The Boy Scouts of America, an iconic presence in the nation’s experience for more than a century, filed for bankruptcy protection early Tuesday, succumbing to financial pressures that included a surge in legal costs over its handling of sexual abuse allegations.
Founded in 1910, the Boy Scouts have long maintained internal files at their headquarters in Texas detailing decades of allegations involving nearly 8,000 “perpetrators,” according to an expert hired by the organization. Lawyers have said in recent months that former scouts have come forward to identify hundreds of other abusers not included in those files.
The bankruptcy filing, in Delaware, is expected to disrupt continuing litigation and establish a deadline for when former scouts can pursue claims.
“If you’ve ever considered coming forward, now is the time,” said Tim Kosnoff, a lawyer who has long worked on Boy Scouts cases and is part of a team of attorneys who created an Abused in Scouting victims’ group.
Jim Turley, the national chair of Boy Scouts of America, said in an open letter that the organization was entering bankruptcy in order to equitably compensate all victims of abuse through a trust.
“I want you to know that we believe you, we believe in compensating you, and we have programs in place to pay for counseling for you and your family,” Mr. Turley said.
It is unclear how much of an overhaul the bankruptcy process will bring to the Boy Scouts, which reports having 2.4 million youth participants, but Mr. Kosnoff said the filing seemed necessary given the totality of the claims that have emerged. At a minimum, Mr. Kosnoff said he would like to see the organization clean out its management and end lucrative salaries for leaders, some of whom earn more than half a million dollars annually.
Even then, Mr. Kosnoff said that he finds it “difficult to impossible” for him to envision a new structure that would give him confidence that the nonprofit has sufficiently changed. He said the organization, which has operated under a congressional charter since 1916, may need to liquidate and allow some new organization with better controls come in to fill the void.
The Boy Scouts have already sought ways to navigate the organization’s dwindling influence among American children — the 2.4 million youth participants the group claims now are about half the number that were involved in the 1970s. In recent years, the group has changed membership requirements to allow openly gay scouts in 2013, then openly gay leaders in 2015, and then expanding to allow girls to participate starting in 2017. But legal pressures have only grown.
Other organizations, including Catholic dioceses and U.S.A. Gymnastics, have also sought bankruptcy protection in recent years as they have faced sexual-abuse lawsuits.
The Boy Scouts’ troubles have lingered for decades. In a 1935 article in The New York Times, the organization described having files on hundreds of people who had been leaders in the scouts but had been labeled “degenerates.”
While their records date back a century, the Boy Scouts fought the release of some of the files in an Oregon case in the early 2000s — a case that led a jury to hold the Scouts liable in 2010 for $18.5 million in punitive damages. The records in that case stayed private until a ruling from the Oregon Supreme Court in 2012 made them public.
Paul Mones, a lawyer in that case, said he recalled musing with his co-counsel at the time that the files may just be the tip of the iceberg that could ultimately send the Boy Scouts toward bankruptcy. But instead of trying to establish a compensation fund for victims over the years, he said, the organization continued trying to protect its reputation.
Mr. Mones said that the bankruptcy filing will deny other victims an opportunity to hold the scouts accountable in court.
“The justice that they so well deserved will unfortunately escape them in the end and that is a true tragedy,” Mr. Mones said.
Victims and their lawyers have argued that the files hid the problem and left scouts at risk. The Boy Scouts of America has said that it put in safeguards over the years to require background checks for volunteers, mandatory training and a policy that prohibits one-on-one situations between children and adults.
Last year, the Abused in Scouting group began advertising around the country and has since found nearly 2,000 people with complaints, including one in every state. The clients range in age from 8 to 93. When the attorneys brought forward more potential suspects of abuse, the organization said it began an investigation and made 120 new reports to law enforcement agencies.
Robbie Pierce, 39, of Los Angeles, was involved in scouting throughout his childhood, with a mother who ran a Cub Scout day camp in California. In August of 1994, when he was 13, Mr. Pierce said he was on a weeklong outing at Camp Wolfeboro in the Sierra Nevada Mountains when he and several other children, including Mr. Pierce’s brother, showed signs of illness and went to the medic lodge.
There, a man who was not a medic but a leader of the camp examined each of the boys in private, Mr. Pierce said. He said the man had him take his clothes off and then fondled his genitals, saying he was looking for a hernia.
Mr. Pierce said the boys did not discuss what happened until Mr. Pierce said his brother brought it up years later and laid out what happened to him that night.
Mr. Pierce said he did not know until much later that there was a systemic problem in the Boy Scouts. He said that while the organization helped shape him and gave him many positive experiences, he now believes it must be abolished or radically changed.
“It provides pedophiles with access to boys,” Mr. Pierce said. “That has to stop. I don’t know if that means getting rid of the Boy Scouts or some new oversight.”
While statutes of limitations may be a problem for many complainants, a new state law in New York opened a one-year window last summer for sexual abuse victims of any age to take legal action. New Jersey opened a two-year window in December. Last month, eight men filed a lawsuit against the Boy Scouts in Washington, D.C., contending that a lawsuit window and the organization’s ties to the city could provide a venue for claims around the country.
The Boy Scouts’ charter from Congress, signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, lauded the organization’s role in teaching boys patriotism, courage and self-reliance. More than 110 million Americans have participated in Boy Scouts programs over the years.
Under bankruptcy proceedings, organizations are able to halt lawsuits and then get a deadline under which people must file claims. Mr. Kosnoff said those are often between 90 days and nine months, but he plans to advocate a yearlong window in this case.
He also would like to see the case lead to a robust process to seek out potential victims who might have a claim.