Disclosing Secret Files—the Catholic Church Should Take a Cue from the BSA

Sometimes organizations need to open up their secret files as a part of moving on from decades of failures in protecting the safety of children. For many reasons, it is the right thing to do for the survivors and even the organization itself. Earlier this week, that is exactly what the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) agreed to do as a part of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding when it and its local councils agreed to start releasing information from their troop rosters to the survivors. Other organizations, like the Catholic Church, should follow that example.

The secret troop rosters are important to abuse survivors for several reasons. Each BSA troop is overseen by three separate legal entities who are all responsible for overseeing adult volunteers who come in contact with the children. These include the national BSA, a BSA local council, and a local or community organization that sponsors the troop. Every scout knows who the BSA is, but with this three-part structure, most scouts never learn which local council or sponsoring organization was also in charge of their troop. And while the local council might be easy to deduce based on the troop’s geographical location, the sponsoring organization might be completely secret and only found on these troop rosters that are in the hands of the local councils and away from public view. This situation is further complicated by the fact that while the national BSA has filed for reorganization, the 200+ local councils have not.

These troop rosters contain key information for abuse survivors, including the names of the adults who led the troop, other potential witnesses to the abuse, and the identity of the sponsoring organizations at the time of the abuse. Without this information, survivors who have a very limited time to file lawsuits arising out of their abuse cannot protect their rights. And while these troop rosters might normally be revealed through the normal litigation process, all cases against the local councils and sponsoring organizations have been put completely on hold by the bankruptcy court from the national organization’s filing last year. In other words, even with the opening of statutes of limitations in several states, survivors have been forced to watch their clock tick away without ever learning the identities of necessary parties to their litigation.

This week, Judge Laurie Selber Silverstein accepted an agreement between the local councils and the official committee representing abuse survivors to begin revealing these secret troop rosters. In exchange for the release of the rosters, the local councils and chartering organizations will receive the benefit of the continuing litigation stay in hundreds of state court proceedings filed by survivors across the country.  If the local councils are true to their word, thousands of survivors will be able to check their information against the troop rosters and bring in all necessary litigation parties to their case, along with whatever insurance policies might be available.

This roster information will allow survivors, attorneys, and allies to “fill in gaps in victims’ recollections of the harm they suffered.” The previously secret data also contains valuable information about the sponsoring organizations—churches, schools, and other youth-serving groups—that chartered the individual troops where boys were sexually abused. These organizations have not filed for bankruptcy protection, so the clock is ticking on survivors to file lawsuits against them within the appropriate statutes of limitation. Failing to do so could permanently impact their rights, even when they made timely filings in the national BSA bankruptcy proceeding.

A Lesson for Everyone
The Chapter 11 process with Catholic dioceses and religious orders has been—for the most part—a battle by Catholic officials to keep evidence about child sexual abuse by clergy and other Church employees out of survivors’ hands. This information can be disclosed at any time by Church officials. They continue to choose not to—prioritizing self-interest over accountability.

This agreement with the BSA shows how voluntary disclosure of secret files is possible.

Catholic officials and their legal counsel should and must take notice, understanding that their preservation of “secrecy at all costs” only continues the perpetuation of abuse and cover-up, and, ultimately, impedes the Chapter 11 process.