By RANDALL CHASE Associated Press
DOVER, Del. (AP) — Attorneys for the Boy Scouts of America are asking a federal judge in Delaware to take action to protect survivors of child sexual abuse from being misled or confused by advertisements from law firms about their ability to file claims in the organization’s bankruptcy case.
The Boy Scouts of America, based in Irving, Texas, sought bankruptcy protection in February in an effort to halt hundreds of individual lawsuits and create a huge compensation fund for men who were molested as youngsters decades ago by scoutmasters or other leaders.
The bankruptcy judge earlier this year established a Nov. 16 deadline for victims of child sex abuse to file claims in the bankruptcy case. She also approved processes for potential victims to be notified and submit their claims.
The notification process includes a nationwide paid media campaign of print, television, radio and online advertisements that is scheduled to begin Monday and run through Oct. 17. The Boy Scouts have said the notification program is expected to reach more than 100 million people, including more than 95% of the primary target audience of men age 50 and older. An expert for the Boy Scouts estimated that men in that age group account for more than half of former Boy Scouts and at least 71% of abuse survivors with pending claims against the BSA.
But in a court filing this week, attorneys for the Boy Scouts said several law firms — including firms that represent either members of the official bankruptcy committee for abuse victims or a group called the Coalition of Abused Scouts for Justice, which is also involved in the bankruptcy case — have engaged in their own advertising campaigns to try to solicit sexual abuse victims.
A lawyer for the Boy Scouts sent a cease-and-desist letter Aug. 10 to attorneys for the committee and the coalition, asking that they distribute the letter to the law firms representing their members and to other firms they knew were engaged in the advertising. But the misleading ads have continued, according to the court filing.
BSA attorneys are asking the judge to supplement her previous order to clarify that the notifications and advertisements approved in the order are only ones allowed to be directed to potential claimants, and that no other notice or solicitation can be provided without prior authorization of the BSA or the court.
“It is essential that sexual abuse survivors’ decisions as to whether, when, and how to file claims in this bankruptcy proceeding and protect their rights be based on complete and accurate information,” they wrote.
The judge has scheduled a hearing on the motion for Monday.
BSA attorneys said at least 11,000 television spots have aired, and that many of them contain false or misleading statements that are inconsistent with the notification language approved by the court and will likely encourage fraudulent claims and complicate a court-approved mediation process.
“Many ads misleadingly suggest that sexual abuse survivors need to contact a lawyer or call a hotline in order to submit claims, …. which not only is untrue, but undermines the parties’ and the court’s efforts to craft a sexual abuse proof of claim form that is clear to laypersons, free of unnecessary legalese, and does not require the extra hurdle of sexual abuse survivors having to retain or consult with counsel,” the court filing states.
Other misleading statements, according to BSA attorneys, include assertions that survivors can file claims anonymously, that financial compensation is “ensured,” and that there is “significant” or “substantial” compensation available for abuse victims. Some ads also state that a victims compensation fund that may be worth more than $1.5 billion is being set up.
BSA attorneys note that the court-approved claims process includes mechanisms for keeping the identities of abuse survivors confidential, but that they are required to provide their names and other identifying information in their claim filings.
BSA attorneys also point out that they may have defenses to some claims, and that compensation for all claimants can’t be guaranteed given the “inherent uncertainties” in the bankruptcy case. They also note that no victims compensation fund or trust has been established yet, and the value of any such trust is currently undetermined.