A 28-year-old plaintiff filed a complaint Wednesday in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas against the Boy Scouts of America and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of sexual abuse by his scoutmaster, who also was a church youth leader.
The lawsuit could presage a sexual-abuse scandal involving more major institutions in Pennsylvania, after the recent similar scandals involving the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Penn State University.
The scoutmaster, Vance Hein, was sentenced to 15 years’ probation for a period of sexual abuse of plaintiff Melvin J. Novak, and he is now serving state prison time for violating his probation by possessing child pornography, according to one of Novak’s attorneys, Stewart J. Eisenberg of Eisenberg, Rothweiler, Winkler, Eisenberg & Jeck in Philadelphia.
Novak pled guilty to the misdemeanors of endangering the welfare of children and corruption of minors in February 2000, according to court records.
Hein’s criminal defense attorney, Francis Connor Miller, did not respond to a request for comment.
With tears in his eyes at a press conference Wednesday, Novak said many members of his former congregation in Chester County still think highly of Hein.
“This guy is still worshipped,” but they have no idea that all the mentoring Hein bestowed upon Novak “was all a hoax just to abuse me,” Novak said.
The church was named because participation in the Boy Scouts is so “intertwined” for members of the LDS church, Eisenberg said, and they intend to depose church leaders responsible for hiring Hein to “find out if there was some sort of relationship, some sort of authority that they have over the Boy Scouts that they played in not only in the hiring but in perpetuating the hiring.”
The Boy Scouts and the LDS church “jointly operated and/or controlled” the Boy Scout troop in which Novak was a member and of which Hein was a scoutmaster.
The LDS church actively sponsors Boy Scout troops and has adopted scouting as an official church youth program, the complaint said.
“All the guys do it in the Mormon church. It’s a calling,” Novak said during the press conference.
Of the Boy Scouts, the complaint alleged that the organization “promotes the wholesomeness of its programs while knowing that since the 1940s, it has been secretly removing scoutmasters for child sexual abuse at an alarming rate. … Its own records demonstrate that it has long known that scouting attracts pedophiles in large numbers and that scouts, far from being safe, are at the heightened risk of sexual abuse by child molesters.”
The Boy Scouts had secret internal files kept for 70 years on “ineligible volunteer files” that showed that sexual abusers removed from working with youth “were often able to re-enter scouting in other locations,” the plaintiff’s court papers said.
“The filing of the complaint was the first notice the church has had related to this litigation, so I can’t offer any information on specifics,” LDS spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement. “What I can say is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has zero tolerance for abuse of any kind. Those found guilty of abuse are deserving of both legal prosecution and church discipline.”
“Any instance of child victimization or abuse is intolerable and unacceptable,” Boy Scouts spokesman Deron Smith said in a statement. “While we have not seen this lawsuit, we deeply regret that there have been times when scouts were abused, and for that we are very sorry and extend our deepest sympathies to victims. The BSA was one of the first youth programs to develop youth protection policies and education, and has continuously enhanced its multi-tiered policies and procedures, which now include background checks, comprehensive training programs and safety policies, like requiring all members to report even suspicions of abuse directly to local law enforcement.”
The complaint states that the Boy Scouts of America “knew or should have known that scouting attracts pedophiles, in part, because (a) scouting provides the pedophile access to boys alone and away from their parents in secluded settings like campouts and overnight hikes; (b) scouting provides opportunities for the pedophile to seduce a boy by getting him in situations where the boy has to change clothing or spend the night with him; (c) the pedophile scout leader can, depending on the pedophile’s age preference, volunteer for and be sure to have access only to boys of a certain age; (d) BSA conditions boys to the concept of strict obedience to the scout leader in a bonding mechanism that pedophiles crave; (e) BSA promotes the idea of secret ceremonies, rituals and loyalty oaths, all of which facilitate the pedophile’s efforts to keep his victims silent and compliant; (f) at the time of the abuse, BSA conducted no criminal background checks on these volunteers or even suggested such was advisable.”
Hein manipulated Novak into believing that engaging in sexual acts from June 1998 until September 1999 would allow him the privilege of joining a brotherhood, according to Novak’s complaint.
Hein even took Novak on an alleged business trip to Montreal, where Novak was supposed to learn computer programming skills, but instead Hein assaulted Novak, according to the complaint. Novak told his parents after the trip, which led to Hein’s prosecution.
After the abuse, Novak said, “My childhood just fell apart. I guess you could classify me as a quitter,” including only finishing high school through home schooling, not finishing his Boy Scouts Eagle Scout project, and failing to maintain jobs, relationships or his college education.
At the end of the press conference, Novak’s father, who also is named Melvin, said he still has faith in the religious precepts of his church but “if I had known that these kinds of things were going on, I could have been more cautious, more probing.” Instead, he had faith in the church, in the Boy Scouts and how wonderful it made his son feel to be one of only three scouts to get a merit badge in water skiing, he said.
The son said he is no longer active in the Mormon church.
The complaint had much more detailed allegations against the Boy Scouts than it did against the church.
Also named as defendants were the Chester County Council of the Boy Scouts, Valley Forge Stake, Marshallton Second Ward, of the LDS church, and Hein. Novak was a member of Boy Scout Troop 84 in Chester County.
The counts in the complaint include fraudulent concealment and estoppel, civil conspiracy, willful conduct/wanton misconduct/reckless misconduct, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligence, negligence per se, violation of the common law duty of reasonable care and breach of fiduciary duty. One count under the theory of respondeat superior was brought against the Boy Scouts and LDS defendants. One count of assault and battery was brought only against Hein.
As Novak is under the age of 30, the abuse is within Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations.
Dino Privitera of Eisenberg Rothweiler is co-counsel.