Beyond clergy: Ex-Boy Scouts tap Minn. law to press sex abuse claims

Jim McDonough is suing the Boy Scouts of America.
Jim McDonough is suing the Boy Scouts of America and its North Star Council claiming he was sexually abused by his scoutmaster.
Brandt Williams | MPR News 2015

Jim McDonough was a kid from St. Paul's east side who, like a lot of city kids, longed for an outdoor adventure. In 1967, at age 12, he got his chance. He joined the Boy Scouts, happily donned its khaki-colored uniform, and headed into the fall weather on his first camping trip.

"I was the tenderfoot," McDonough recalled. "You couldn't make fires until you passed the test. You couldn't chop the wood."

So young McDonough gathered sticks and logs for the fire. After dinner, he did the dishes. He was fine with that.

One night he was in a tent with a few other boys. Instead of sleeping, they were telling stories, joking around, giggling. The noise brought in Scoutmaster Leland James Opalinski.

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"All of a sudden, he pulled open the door. 'I can't have this. You guys need to quiet down. Jim, I'm going to have to take you out of the tent,'" McDonough said. "He just picked me up in my sleeping bag and he took me to his tent. When we got into his tent, he pulled my sleeping bag off, opened up his. He said, 'C'mon in here and lay down on my nice sleeping bag.'"

And then, McDonough said, Opalinski fondled him.

"I was just frozen because of confusion, fear. I didn't move," McDonough said. "In the morning, he did the same thing. Got up. Got dressed. And the rest of the day it was like nothing ever happened. That was the start of it."

The molestation continued for the next four years, usually on Boy Scout camping trips, he added. It also happened at the church where troop meetings were held. At age 16, McDonough quit the Scouts and did his best to forget the whole thing.

"I never told anybody. Ever," he said. "It's so confusing. You have all these mixed emotions — shame, blaming yourself and not really understanding what's going on."

Many stories like McDonough's have come to light in the nearly three years since the Legislature passed the Minnesota Child Victims Act. Most have been focused on the hundreds of claims made against priests accused of sexually abusing children.

But the law, which extends the statute of limitations for older abuse claims, wasn't written to respond exclusively to clergy abuse. And the Catholic Church hasn't been the only target of lawsuits aimed at shedding light on a hidden past. Boy Scout organizations are also grappling with accusations of child molestation.

McDonough decided to use the law to sue the Boy Scouts of America and one of its local affiliates, the Northern Star Council. At least 16 lawsuits are pending in Minnesota against the Boy Scouts, including McDonough's civil action. Most target the Northern Star Council. Three other lawsuits list another council as a defendant. At least 12 additional suits are expected to be filed before the law's May 25 deadline.

McDonough's suit seeks at least $50,000 from the Scouts. The Northern Star Council, which represent troops in 21 Minnesota counties and four counties in western Wisconsin, declined to talk about abuse suits filed by McDonough and others.

McDonough, though, is talking. He wants people to know the experience took a toll on him. He says he spent most of his twenties drinking. He got divorced.

He eventually sobered up and remarried his ex-wife. And he got involved in politics, winning a seat on the Ramsey County Board in 2000. Still, he did his best to forget the abuse he suffered in the Scouts.

"For so many years, this shame has been mine," he said "The shame is my predators, but it's also the Boy Scouts, this trusted institution."

While abuse claims have forced the Twin Cities archdiocese and other dioceses into bankruptcy, it's not clear what kind of affect such claims will have on the Boy Scouts.

McDonough's lawyers say the Scouts have plenty of money to pay damages. Tax documents from 2014 show the Boy Scouts of America with assets of more than $1.3 billion. Locally, the Northern Star Council had an "end of year fund balance" of $37 million, according to its most recent state government filing.

One of McDonough's lawyers, Peter Janci, won a $19.9 million verdict against the Boy Scouts in 2010 in Portland, Ore. Janci says that when it comes to sexual abuse against children, the Boy Scouts have some things in common with the Roman Catholic Church.

"They both involve organizations that really believe in their mission. At times, that has led to them to make decisions where they put reputation of the organization above safety and health of individuals," he said.

In the case of the Boy Scouts of America, that included the creation of what it called "ineligible volunteer" files, Janci said. When the Scouts learned that a volunteer had sexually molested or raped a child, it often created a file so it could bar that person from volunteering in another city or state.

Between 1955 and 1984, the Boy Scouts of America created 1,300 of these files. A judge ordered those files released, with some information redacted, after the Portland trial.

A small percentage of the "ineligible volunteer" files were atheists or homosexuals. The Scouts barred gay men and lesbians from the organization until just recently. But the vast majority of files focused on sexual molestation. They became known as the "Perversion Files."

The Boy Scouts has been keeping secret tabs on suspected abusers since the 1920s, but it didn't routinely report those people to police. The organization began requiring "mandatory reporting of suspected abuse" in 2011.

In Minnesota, the Northern Star Council devotes several pages on its website to the handling of suspected abuse. It says suspected abuse triggers three immediate actions: notification of law enforcement, removal of any suspected Scout leader, and ongoing communication with affected families to provide accountability and support. And in bold font the council declares, "Scouting was and is one of the safest places for children in our community."

"They say, 'We were trying to keep kids safe.' Our response is, 'You didn't do enough," said Stephen Crew, a Portland, Ore.-based attorney who represents abuse victims. "You knew what was going on. You knew how pedophiles operated. You didn't warn kids. You didn't warn parents. And you didn't adopt policies to reduce the number of pedophiles.'"

In Minnesota, records reveal at least 67 men in the Boy Scout "Perversion Files."

"It's important to keep in mind that these are only the cases where victims actually made a report or somebody learned something," he said. "The social scientists statistics show that most victims never report. Most victims go to their grave never telling anyone."

Many of the men in the Boy Scouts "Ineligible Volunteer" files abused more than one child. In Janci's Oregon case, the alleged abuser has been convicted three times for sexually abusing boys.

Court records show Opalinski may have molested at least three other boys. In 1971, Opalinski pled guilty in Ramsey County District Court to taking "indecent liberties" with a 14-year-old boy. The judge's penalty: Seven years of probation. McDonough's suit claims the Scouts and its local chapter didn't do enough to protect him and other boys.

Opalinksi died in 2014. Despite that, McDonough's civil lawsuit against the Boy Scouts is moving forward.