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Friday, July 28, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Court affirms plaintiffs' right to Scouts' files on sex abuse

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — The Boy Scouts of America must release dossiers of sexual-abuse allegations the organization has received nationwide over more than a half-century to three men alleging years of molestation by a scoutmaster, Washington's Supreme Court said Thursday.

The redacted files already have been handed over to lawyers for the three former Scouts. The Supreme Court's ruling means the documents will continue to be used in the underlying lawsuit and could be made public at trial.

Plaintiffs say the documents detailing alleged sexual abuse and other misconduct by volunteers across the country since the 1940s show the Boy Scouts' system for tracking and preventing abuse was ineffective.

Boy Scouts officials promoted the organization as a safe place for kids, but "what they didn't reveal was the tremendous number of pedophiles they were booting out every month," attorney Mark Honeywell said Thursday.

"As a matter of public interest, this is probably the single largest compilation of known or suspected child molesters anywhere," said Tim Kosnoff, another plaintiffs' attorney.

Plaintiffs' attorneys had previously gathered about 1,900 of the Boy Scouts' records from another attorney who obtained them in a separate court case. They won release of about 1,000 more files in the Washington state lawsuit.

In a statement, Boy Scouts officials said the group has been a leader in "developing youth-protection programs."

"BSA appealed to the Washington Supreme Court out of concern that the trial court's order in this case risked undermining the effectiveness of those programs," the statement said.

The Irving, Texas-based organization has said it now trains boys how to recognize, resist and report abuse, and teaches parents and volunteers how to spot and report abuse. Boy Scouts officials also have said they began background checks on new volunteers in 2003.

A national spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday.

Supreme Court justices referred to the three plaintiffs as T.S., M.S. and K.S. in their opinions Thursday.

The underlying lawsuit says the three were sexually abused by their scoutmaster, Bruce Phelps, 53, of Seattle, from 1971 to 1983. The suit named Phelps, the national organization and its local branches as defendants.

Kosnoff and Honeywell, the plaintiffs' attorneys, said Phelps had admitted to sexual abuse in a deposition and settled his portion of the case several months ago.

Phelps' attorney, Kenneth Kagan, confirmed the settlement but said Phelps did not admit to all of the plaintiffs' allegations.

Seattle police detectives looked into Phelps' case, but no criminal charges were filed, Kagan said. The civil suit was not filed until about 20 years after the alleged abuse ended, and the age of the claims played into the police's decision, Kagan said.

"I think that was a conclusion that the police came to, that by the time they heard about it, there was no longer a legal possibility," Kagan said.

Two of the plaintiffs — brothers Tom Stewart, 43, of Enumclaw, and Matt Stewart, 42, of San Diego — previously revealed their identities to the public. The third plaintiff, who is not related to the Stewarts, has chosen to remain anonymous, Honeywell said.

In the case decided Thursday, Boy Scouts attorneys argued that King County Superior Court Judge Michael J. Fox should have used a more detailed legal test in deciding whether to release the files to the plaintiffs.

The Supreme Court's majority, however, said that three-part test was meant for cases of an organization seeking to protect privileged communications with its members.

No such privilege exists in this case, Justice Susan Owens wrote for the majority.

"Indeed, the opposite is true: a society interested in protecting children from criminal assaults would not reasonably leave to the discretion of a children's social club the disclosure of information regarding criminal assaults on children," Owens wrote.

Chief Justice Gerry Alexander and Justices Barbara Madsen, Bobbe Bridge, Charles Johnson and Tom Chambers also signed the majority opinion.

In their dissent, Justices Jim Johnson and Richard Sanders said the three-part test should have been applied because of broader privacy guarantees found in the state constitution.

Many of the more than 3,000 misconduct files in the case rely on news accounts and court records, along with rumors and tips from parents and others, plaintiffs' attorneys said.

The Boy Scouts have been keeping such files since the group's inception in 1910 but had destroyed records when the alleged perpetrators either turned 75 or died, Honeywell said.

The files in Thursday's ruling have the names of alleged victims and perpetrators redacted, as well as names of alleged victims' parents. Those files currently are shielded by a court order but will be made public in any eventual trial, Kosnoff said.

"They have thrown just an unbelievable amount of money and effort at preventing us from getting these records and telling the world about them," he said of the Boy Scouts.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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