Beshear supports giving child sexual abuse victims more time to file suit
As attorney general and as a gubernatorial candidate this year, one of Democrat Andy Beshear’s biggest issues has been protecting Kentucky children, particularly from sexual predators. Beshear frequently touts his record of hammering on pedophiles and child-porn offenders.
“Whether it’s been years or whether it’s just been days, let us seek justice for you,” Beshear said as he proposed legislation last year to allow him to convene a statewide grand jury to investigate sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church. “That’s how we stop this activity from occurring again and make sure we try to build the type of commonwealth where no child and no person is ever harmed.”
But Beshear sang a different tune six years earlier in Paducah.
Then, as a lawyer in the firm of Stites & Harbison, Beshear successfully defended the Boy Scouts of America from two lawsuits filed by men who said they were sexually molested by their scoutmaster when they were minors in the 1970s. The men — with some evidence, including a 1979 letter — said Scout officials knew at the time of their scoutmaster’s predatory behavior but failed to stop it.
In court filings, Beshear chided the men for waiting too long to come forward — an “inexcusable delay,” he called it — arguing that under Kentucky law, if they were sexually molested as children, they needed to sue anyone they held responsible within five years of their 18th birthdays or else forfeit their claims to compensation. That filing deadline passed in the 1980s, he said.
Although the alleged victims protested that they didn’t know about the Scouts’ alleged cover-up until recently, Beshear convinced McCracken Circuit Judge Tim Kaltenbach, who incorporated much of the lawyer’s reasoning into his June 12, 2012, order of dismissal. The suits never would see the public scrutiny of a jury trial.
“In this case containing allegations of the tragic crime of child sex abuse, plaintiff has waited too long to file his claims under Kentucky law,” Kaltenbach wrote.
As old internal records documenting hundreds of sexual abuse and misconduct allegations have surfaced, the Boy Scouts of America has been fighting similar claims across the country at a cost of many millions of dollars in legal fees and, when necessary, settlement payments. Scout leaders at the organization’s headquarters in Irving, Texas, said in December that they are “working with experts to explore all options available,” in response to news reports about a possible Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Whenever possible, the Scouts try to do what Beshear did: have these child-sex liability suits dismissed before trial by citing the statute of limitations, the time limits imposed by each state on legal actions. It’s unfair for people to sue today over alleged sexual molestation from their long-ago childhoods, the Scouts contend.
Cal Pfeiffer, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse who sits on Beshear’s Survivors Council, said he’s offended by the idea that claims of abuse are less legitimate when people need time to come forward. Sexual abuse survivors might be silent for decades because they are ashamed or their memories are repressed, among other reasons, Pfeiffer said.
“Hearing (Beshear’s) argument, that does surprise me given the way he talks about victims now,” said Pfeiffer, a member of the Louisville branch of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
“My first thought is, that’s hypocritical,” Pfeiffer said. “I mean, I have friends who are attorneys. And I know they would defend someone on a murder case. They wouldn’t even want to know if their client had done it, because that would make it harder to represent them. But it kind of irritates me, too, because with attorneys, if they can turn on a dime and represent either side of an issue, then it’s like we don’t really know what they think, do we?”
Defending children has been a core issue of Beshear’s tenure as attorney general. He created the Office of Child Abuse and Human Trafficking Prevention and Prosecution in January 2016, shortly after taking office, to prevent Kentucky children from becoming victims of abuse and sexual exploitation, he said. He also has been an active supporter of Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky.
In a recent opinion piece for newspapers statewide, Beshear said crime victims deserve to be heard.
“As I travel the state, I continue to hear from individuals and their families who have transformed their trauma and want to advocate for changes in policies and decisions that impacted them and other victims,” Beshear wrote. “I learned early on as attorney general that government, especially when it came to offering services to victims, had to do things differently in order to give a voice to these survivors and ensure that what we do helps and uplifts those who have experienced trauma.”
In an interview this week, Beshear said there is no inconsistency between his political positions and his work in Paducah. He said he properly defended the national and regional Boy Scouts, organizations that he believes did nothing wrong, and not the scoutmaster accused of molesting adolescent Scouts or the local troop leaders on whose watch the alleged sexual abuse occurred.
“What I’d say to Cal is, when you’re a lawyer you represent clients, and when you’re in a law firm, that’s the business that they do, and that I represented an organization. I would have never represented an abuser,” Beshear said.
“I think the Boy Scouts have done a significant amount over the last 30 years to certainly improve practices and procedures,” Beshear added. “But we’re talking about a case in the ‘70s where no one had the best practices and procedures in place. During the 1970s, society unfortunately approached a lot of these things differently.”
