The Boy Scouts of America didn’t want anyone to see its so-called “perversion files,” the dossiers on men considered unfit to lead young Scouts. Too inflammatory. Too upsetting. Too likely to damage the Scouts’ brand.
The Oregon Supreme Court was unpersuaded. This week, the state’s highest court rejected the Scouts’ request to hide the files from public view. The justices agreed with victims’ advocates and media organizations that the files, which were used as a trial exhibit in a high-profile civil lawsuit against the Scouts, belonged in the public eye.
This ruling is a victory for open courts and for victims of child sex abuse. The public’s right to know the truth vastly outweighs the group’s desire to hide the files and bury the past.
The court on Thursday approved the release of more than 1,200 files on Boy Scout volunteers who were deemed ineligible to serve in the organization. The files cover 1965 to 1985 and include confirmed or suspected pedophiles. They are profoundly embarrassing to the Scouts, because they apparently reveal the organization’s long-term failure to protect children, warn parents, train staff and prevent further harm.
But the Scouts lost: The high court found no reason to override a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge’s decision in 2010. The judge decided to let the public see the files, with the names redacted of abuse victims and those who reported suspected abuse.
“Oregon’s framers sought to require the courts to conduct the business of administering justice in public — that is, in a manner that permits scrutiny of the court’s work,” Justice Robert “Skip” Durham wrote for the unanimous court.
It is perfectly reasonable for the trial court to release evidence at the end of a trial, the court added, if the evidence will help the public understand the workings of justice. The potential “inconvenience, loss, embarrassment, or other negative consequence” to any individual or party rarely justifies secrecy, the court said.
The Oregon Supreme Court didn’t do what The Oregonian and other media organizations asked the court to do, which was to define public access to all trial exhibits as a constitutional right. The justices did, however, send a strong message to the lower courts that openness and public access should always be the default position and that favoring secrecy and redactions could be an abuse of judicial discretion.
The Boy Scouts of America faces staggering liability for its role in enabling the abuse of many hundreds of Scouts over the decades. For example, in the Oregon case, a Portland jury awarded nearly $20 million in damages over the confirmed abuse of one Scout. The amount was later reduced in an undisclosed settlement, but it was nonetheless a huge defeat for the Scouts. The release of the “perversion files” will likely result in further damages, both legally and in the court of public opinion.
It’s a sad turn of events for a venerable organization that has helped young people for more than a century, relying heavily on the good moral character of its volunteers. Still, it’s untenable to let the Boy Scouts revert to secrecy out of a misdirected desire to help the organization heal. Child abuse thrives in the shadows, as victims’ advocates so often say. The Oregon Supreme Court helped this week by bringing the truth, painful as it may be, closer to the light.
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