Lawsuit alleges conspiracy of silence in Boy Scouts sex abuse cases

The Boy Scouts of America have engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to shield volunteers they knew to be child predators, according to an amended complaint to a lawsuit filed late Monday on behalf of four Gainesville Scouts who allege they were sexually assaulted by a longtime scoutmaster.

Esther Panitch, co-counsel for the four ex-Scouts, said the conspiracy extends from the national leadership down to the local level — challenging the Boy Scouts of America’s claim that they were unaware former Scoutmaster Fleming Weaver, named in the lawsuit, had admitted to molesting boys under his care until after the alleged abuse occurred.

“We have discovered there is a history where the national leadership would actively promise silence on behalf of predators as long as they left the troops where the abuse occurred,” Panitch said. “But they didn’t stop them from coming back to the Scouts where they would continue to prey on unsuspecting victims.”

Asked to comment on the new complaints, brought under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the Boy Scouts responded with a statement nearly identical to previous ones released to the media regarding allegations of sexual abuse.

“This individual’s behavior is abhorrent and runs counter to everything for which the Boy Scouts of America stands. We are outraged there have been times when Scouts were abused and we sincerely apologize to victims and their families. Nothing is more important than the safety of our youth members.”

Weaver's case remained under wraps until a 2016 investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Until then, he had been a respected member in the Gainesville community, lauded for his volunteer efforts that mostly centered around the Boy Scouts. Few were aware that, in 1981, Weaver admitted to Steve Brown, then-pastor of First Baptist Church, which sponsored Weaver's troop, that he had molested two Scouts under his supervision.

First Baptist and Brown are also named in the lawsuit along with the Scouts’ Northeast Georgia Council and one of its former executives, Gene Bobo, who was informed of Weaver’s confession by Brown. Weaver was told to leave Troop 26, but neither Brown nor Bobo reported Weaver’s crimes to law enforcement. And Weaver remained a deacon at First Baptist until the AJC story’s publication.

Despite what was known about Weaver, he continued to work with Scouts after leaving Troop 26.

Robb Lawson, one of the plaintiffs in the suit against Weaver, said he was raped by the former scoutmaster in 1985 at a Boy Scouts campground in the Northeast Georgia mountains.

It’s unclear just how many Scouts were victimized by the former public relations executive, who told investigators in 1995 that he had molested “at least” five boys. (That probe was initiated by one of Weaver’s known victims from the 1970s, Jim Lloyd. But Hall County’s then-District Attorney Lydia Sartain decided not to prosecute, citing the statute of limitations.)

The Northeast Georgia Council and, subsequently, the Boy Scouts of America say they first became aware of the allegations against Weaver that same year after Michael Crawford, a prosecutor in a neighboring county, informed them of the results of the investigation.

“I must tell you that, at the Council Banquet Saturday night, I sat there in silent rage as Fleming Weaver took a major part in the awards ceremony, knowing what he has done and knowing that many Scouters hold him in awe for his accomplishments when in fact he was nothing more than a pedophile,” Crawford wrote.

IN-DEPTH: In Boy Scout sex abuse case, small-town secrets revealed

But last year, the Boy Scouts admitted in court documents that they “acquired knowledge that Weaver has been accused of sexually abusing Scouts from other troops from a time period prior to his appointment as Troop 26 Scout Leader” in 1969.

In a 1972 intraorganization memo provided by Panitch to The AJC, the Boy Scouts of America outlined their policy in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse. In it, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) advises that when a registered leader “commits an act or conducts himself in a manner that would seem to cause him to be unfit as a leader or an associate with boys,” the local council should refuse to register him but “make no accusations,” saying instead that “we have evidence to convince us that your (financial affairs), (moral life), (lack of leadership ability) do not meet the standards for leadership in the BSA.”

The memo continues: “Indicate that the BSA is not sharing this information with anyone and only wish him to stop all Scouting activity.”

Still, the BSA, when countering liability claims in lawsuits alleging sexual abuse, maintains distance from the local troops, arguing the organization is not responsible for the actions of volunteers hired on the local level.

“It’s their way of distancing themselves, saying, ‘we didn’t have direct supervision and are therefore not liable,’” said Emma Hetherington, director of the University of Georgia Law School’s Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic, founded to assist the survivors of child sexual abuse. “But even if you allow for that, they no longer have that plausible deniability once they find out the abuse occurred.”

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And the well-managed top-down structure of the Scouts was revealed in 2012 when a Portland judge ordered the release of so-called perversion files — collected nationwide from 1965 to 1985 — that detailed the expulsion of 1,247 Scout volunteers. The allegations against Weaver were listed in those files but, for reasons that remain unclear, his name was redacted.

According to the amended complaint filed Monday, the BSA “continues to prevent the release of Ineligible Volunteer files without a court order, causing continued risk to Scouts and the general public as the identity of child predators continues to be concealed by BSA.”

The lawsuit estimates approximately 6,000 files exist today.

“This is not just about the individual (predator),” Panitch said. “It’s about (the Boy Scouts) as an organization, when they knew about the abuse and what they did to conceal it. Until all the files are released, we have no idea why they continue to protect predators.”

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For their part, the Boy Scouts insist that past mistakes have been corrected.

“In the many years since these alleged actions occurred, we have continued to strengthen our efforts to protect youth, including training volunteers and staff on how to identify and report incidents of abuse and requiring prompt mandatory reporting of any suspicion or allegation to authorities,” according to their statement released Tuesday.

It continues, “In recent years the BSA conducted a thorough review to ensure all circumstances that pre-dated this policy by many years were reported to law enforcement.”

But the Gainesville lawsuit alleges nothing has changed.

The defendants “have conspired and continue to conspire to maintain the presence of child predators within their organizations by 1) concealing from the public the extent of children who were sexually assaulted by their volunteers and agents, 2) concealing from the general public the identities of volunteers who committed crimes against children and/or have pedophilic tendencies and are identified in the Ineligible Volunteer Files maintained by Defendants and 3) protecting their agents from criminal prosecution for their crimes against children,” the amended complaint states.