Fourteen lawsuits were filed in Georgia after the General Assembly opened a temporary window allowing older adults to sue institutions that allegedly harbored known predators. Photo: AJC file photo
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

EXCLUSIVE: Sex abuse admission by Boy Scouts puts new focus on Georgia predator law

It was a stunning admission, though not a surprising one to some of the victims who allege they were sexually molested by Boy Scout troop leaders.

“I have reviewed information that now makes clear to me that decades ago BSA did, in at least some instances, allow individuals to return to Scouting even after credible accusations of sexual abuse,” Boy Scouts of America Chief Executive Michael Surbaugh wrote recently in a letter to Congress. The had previously denied any cover up.

The organization’s public acknowledgement that they misled investigators seems to breathe fresh life into a raft of lawsuits across the nation filed against the scouts alleging abuse. But in Georgia the impact could be muted. That’s because lawmakers have effectively shielded the Boy Scouts from liability, squashing repeated attempts to strengthen the state’s Hidden Predator Act.

The new developments, experts and lawyers said, could fuel a renewed drive at the state Capitol to bolster the law, allowing adults to sue institutions that harbored known child molesters.

“They (the Boy Scouts) knowingly lied to Congress,” said attorney Esther Panitch, who represents four former Georgia Scouts claiming they were sexually assaulted while under the age of consent. 

“They should no longer be able to hide behind their good works when they’ve violated the law as well as their own moral code that they espouse.”

Panitch’s lawsuit is one of two filed in the state alleging that the Scouts knew two longtime scoutmasters — Fleming Weaver in Gainesville, Ernest Boland in Athens — were sexual predators but did little to stop them.

Weaver even admitted that he had abused two boys under his supervision as Troop 26 scoutmaster after one of the boy’s parents learned of his son’s abuse. But four years later, he was volunteering at a Boy Scouts campground where he allegedly molested a Gainesville teenager, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found. Weaver would later confess to sexually abusing at least “five or six boys” during his time in Scouts.

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The Scouts initially denied any awareness of Weaver’s predatory behavior but in 2017 the organization confirmed it had “since 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.

Georgia moved to address the problem of decades-old abuse cases in 2015. The General Assembly passed a bill opening a two-year retroactive window for claims of abuse at any age, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. But the bill didn’t go far enough, critics say, and most of the lawsuits enabled by that temporary window remain mired in court.

Subsequent attempts to extend the statute for lawsuits to age 38 (from the current 23) and open a one-year window for adults of any age to sue stalled after the Boy Scouts and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta lobbied vigorously against the change.

Former Scoutmaster Fleming Weaver, left, is accused of sexually assaulting 14-year-old Robb Lawson while at a Scouts retreat in the Georgia mountains. (courtesy Channel 2 Action News)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In 2018, the state Senate Judiciary Committee changed the law to make it harder to sue organizations who provided predators with access to children, such as the Boy Scouts or the Catholic Church.

The committee chairman, Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, said in 2018 the one-year window would trigger an “open season” on organizations accused of covering up abuse.

Georgia, more than most states, makes it difficult for survivors of sexual abuse to get any kind of redress in the courts, said Emma Hetherington, director of the University of Georgia Law School’s Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic.

“Very few perpetrators are ever charged, let alone convicted,” said Hetherington, who believes the Scouts’ acknowledgement likely indicates confidence that statute of limitations restrictions will remain in place.

In a statement sent to The Washington Examiner, which broke the story about the letter to Congress, the Scouts said, “We are outraged that there have been times when individuals took advantage of our programs to abuse innocent children. We believe victims, we support them, we pay for counseling by a provider of their choice, and we encourage them to come forward.”

It continued, “We remove individuals from Scouting based on any allegation of abuse. We steadfastly believe that one incident of abuse is one too many, and we are continually striving to improve all of our policies to prevent abuse.”

But evidence continues to surface that sexual misconduct within the Boy Scouts was much more widespread than originally thought. Recent testimony by a researcher hired by the Scouts to conduct an internal review found more than 12,000 children have been sexually assaulted, with more than 7,000 Scout leaders facing allegations of abuse.

Many of those allegations remain under wraps. The so-called Boy Scouts perversion files, released in 2012 following a judge’s order, documented incidents of alleged abuse over a 20-year period ending in 1985.

Former Scoutmaster Fleming Weaver, left, is accused of sexually assaulting 14-year-old Robb Lawson while at a Scouts retreat in the Georgia mountains. (courtesy Channel 2 Action News)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Hetherington said that some other organizations who have dealt with sex abuse allegations have “come forward and taken responsibility.” The Boy Scouts, she said, have focused on trying to shut down efforts to sue retroactively.

That tactic was evident in the suit against Weaver, filed in 2016. Cobb County Superior Court Judge LaTain Kell dismissed negligence claims in 2017 against the Boy Scouts and First Baptist Church of Gainesville, which sponsored Troop 26, ruling that the statute of limitations protected both institutions from any liability because the plaintiffs offered no evidence that they kept him from pursuing a legal remedy.

Panitch and co-counsel Natalie Woodward amended their complaint in March 2018, utilizing Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to accuse the Scouts of engaging in a decades-long conspiracy to shield volunteers they knew to be sexual predators.

After nearly 16 months of waiting, Judge Kell just this week scheduled a hearing for October on whether the case will proceed.

Attorney Darren Penn, who represents five plaintiffs in a suit against the late Ernest Boland — accused of sexual misconduct by at least a dozen Scouts over a period of 25 years — is confident that will eventually change as public pressure will continue to mount against the organization.

He predicts “a very big push” in the upcoming legislative session to strengthen the Hidden Predator Act.

And, Penn said, the courts may end up having the final word.

“Whoever doesn’t prevail is going to appeal,” said Penn, speaking of his suit and the suit against Weaver. “I think we’re on the verge of seeing some real movement.”

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