‘I just felt so dirty’
Boy Scout Troop 1, one of the nation’s oldest, has met at Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Paducah for more than a century. During the 1970s, church member Danny Ray Middleton served alternatively as the troop’s scoutmaster and assistant scoutmaster.
According to a lawsuit filed in McCracken Circuit Court in 2011, Middleton befriended a 12-year-old boy in the troop who came from a struggling home. The boy’s father abandoned the family; his mother had serious mental health problems, sometimes leaving him alone with his sisters while she was hospitalized for treatment.
While he often acted kindly toward the boy, cooking him his favorite meals and doing him other favors, Middleton allegedly sexually molested the boy from the ages of 12 to 16, at Scout events in the church basement, on Scout camping trips and in Middleton’s home, according to the lawsuit. On one occasion, Middleton had the alleged victim bathe with another boy at his home while he watched, according to the suit.
“I just felt so dirty,” the alleged victim said in his subsequent deposition.
The Herald-Leader generally does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse.
Middleton, who died in 2015 at the age of 70, was never charged with a crime. In a 2011 deposition, he denied sexually abusing anyone and said he had been “very fond” of the alleged victim. For example, he said, he let the boy sleep alongside him in his sleeping bag on a Scout camping trip, to stay warm.
“This is what bothers me the most about this whole case,” Middleton said. “I had ample, ample time to molest (the alleged victim) ... Many, many times I had a chance to do things to them, but I have no desires to have sex with any boy or any other girl. I had my wife, and that’s all I needed.”
‘The Troop 1 situation’
By the late 1970s, adults within the Paducah Boy Scouts fretted about Danny Middleton.
Ursula Thompson, a Scout mother and member of the Troop 1 committee, now deceased, told others that she was hearing stories about Middleton having inappropriate relationships with some of the Scouts.
And in 1979, the Rev. Bob Burchell, a former Grace Episcopal Church leader who also is now dead, sent a letter to another Troop 1 committee member, William Black. Burchell told Black that “after our conversation about Danny,” he spoke with then-Scoutmaster Alonzo Thompson about Middleton.
“He confirms that Danny is and has been actively homosexual at least some of the time. Furthermore, he says that Danny was active with some boys,” Burchell wrote. Burchell then mentioned by first name only a boy with the same name as the alleged victim. That boy held a specific leadership position in the troop, Burchell added, and it was the same position the alleged victim held.
Grace Episcopal Church already had had one embarrassing sex scandal in recent times, Burchell told Black, referencing an affair unrelated to the Scouts, and it did not need another.
“I find this very troublesome, Bill,” Burchell wrote. “To me, it increases the urgency of gathering a small supportive coalition/group/cell to transform the Troop 1 situation.”
Black and two other members of the Troop 1 committee handled the situation by privately meeting with Middleton and asking him to quit the Scouts. Middleton complied. They did not call the police to report a possible crime or ask any of the Scouts or their families what had happened.
“Did you try to find out, in 1979, who the boys were?” Black was asked in a 2011 deposition.
“No,” Black said.
“Did you think that perhaps you ought to find that out?”
“No,” Black said.
Did they report Middleton to the Boy Scouts’ regional council so other troops could be put on notice?
“I’m sure that we did,” Black said. Later in the deposition, he said he couldn’t remember for certain.
‘Predator in your ranks’
The alleged victim went on to lead a troubled life around Paducah — a failed marriage, bankruptcy, cocaine addiction — although he found religion through a counseling ministry run by relatives. He blamed years of sexual abuse by Middleton, a father figure, for some of his problems. He declined requests to be interviewed for this story.
Walking into a WalMart shortly before Christmas 2009, the alleged victim saw a now-aged Middleton back in his Boy Scout uniform, surrounded by young Scouts collecting money for the Salvation Army kettle. Middleton had rejoined Troop 1 as a volunteer.
The alleged victim panicked at the thought of a new generation of Scouts at risk. He emailed Troop 1’s current scoutmaster to alert him about Middleton.
“There is a predator in your ranks,” he wrote. “Please protect those who cannot protect themselves.”
The current scoutmaster asked around about Middleton and soon heard enough to start panicking himself. Apart from the alleged victim’s warning, a former Troop 1 Scout, now in his 50s and leading another troop in the region, told the scoutmaster that Middleton had exposed himself to him when he was a boy.
Middleton again was banished from the Scouts.
