A Boy Scout Update

A Boy Scout Update April 25, 2019

By David Fine (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So I feel obliged to comment on this latest news report about the Boy Scouts, even though to some degree, it’s just not newsy, per se.

From the AP, yesterday, “Boy Scouts could be hit with more sex abuse claims“:

The lawyers’ ads on the internet aggressively seeking clients to file sexual abuse lawsuits give a taste of what lies ahead this year for the Boy Scouts of America: potentially the most fateful chapter in its 109-year history.

Sexual abuse settlements have already strained the Boy Scouts’ finances to the point where the organization is exploring “all available options,” including Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But now the financial threats have intensified.

The reason: States have been moving in recent months to adjust their statute-of-limitations laws so that victims of long-ago sexual abuse can sue for damages. New York state has passed a law that will allow such lawsuits starting in August. A similar bill in New Jersey has reached the governor’s desk. Bills also are pending in Pennsylvania and California.

In New York and elsewhere, lawyers are hard at work recruiting clients to sue the Boy Scouts, alleging they were molested as youths by scoutmasters or other volunteers. . . .

Jeffrey Schwartz, a New York-based bankruptcy expert with the firm McKool Smith, said the Boy Scouts don’t have a particularly large flow of cash and might be forced to sell off property in bankruptcy. The Boy Scouts have extensive land holdings, including camping and hiking terrain.

“They’ll play for time,” Schwartz said. “If their defense costs and settlement costs are greater than their membership fees, it could be a death spiral.”

And this is what disturbs me:  if people think of the Boy Scouts as an institution with secret piles of money somewhere, they’re greatly mistaken.  To the extent that the national organization has assets, they’re in the form of its High Adventure bases, particularly that of Philmont in New Mexico and the Summit Bechtel Reserve.  Other properties are owned by local councils, e.g., the Pathway to Adventure Council owns and operates Camp Napowan for summer camp.

Perhaps people with antipathy towards scouting want to tear down the entire institution, banish Boy Scouting as it exists, with the assumption that some replacement entity will come into existence to teach boys outdoor skills, leadership, and citizenship/service.  Perhaps they don’t care if there are successor organizations because they don’t believe that these objectives matter, or that boys as boys don’t need any particular aid, only insofar as they are members of minority groups for whom culture-specific organizations matter more.

Folks, I saw with my own two eyes a fourteen-year-old, about to head off to high school, worried about his future Philmont trip and his ability to manage the hiking involved (which was also, in his case, paired with a week at the local scout camp immediately afterward), absolutely transformed by the experience.  Granted, it may have been coincidence that he had a massive growth spurt that summer, and also granted that his older brother was less enthusiastic about the experience, but it was a Really Big Deal.  What’s more, it gives him a connection to generations of men before him with that experience.

If the BSA goes bankrupt and is forced to sell off its assets and regroup as some sort of national supervisory group for local Scout councils much-shrunken in membership, working in rented office space, this will be lost.  A program of guided backcountry experiences in national parks or whatever cobbled-together replacement might be implemented, would be a shadow of the Philmont experience.  (Besides, I’ve been reading about national parks for a potential family vacation and am intimidated by the crowds during the summer.)  And what would happen to Philmont itself?  Would some environmentalist billionaire purchase it and declare it preserved wilderness?  Would the more-developed and accessible (located in West Virginia) Summit Bechtel Reserve be purchased to be converted into a resort?

For as long as sexual abuse cases have been coming out, the Chicago Archdiocese has been claiming settlement payments will be made using sales of vacant land (a claim I immediately became skeptical of upon seeing their annual report).  And as much as I get that they wanted to reassure Catholics, I suspect that the effect was to convince people that Catholic churches indeed had plenty of extra money lying around, rather than affecting actual Catholics in the pews.

With the Boy Scouts, too, I get the feeling that, when reporters report and lawyers solicit clients, they have the attitude that somewhere there is some hidden money socked away so that justice can be pursued without having any consequences on actual families.

Yes, it would have been better if the national organization had behaved differently.  But we can’t undo the past, and it’s incredibly lacking in wisdom (“unwise” just doesn’t seem the right word here) to punish current scouting families for the mistakes of our forebears for not understanding and acting according to 2019 Youth Protection norms.

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