TRENTON, N.J. -- Some victims of childhood sex abuse who are considering suing the Boy Scouts of America face a choice: an anguished rush to meet a deadline earlier than what lawmakers intended, or wait and sue local councils, perhaps putting them at greater risk of losing.
Attorneys for the Scouts and victims agreed during federal bankruptcy proceedings this month on a Nov. 16 deadline by which victims must come forward with a claim or be barred from bringing one later, with the victims’ lawyers seeking a cutoff in late December and the Boy Scouts pushing for early October.
New Jersey, New York, California and a few other states loosened their statute of limitations last year.
Victims in New Jersey, which opened a two-year “window” for victims who were previously barred from suing, must decide whether to pursue their claim by the November date instead of the one specified in the law passed last year — in December 2021.
California opened a three-year window last year, while New York's Legislature voted to extend its one-year window, set to expire in August, until August 2021 because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Other states with windows that end after the Nov. 16 date include Arizona, North Carolina and Vermont, which has a permanent window for those alleging abuse. Washington, D.C., would also be affected.
Victims would still be able to pursue cases against local councils, though, according to attorneys. The drawback, attorneys say, is that councils could defend themselves by deflecting blame to the national organization, which could not be included in suits after Nov. 16.
Michael Kaminski, 63, of Parsons, Kansas, filed a claim in New Jersey Superior Court this month before the deadline was agreed to against the Scouts and is part of the federal bankruptcy proceedings. He says in his suit that he was abused by a Scout leader when he was a teenager.
After years of coping with anxiety, guilt and shame, he said, he read about other lawsuits against the Scouts and wrestled in his mind with the organization's history.
The idea of being prevented from “helping those that suffer from abuse” by coming forward with his own story and lighting a path for others anguished him, he said.
“Had I not seen those Boy Scout cases online, I might not have come forward,” he said. “If I don’t come forward, then that’s it. That’s a voice that will not be heard,” he said.
Advocates for victims and the lawmakers who wrote the laws giving victims longer to sue say the sped-up timeline defeats their purpose: to give victims time to confront abuse and decide on their own terms to come forward.
“It’s disappointing and disturbing the time frame has been dramatically shortened,” said New Jersey state Sen. Joe Vitale, a Democrat. “It’s unfair.”
The Boy Scouts said in a statement that the organization is committed to compensating victims as it goes through bankruptcy proceedings and said the November date “sets a clear timeline for victims to come forward and later seek compensation from the BSA's proposed compensation trust.”
The bankruptcy process often leaves people who don’t make claims by the deadline with a reduced chance for compensation, said Marci Hamilton, the chief executive of Child USA, a nonprofit that fights child abuse.
On the other hand, she noted, some victims just might not be ready to talk about their abuse and forgo a shot at justice.
“It doesn’t take into account the needs of the victims to process everything before they come forward, which is why New Jersey’s window is two years, not six months,” she said “It’s clever, but it’s also ruthless.”
The Boy Scouts sought bankruptcy protection in February, aiming to stanch hundreds of individual lawsuits and create a compensation fund for men who were molested years ago by Scoutmasters or other leaders.
More than 12,000 boys have been molested by 7,800 abusers since the 1920s, according to Boy Scout files revealed in court papers. Most of the more recently filed cases date to the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, before the Boy Scouts required criminal background checks and instituted abuse prevention training and protocols for staffers and volunteers.
The legislation granting so-called look-back windows was years in the making and in many states followed efforts to give plaintiffs a chance to sue for damages. The Roman Catholic Church had been a focal point on the legislation, but other institutions, like the Boy Scouts, also face liability under the new laws.
Soon after the laws were passed, attorneys in New Jersey and elsewhere began recruiting people to sue the organization.
Attorney Jason Amala worries that because the legislation got so much media attention, victims might think they have more time to sue than they do.
“A lot of people put off going to a lawyer until they're in a place when they’re ready, thinking they have two years," he said. “Now someone comes forward in December, a year after the law took effect, and we’re going to have to say, ‘I’m really sorry but your deadline passed,'" he said.