“Each of the persons that I discussed the situation with was in total agreement with me that he definitely should not be reinstated into scouting. We have more than one person claiming that he took part in inappropriate activities in the 1970s,” Jeff Rock, Scout Executive of the Shawnee Trails Regional Council in Owensboro, wrote to the Boy Scouts of America in 2010.
Waited too long
Even as the Boy Scouts booted Middleton for a second time, the alleged victim read news stories about the organization’s emerging national child sexual abuse scandal. Across the country, men were coming forward to say they had been abused as young Scouts decades earlier.
The men were outraged by the public disclosure of the Scouts’ “ineligible volunteer files” — nicknamed “the perversion files” — often meticulous internal records that documented hundreds of abuse and misconduct allegations within the organization dating back to the 1940s. (Middleton was not named in these files until the Scouts removed him for the second time in 2010.) The Oregon Supreme Court ordered the Scouts to make those files public following sexual abuse litigation in that state.
As with the Catholic church’s child sexual abuse scandal, it was awful enough to suffer at the hands of an individual. But what if a trusted organization knew of the abuse and did little or nothing to stop it? Soon, the Scouts were besieged with litigation, enough so that their insurance companies balked on covering the claims, arguing that the Scouts failed in their duty to protect their members.
In 2011, wanting both financial compensation and answers about what happened to him as a youth, the alleged victim filed his own lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America and its Shawnee Trails Regional Council as well as Grace Episcopal Church and its parent, the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky. He did not sue Middleton, who by that time was widowed and ailing.
The suit forced Scout and church officials to turn over documents and give depositions. For the first time, the alleged victim learned that adults in the 1970s suspected Middleton of preying on boys in Troop 1 — with his own first name appearing in that 1979 letter — but nobody made any effort to protect him, and nobody told law enforcement.
Not long after the first case was filed, another former Paducah Boy Scout from the 1970s came forward with his own allegations about Middleton and filed a similar suit.
“The thing about this case that was so strong was that they knew. They knew that this was going on,” said Ann Oldfather, who was a lawyer for both of the alleged victims. “But in the end, that just wasn’t enough.”
Representing the Boy Scouts, Beshear urged the judge to dismiss the cases not on the grounds that the abuse hadn’t occurred, but because the men waited too long.
“The argument was that the Boy Scouts could not get a fair trial in 2011 for alleged incidents in the 1970s that the Boy Scouts weren’t advised about until 2010,” Beshear said in this week’s interview. “That’s because people had died, memories had faded, and ultimately what was decided in the trial court was that the Boy Scouts as an organization — as for their practices and procedures that were in place at the time — that they couldn’t get a fair trial.”
The alleged victims countered in written motions by arguing that the Boy Scouts “developed and carried out a secret plan to quietly remove a child molester from their ranks and now seek to wrap themselves in the statute of limitations so as to avoid liability for the damages they caused.”
But the judge sided with Beshear and the Scouts. Kentucky law is clear, he said: You had five years to sue.
Oldfather said she likes to think Beshear was personally uneasy about the outcome of the cases.
“This is just my observation, it’s nothing that Andy said, but I’d think he was troubled by it,” Oldfather said. “There really needs to be legislative action in Kentucky on when the statute of limitations should begin — when you’re allowed to bring an action if you’re only now learning of facts relevant to your abuse — and I’d like to have seen Andy Beshear as attorney general acting on that.”
In his interview, Beshear said he has supported past legislation in the General Assembly that would have expanded from five to 10 years the statute of limitations for filing lawsuits related to sexual abuse.
(The Boy Scouts, which spent $17,000 last year lobbying in Frankfort, opposes a more lenient statute of limitations on civil actions. In a prepared statement to the Herald-Leader, Boy Scouts of America spokeswoman Effie Delimarkos said: “Nothing is more important than protecting the youth in our programs. It is our top priority. We are heartbroken and outraged that there have been times when Scouts were abused, and we sincerely apologize to anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting.”)
Kentucky has no criminal statute of limitations on felonies, so a sexual abuser could be prosecuted even if victims come forward many years later, Beshear said. But there should be time limits on bringing civil suits seeking damages related to the abuse, he said.
A 10-year civil statute “is a more reasonable period of time that I support,” Beshear said. “There is a question that you ultimately hit when it’s an organization ... if a long enough time goes by, it creates a constitutional question of fair trial. That’s what the statutes are meant to address.”
However, Beshear expressed no regrets about the Paducah cases. His clients — the national and regional Boy Scouts organizations — were unaware of what was going on inside the church-sponsored Troop 1 and cannot be held responsible, he said.
Asked if justice was done, he answered: “Well, I’m not sure that in these cases of abuse that justice is ever done.”