PORTLAND, Ore. — The Oregon Supreme Court has approved the release of 20,000 pages of so-called perversion files compiled by the Boy Scouts of America on suspected child molesters within the organization for more than 20 years, giving the public its first chance to review the records.
The files gathered from 1965 to 1985 came to light when they were used as evidence in a landmark Oregon lawsuit that ended in 2010 with a jury ruling that the Scouts had failed to protect a plaintiff who had been molested by an assistant scoutmaster in the early 1980s.
The Scouts were ordered to pay the man $18.5 million and the case drew attention to the organization’s efforts to keep child molesters out of its leadership ranks.
The perversion files contain accusations against Scout leaders that ranged from child abuse to lesser offenses that would prohibit them from working in the Scouts. The organization, headquartered in Irving, Texas, has said the files have succeeded in keeping molesters out of the Scouts.
The Boy Scouts fought to keep the files sealed in the Oregon case. But a judge ruled that since the information was used at trial it was public record, prompting the organization to appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court.
A Multnomah County judge had said that the names of alleged victims and the people who reported the accusations should be kept private. The state Supreme Court agreed with his decision.
The Scouts argued opening the files could unfairly affect those who were suspected but never convicted of abuse. The organization also said that if the information were to go public it could prejudice potential jurors in future trials.
Media organizations, including The Associated Press, The Oregonian, The New York Times, Oregon Public Broadcasting, KGW-TV, and Courthouse News Service challenged the Scouts’ effort to keep the files under seal, arguing that their introduction by attorneys in the suit makes them public record.
The 20,000 pages at the center of the Oregon public records case — files kept on a total of 1,200 people — are part of a larger trove of confidential documents the Boy Scouts of America began compiling several decades ago on people flagged as being possible molesters. By 1935, a New York Times article that said the Scouts had 2,910 “cards” on men who were unfit to supervise young boys.
Scout executives had no written guidelines on the subject until a 1972 memo that urged them to keep such files confidential “because of misunderstandings which could develop if it were widely distributed.”
“Scouts are safer because those files exist,” the Scouts said in a statement released Thursday. “While we respect the court, we are still concerned that the release of two decades’ worth of confidential files into public view, even with the redactions indicated, may still negatively impact victims’ privacy and have a chilling effect on the reporting of abuse.”
The state Supreme Court appeared to limit its opinion by saying that allowing the media and public to review exhibits from a trial may not be the correct decision in every case.
“I am pleased that the Supreme Court upheld (an Oregon state judge’s) decision to release the exhibits, but I am disappointed that the court ruled that the Oregon constitutional prohibition on secret courts does not guarantee that the public has a right to see the evidence that a jury sees when it decides a case,” said attorney Charles Hinkle, who represented the media companies.
Hinkle said the decision could discourage live testimony in favor of written or video testimony, reducing the public’s opportunity to know the facts on which a decision is based.
Over the past few years the Scouts have faced numerous lawsuits by men who say they were molested as children by Scout leaders.
In April 2010, a jury ordered the Scouts to pay $18.5 million to Kerry Lewis, the victim of sex abuse by a former assistant scoutmaster in Portland in the early 1980s. It was the largest payment awarded in a sex abuse case involving the Scouts. The jury decided the Boy Scouts were negligent for allowing former assistant scoutmaster Timur Dykes to associate with Scouts, including Lewis, after Dykes admitted to a Scouts official in 1983 that he had molested 17 boys, according to court records.
The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that a jury should be allowed to look at the files during the case. They were permitted to see about 1,000 files.
Lewis’ attorneys argued that the Scouts should have brought the files out into the open decades ago.