Larry Akers was 9 years old when his father died so he relished the attention of a Boy Scout leader from the neighborhood troop in Hamilton. He felt special when the man invited him to sleep over. Touching didn’t start right away.
When it did, Larry felt uncomfortable. But he was a kid in Northeast Baltimore without a dad at home, so he pushed it from his mind. It’s taken him decades to confront the memories. He says the scout leader and another man would take boys camping and touch them at night.
“It made me a very angry person. I kept drinking and it held me back from setting goals in my life and being the man I wanted to be," said Akers, 60, of Middle River. “It basically destroyed me.”
He’s among more than 200 Maryland men who filed claims against the Boy Scouts of America, saying they were sexually assaulted decades ago by scoutmasters and troop volunteers. These survivors tell of grown men sneaking into their tents at night and child predators who found opportunity during weekends away in the woods.
The abusers would brush it off afterward: just keeping you warm. Or, as they would say, all the scouts do it. The boys were threatened into silence or branded liars. Now decades later, they’re speaking up. Survivors are telling their stories of abuse and lasting trauma in more than 45,000 claims nationally filed in federal court.
They tell of being molested under the pretense of a medical exam or a check for ticks. They tell of being stripped naked, videotaped and shown pornography. Of being bathed and blindfolded; sodomized and left injured; tied to a tree; lured with booze and cigarettes, drugged and taught the “manly things in life.” Researchers found the average boy was 12 years old.
The Boy Scouts of America faced a tidal wave of pending lawsuits when it filed for bankruptcy in February. Monday brings the deadline for survivors to file claims of abuse. The case has already swelled into one of the largest sex-abuse scandals in American history.
A team of attorneys called Abused in Scouting represents thousands of the survivors across the country. An Alabama man told them of a scoutmaster who collected Disney figurines for each boy he molested. A California man told them of a scoutmaster who awarded merit badges for sex acts. Akers told them of the two scout leaders from Baltimore who would have the boys swim naked.
One of these men, Stephen Wayne Cormack, pleaded guilty to a second-degree sex offense in Baltimore County Circuit Court in 1996. He was sentenced to six months in jail and banned from Scouts. He’s in trouble again today, awaiting trial on 10 counts of possessing child pornography. Cormack declined to comment through his attorney.
The abused boys suffered shame and guilt and sometimes sexually transmitted diseases. Later came alcoholism, addiction and anger. They struggled to maintain relationships. According to their lawyers, some men committed suicide.
“Who knows how this has affected me in my life? I certainly drink too much, especially now that it’s all coming back up. It’s bringing out things I haven’t talked about or dealt with,” said a 52-year-old electrician from White Marsh who filed a claim.
The man spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said he was a shy, 11-year-old kid without a dad at home when he met Timonium scoutmaster Randy Gimbel. The abuse went on one year, he says.
“I was a target. I had to be. Here was a kid, with no father, probably looking for any kind of attention he could get from a man.”
John Randolph Gimbel pleaded guilty to a second-degree sex offense in Baltimore County Circuit Court in 1986. Twenty years later, he pleaded guilty there in a second case of child abuse. Gimbel died in January 2013.
The Boy Scouts kept files of abuse allegations, letters and newspaper clippings: a system to raise red flags and get rid of child molesters. They called these men “ineligible volunteers."
Lawyers in Oregon forced the scouts in 2010 to disclose about 1,000 of the files tracing back to the 1960s. The lawyers published these records online and they became known as the “Perversion Files.” They name more than 40 Maryland men accused of abusing scouts from the 1960s to 1990s. Among them is Harold A. Neufeld, a chemist and Frederick Scout leader, who was convicted of a second-degree sex offense. He died in 2008.
The files name David MacDonald Rankin, a College Park Scout leader, who got 15 years in prison for having boys perform sex acts under the pretense of initiation rites. He died in 2014. Some men never faced charges. Akers says the first scout leader to befriend and abuse him never did.
The bankruptcy case marks a dramatic downfall of a storied organization founded in 1910 and chartered by an act of Congress. Millions of American boys have since taken the Scout oath of God and country.
Four U.S. Presidents were scouts. So were Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Jordan and Jon Bon Jovi. Composer Irving Berlin so admired the scouts that he gave them rights to collect royalties on “God Bless America.” In 1980, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta came up with their iconic look: khaki shirts, olive drab pants.
