Aug 3, 2022 - News

Latter-day Saint Boy Scout abuse settlement rejected by judge

Illustration of a silhouetted scales of justice, with the plates moving up and down.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A judge threw out a $250 million settlement the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints agreed to pay into a fund for abused former Boy Scouts. She argued the agreement gave the church too much protection against further lawsuits.

Driving the news: Judge Laurie Selber Silverstein rejected the settlement on Friday, which was part of the Boy Scouts of America's bankruptcy reorganization. The church, which had a decadeslong relationship with BSA before ending their partnership in 2020, agreed to pay into a $2.3 billion fund for sexual abuse claimants.

  • The church was the BSA's largest single sponsor for years, automatically enrolling boys as Scouts when they turned 8.

Context: The church made the contribution on the condition that former Scouts who were abused couldn't sue the church separately over incidents that occurred outside of Scouting activities.

  • The church argued that $250 million was enough to cover abuse both in scouting and in other church settings.

Yes, but: The judge rejected that argument, saying church abuse that happened outside Scouting isn't connected to the BSA's bankruptcy plan, so the plan can't release the church from those claims.

For example: If a church choir director abused a child in the choir and then continued the abuse as the child's Scout leader, Silverstein's ruling would prevent the abuse in the choir from being compensated from the BSA fund.

A church spokesperson did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

Why it matters: The structure of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its close historic ties with Scouting make it particularly likely to face allegations of abuse that span church and Scouting activities.

  • Scouting long served as the church's official youth programming for boys.
  • In Mormon-sponsored troops, scout leaders were typically selected from congregations as a church "calling," or leadership role.
  • About 2,800 abuse claims filed in the bankruptcy have direct ties to the church. Another 4,900 are potentially linked to the church, according to a sex abuse claim valuation expert who testified earlier this year.

Zoom in: In explaining her decision, Silverstein noted a case where one Cub Scout leader abused children in both Scouting and church activities from 1968 to 1973.

  • The bankruptcy court can approve an agreement where his victims are compensated from the BSA fund and therefore can't sue the church over abuses that happened in Scouting.
  • But those victims may also be entitled to compensation for the harm they suffered in non-Scouting church activities, Silverstein wrote.

What they're saying: The church's expectation of total protection "was an overreach," victims' attorney Irwin Zalkin told Axios. "The court doesn't have jurisdiction to release claims that are not scouting-related."

What's next: The church could pay the $250 million, which would protect it from lawsuits over abuse at Scouting activities. But it would not be exempt from non-Scouting litigation.

  • The church could renegotiate the amount now that it doesn't cover all of the potential abuse claims — scouting and non — in question.
  • Or it could completely walk away from the BSA bankruptcy plan and accept exposure to more lawsuits rather than paying into the compensation fund.
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