.

Mormon Church breaks all ties with Boy Scouts, ending 100-year relationship

Delimarkos stressed that the group has taken critical steps to protect children, including screening adult leaders, requiring them to undergo training and mandating that they report signs or suspicions of abuse. Additionally, she said, the group provides counseling and other resources to former scouts who say they were molested.

“If someone was abused and we had prior knowledge of the perpetrator we try to find a way to help the victim heal by whatever means is appropriate,” Delimarkos wrote in an email.

The Boy Scouts has kept its lobbying efforts low-profile. The group has strong political ties nationwide through former Scouts who have been elected to public office. More than a quarter of members of Congress have a connection to the group, a blog sponsored by the Boy Scouts reported last year.

“They typically don’t operate out front because they don’t really want the headline,” said Marci Hamilton, a law professor and president of the advocacy group CHILD USA who has been critical of the Scouts. “They tend to be in the background, targeting members of the state legislatures who might have some relationships to [the] Boy Scouts.”

The Boy Scouts declined to answer specific questions about lobbying tactics, including which legislatures it is working to influence and its total advocacy budget for 2017. But Delimarkos said the group opposes some bills proposing “lookback” periods and has engaged lobbyists to “help educate policy makers.”

“Our priority is protecting kids and continuing to offer [the] nation’s foremost youth program of character development and values-based leadership training,” she wrote in an email.

Public records shed some light on the group’s efforts in Georgia, New York and Michigan.

In Georgia, the group has retained lobbyists from Dentons, a major firm, since last year. Its four current representatives include two former state lawmakers, one of whom is ex-House majority whip Edward Lindsey. The total spent is not detailed in lobbying reports.

In New York, the BSA spent $137,500 last year on two Dentons lobbyists, including a former state senator. In March, the group hired a prominent Michigan lobbying firm, Public Affairs Associates, for an unknown sum.

Delimarkos declined to make the group’s lobbyists available for interviews. Those contacted by The Post referred inquiries to the group’s leaders or did not respond.

The Boy Scouts appears to have approached each legislative debate slightly differently.

In Georgia, state Rep. Jason Spencer (R) said BSA lobbyists created a legislative “trap” this spring to block his bill creating a one-year “lookback” window.

Even after his measure unanimously passed the House of Representatives and the state Senate approved a weaker version supported by the BSA, Spencer said there was not enough time to reconcile the two proposals before the end of Georgia’s legislative session in March.

“By the end of the session, we were in the red zone,” he said in a phone interview. “The bill got tangled up in the back and forth.”

Spencer said he confronted Lindsey in a meeting about delaying the process. Lindsey did not respond to an interview request.

“They want to protect the quote-unquote honor of the institution,” Spencer said of the Boy Scouts. “That’s what they’re concerned about.”

In New York, a one-year “lookback” measure known as the Child Victims Act has been debated for years without reaching a vote in the state Senate, advocates said.

This year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) tried proposing the measure as part of his fiscal 2019 budget, but it was excluded from the final bill.

The lower chamber of the state legislature overwhelmingly approved the measure in a separate vote last week, but Senate leaders gave no indication that they planned to bring the bill to the floor.

The office of Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R) did not respond to an inquiry about the likelihood of a vote.

Hoylman and other proponents of the Child Victims Act said the Boy Scouts worked hard to keep its influence in the background, though people linked to the Scouts were spotted at events and meetings related to the bill.

In Michigan, Delimarkos wrote, the Boy Scouts has supported legislative efforts to narrowly tailor “lookback” periods so they do not have “such an open-ended approach.” Delimarkos said the group supports eliminating criminal statutes of limitation for child abuse and extending time limits for civil lawsuits “on a prospective basis.”

The state legislature is considering multiple bills related to child sex abuse after Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for molesting young gymnasts under the guise of medical treatment.

Victim advocates said open-ended “lookback” provisions are necessary because many people who were abused as children do not come forward until their 30s, which in some states comes after their opportunity to sue has expired.

Additionally, lawsuits alert today’s parents about alleged abusers and the institutions that shelter them, advocates say.

“The lookback windows protect children now,” said Barbara Dorris, the former executive director of SNAP, an advocacy group for people abused by Catholic priests, who has followed the legislative fights. “Let’s name the predators and let the parents be warned.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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