Recent decades brought waning interest from families. Membership declined from the peak in the 1970s of more than 4 million boys to about 2 million today. Three years ago, the organization announced it would allow girls. Leaders dropped “Boy” from the name to become Scouts USA, a rebranding campaign to appeal to today’s youth. They call attention to the raft of security policies instituted to protect children, such as background checks on volunteers and rules banning adults from time alone with any boy or girl.
“It is important to note that while any instance of abuse is one too many, the overwhelming majority of abuse claims filed in the national organization’s bankruptcy case relate to allegations of abuse that occurred before our modern youth protection policies were put in place more than three decades ago,” wrote Kenn Miller, CEO of the Baltimore Area Council, in an email.
The Scouts hired University of Virginia researchers to analyze the “Perversion Files.” Researchers concluded that the rate of sex abuse in scouting was statistically low. For example, 25 adults out of more than 1 million registered volunteers were added to the files in 1980 ― a rate of 2 per 100,000 or 0.002%.
“While it was not perfect, and mistakes clearly occurred, BSA’s [ineligible volunteers] file system has functioned well in keeping many unfit adults out of Scouting,” concluded Dr. Janet Warren, a psychiatry professor at the University of Virginia, in the 2012 report.
She later testified that the files describe about 7,800 alleged abusers and more than 12,000 victims.
Meanwhile, sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church caused state legislatures to loosen statutes of limitation that barred adults from suing over abuse suffered as children. New York, New Jersey, California, Arizona, Montana, Hawaii, North Carolina passed legislation in recent years. Now, survivors of child sexual abuse could take their claims to court.
“This creates the perfect storm for the Boy Scouts,” said Andrew Van Arsdale, a California attorney with Abused in Scouting. “They just knew the liability was going to skyrocket.”
Maryland lawmakers, led by Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat, extended the statute of limitations for civil claims three years ago, giving victims until the age of 38 to sue over past abuse. Researchers have found victims of childhood sexual abuse usually don’t come forward until their 50s. Maryland has no statute of limitations for criminal charges of child sexual abuse.
Wilson has shared his own story of childhood abuse at the hands of his adoptive father, who was also his scoutmaster. The delegate tried last session to extend the civil statute of limitations further — to age 58. His bill failed.
“For years, our senior members protected the church,” Wilson said of opposition to such proposals. “I have very little hope that my law will pass this year, but that’s never stopped me from fighting.”
But with the laws in Maryland and some other states relaxed, some 275 lawsuits were pending against the Boy Scouts by this year. Scouts attorneys wrote a federal judge in Delaware to say they expected hundreds more. The organization filed for bankruptcy.
In the filing, the lawyers conceded that predators used the Scouts to access children and local troops failed to act upon all reports of abuse. Boy Scouts National Chair Jim Turley apologized to families in an open letter in February.
“There were times when volunteers and employees ignored our procedures or forgave transgressions that are unforgivable," he wrote. "In some cases, this led to tragic acts of abuse. While those instances were limited, they mean we didn’t do enough to protect the children in our care — to protect you.”
Turley announced a victims' fund, writing “we believe you, we believe in compensating you."
The bankruptcy froze hundreds of lawsuits filed in state courts. Boy Scouts of America had already spent $150 million on settlements and legal defenses from 2017 to 2019, the attorneys wrote. Bankruptcy proceedings are expected to decide the amount of money in the victims' fund and set payments to verified victims.
Headquartered outside Dallas, the Boy Scouts of America listed assets of $1 billion to $10 billion and liabilities of $500 million to $1 billion. The organization jumped its annual membership fee in January from $33 to $60, citing in part the costs of liability insurance.
Personal injury lawyers set up hotlines and websites for survivors to file claims online. Abused in Scouting attorneys submitted more than 12,000 claims, said Van Arsdale, the California attorney.
“This is beyond all imagination that this many men have come forward,” he said.
Philadelphia-based Child USA analyzed nearly 1,600 claims, finding almost three in four of the victims were abused multiple times. Nearly one in five suffered abuse by multiple adults. And 79% of them described abuse at a camp, meeting or other Scout activity.
“The vast majority of this abuse happened when children couldn’t defend themselves during campouts,” said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and CEO of Child USA.
She concluded Scouts provided an unsafe environment for children. In adulthood, nearly 60% of survivors reported alcohol or drug abuse, she found. Some 76% said they had trouble with relationships.
In Middle River, Akers credits his wife with maintaining their 30-year marriage. He stopped drinking five years ago, and he has worked to let go of his anger. The widespread attention to child abuse in scouting helps.
“Now it’s out," Akers said. "Everybody knows. America knows.”
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell and The Associated Press contributed to this article.