Boy Scouts ads bring thousands of new sex abuse claims

Credit: Christopher Millette

Credit: Christopher Millette

A national advertising campaign by the Boy Scouts of America alerting victims of decades-old sexual abuse they have until Nov. 16 to seek compensation has spawned thousands of new claims and a behind-the-scenes battle pitting survivors against attorneys.

The fight is all about controlling the process that will determine the compensation fund, established after the Scouts, beset by hundreds of lawsuits, filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year.

“Will the decision be made by survivors, guided by lawyers, or by lawyers appearing on behalf of their clients?” said Atlanta attorney Esther Panitch, who represents Robb Lawson, one of nine survivors chosen in March to represent the victims’ interest in the Boy Scouts’ Chapter 11 case. In a 2016 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Lawson disclosed he was sexually abused by Fleming Weaver, a former Scoutmaster and well-known civic figure in Gainesville.

Such tort claimant committees have become the standard when negotiating sex abuse settlements with institutions that have declared bankruptcy, said James Stang, legal counsel for the nine-man committee.

The difference in the Boy Scouts case is the numbers. More than 20,000 complaints are expected to be filed by the November deadline, and some law firms will be representing thousands of clients. The advocacy group Abused in Scouting said they had already signed up more than 8,000 clients.

But none are on the tort committee, which, in a response Wednesday to a motion filed by the Coalition of Abused Scouts for Justice, minced few words.

“The “Coalition” is nothing more than a marketing term that was concocted by six law firms who were unhappy they could not control the Tort Claimants’ Committee to implement their agenda in the case,” the objection stated. “As discussed below, all of this — including their contempt for the bankruptcy process and explicit strategy of obstruction — was laid out in an e-mail sent by one of the law firms.”

That email, written by Abused in Scouting member Timothy Kosnoff and mistakenly sent to the TCC, shows how Coalition lawyers sought to marginalize the claimants committee.

“We control 80% of the claims i.e. our coalition controls the case,” Kosnoff wrote. “[N]othing happens until AIS says so. We smile, nod our heads and do nothing, nothing at all.”

In its objection to the Coalition’s motion, the TCC said Kosnoff’s email proves the participating law firms “were scheming to exert their control over the entire process, including over the mediators.”

Kosnoff could not be reached for comment. Calls to AIS seeking comment were not returned.

Earlier this week, the Scouts failed to convince a bankruptcy judge to rein in law firms who have piggybacked on the BSA’s $6.8 million as campaign, which premiered this week and end on Oct. 17. The Scouts ads, expected to reach more than 100 million people, direct people to a website with information about the bankruptcy case and instructions on filing a claim.

Some of the law firms are aggressively soliciting clients through their own ad campaigns. In court documents, the BSA alleged the firms were spreading “false and misleading information” about the bankruptcy process. Lawyers for the Scouts also objected to suggestions that a victims compensation fund possibly worth more than $1.5 billion is being set up.

The order was denied by Judge Laurie Selber Silverstein, who ruled the request was too broad and raised concerns about First Amendment issues.

Judge Silverstein declined Monday to approve a proposed order submitted by the Boy Scouts to restrict the ads, saying it was “incredibly broad” and raised concerns about First Amendment issues.

While the behind-the-scenes drama continues, attorney Paul Mones, whose clients were awarded $19.9 million in a sex abuse verdict against the Boy Scouts in Oregon in 2010, said the magnitude of BSA’s admissions in the ads should not be overlooked.

“This is the first formal and public acknowledgement by the Boy Scouts of its decades-old problem of sexual abuse,” said Mones, who has a client on the tort committee. “This is a really big deal.”

Mones said the additional claims expected to be filed in the coming months will provide a better idea of the scope of the problem. According to an internal review by the organization, tens of thousands of Scouts were victimized by adult volunteers.

The damage to the Scouts’ reputation, and finances, has been substantial. Its membership, which peaked at more than 4 million in the 1970s, has fallen below 2 million.