OP-ED: The Boy Scouts of America, decades of sexual abuse and an inevitable bankruptcy
Thousands of former Boy Scouts and their parents are now wondering how an organization with nearly $1 billion in net assets and over $200 million in annual revenues can go bankrupt. Was it financial mismanagement that led to this bankruptcy filing? No, the Boy Scouts of America has done a very good job of managing its assets. Another kind of malfeasance led us to this place.
Since its founding in 1910, the Boy Scouts of America has been targeted by criminal pedophiles seeking access to boys. For the same reason that Scouting is popular with boys, it is popular with criminals that want to prey on boys.
The Boy Scout Handbook puts the Scoutmaster at the top of each Boy Scout troop’s “chain of command.” Scouts are taught to honor and obey their Scoutmaster. The Scoutmaster’s Handbook trains a Scoutmaster to personally counsel his Scouts.
For decades, Boy Scouts of America taught Scoutmasters to do this in private sessions. Parents never questioned their child spending time alone with a Scoutmaster — it was part of the program. Combine that with campouts, in tents far away from mom or dad, and what could go wrong? A lot could — and did — go wrong.
At its peak, the Boy Scouts of America had more than 4 million active boys as members and 1 million adult volunteers. Each Scout and each volunteer paid the national organization an annual fee to join a troop. The Boy Scouts of America collected money for every single uniform sold, every badge awarded and every product licensed with a Boy Scout logo.
For decades, these dependable revenue streams, combined with the large number of participants, guaranteed a strong balance sheet. Boy Scouts of America executives have been well-compensated with excellent salaries, as well as generous pension and benefit packages.
Despite the Boy Scouts of America’s fiscal health, the once-esteemed national organization was decaying under the surface. The culture that made sexual abuse of minors possible was flourishing under leadership that turned a blind eye to repeated instances of Scout leaders molesting children and resurfacing elsewhere to do it again.
I represented 18 men who contend they were repeatedly molested by their Scoutmaster in the 1980s. That Scoutmaster, Thomas Hacker, had a master’s degree in educational psychology with a special interest in early adolescent boys. He served as a leader at his Catholic church and as director of the local park district. Hacker died in prison last year, but not before he confessed to molesting hundreds of 10- to 14-year-old Boy Scouts — many of them repeatedly.
Hacker was a master con man. He conned the boys whom Scouting gave him access to, and he conned their parents. There was no need to con the Boy Scouts of America, he simply walked in and volunteered. A two-time convicted child molester implicated in the abuse of more than 50 Scouts in Indiana; Hacker crossed the border into Illinois.
The Boy Scouts of America knew about Hacker and his pedophilia. They documented his crimes from the 1970s in their secret files that listed “ineligible volunteers.” Thousands of documented incidents of Boy Scout-related child abuse by hundreds of perpetrators over multiple decades are recorded in those files.
The Boy Scouts of America kept those files secret and suppressed negative publicity. They practiced a policy of doing nothing to warn the community. Organizations sponsoring Boy Scout Troops, volunteers, parents and Scouts were kept in the dark. Criminal incidents often remained unreported to police.
Several years before Hacker’s death, I deposed him in prison. After his prior arrests, I wondered: “Did you know it would be easy to get back into the Boy Scouts?” He answered, “Well, I knew it would be. I was positive. I never even gave it a second thought.”
Easy it was. From 1980 to 1988, this two-time convicted child molester abused another 36 boys from Troop 1600 in the Chicago suburbs. When Hacker was finally arrested in 1988, the Scouting organization’s leadership claimed ignorance. Downplaying and suppressing stories about child abuse in the Boy Scouts had been the policy from the group’s inception. They understood that bad publicity is bad business and made the tragic decision to suppress the truth rather than to deal with it.
Now, after thousands of lives have been devastated, the truth has come to light.
The Boy Scouts of America started down the road to bankruptcy many years ago. It is the result of decades of denial and cover-ups by the leaders of an institution that chose to protect itself at the expense of the children it was entrusted to serve.
The Boys Scouts of America may have filed for bankruptcy in February 2020, but the downfall of the organization began the first time it enabled a pedophile to ruin a child’s life.
— Christopher Hurley, partner at Hurley McKenna and Mertz, is a past president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association and a practicing trial lawyer concentrating in the representation of victims of sexual abuse and medical malpractice. His firm has been involved in over 300 Scouting abuse cases.