Pay $18.5M and go to jail: Two venerable organizations file for bankruptcy protection

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Graphic by James Howe

Nick DeMarchis, Senior Writer

Two separate organizations – who had notable influences just a few decades ago – filed for bankruptcy protection within the same week: the national Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and, locally, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg. Ultimately, I believe this filing can be good. Both organizations have condoned egregious sex abuse in the past; however, they have also positively affected my youth in some way or another.

It is important to note the context of these bankruptcies; both groups are filing for Chapter 11, implying that they are applying for protection in the case that money runs out. Why would money run out for such venerable organizations? Both failed to contain and condemn pervasive sexual abuse of minors and, in the case of the Diocese, relocated the problem instead of reporting it. The #MeToo movement enabled victims of that all-too-common abuse to speak out, even if those cases were from 30 years ago.

One could say that it’s unfair that these organizations now succumb to their financial woes; defenders of both organizations state that those problems are mostly of the past. While most of those payouts are from victims of 30+ years ago, pedophilia and abuse on the part of clergy and mentors are all too common in organizations that work directly with youth, and the problem hasn’t gone away. I can speak to this anecdotally as my scoutmaster – and middle school science teacher – was convicted in 2014 over child pornography charges. Once again, while noting that this is an anecdote, it is purely disingenuous to say that this abuse problem is localized to the past. In 2010, the BSA paid out $18.5 million to a single victim. In 2019, the Diocese paid out $84 million between 500 victims, some of whom were assaulted as recently as 2012.

Additionally, I would like to make clear that I don’t believe that the Boy Scouts’ 2013 and 2015 policies to allow LGBTQ scouts and leaders, respectively, or their 2019 decision to allow girls into the flagship Scouts BSA program is the cause of this bankruptcy. The former decision to be inclusive is one that, to me, has only served to improve the Scouts. The latter one, while lacking in planning as announced, is one that I still believe has the potential to extend the skills and friendships I have received to those previously unserved by comparable programs.

These organizations have both been undoubtedly influential in my life: as an Eagle Scout raised in the Catholic church, I know how these organizations work and the good that they can do. The Diocese of Harrisburg makes significant financial contributions to house the homeless and nurse the sick; the Scouts have given young men – and now women – the skills to work and lead effectively in the modern world. These programs are, in mission if not execution, ultimately good forces in the world. But, acts of the Diocese and Scouts now fill headlines, and their actual positive effects on youth are overshadowed.

But, perhaps these organizations can see the bankruptcy filing as an opportunity to move forward and create an inflection point. Both have seen declining memberships for the last number of years, so this “restructuring” could actually be a change. Start fresh: change organization, orders of command and programming so that they can improve the lives of those they affect. Go to the public and say “we want to be better, help us to change.” The earnest confrontation of their problems and a desire to do better is the best way to help the Scouts and Diocese.

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