Charles Kessinger was 10 in 1994 when he set out on his first camping trip with the Boy Scouts of America as a newly minted scout in West Virginia. As night fell on the Blue Bend Campground in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, Kessinger says a scout leader took him, alone, to a nearby swimming spot.
When Kessinger told the leader that he didn’t have a swimsuit, he says he was told to get undressed, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
“I remember him touching on me,” Kessinger told CNN last week. The leader proceeded to put his genitals in his mouth, alleges Kessinger.
“I took off running,” Kessinger recalled.
Now 36, Kessinger is one of eight men suing the Boy Scouts of America for negligence, fraud and breach of fiduciary duty in a case that could spark many more.
Kessinger and the other plaintiffs are listed as “John Doe” in court filings, but in an interview with CNN, facilitated by his attorneys, Kessinger said he thought it was important to attach his name to his story.
“It needs to be done,” he said. “If it doesn’t have a name,” he said of his story, “it doesn’t have a face.”
The eight men reside in or allege abuse that happened in states where the statute of limitations on claims of sexual abuse would prevent them from bringing suit.
The attorneys representing the men, though, hope to circumvent those limitations by bringing the suit in Washington, DC, where the Texas-based BSA claims legal residency, according to the lawsuit. And, crucially, it’s where the District Council voted in 2018 to open a temporary “revival period” – a so-called “window statute” – for claims of sexual abuse that would be otherwise outside of the statute of limitations. It remains in effect for another 16 months.
“Plaintiffs should not be denied a remedy by the happenstance that they were abused as a child by a BSA scoutmaster or scout leader in a state without a window statute,” the complaint reads.
If the court agrees with the plaintiffs on venue, it would conceivably allow suits against the BSA from scouts and former scouts regardless of where alleged abuse occurred.
Currently, only 10 states have window statutes for civil claims regarding sexual abuse of a minor, according to Alice Hanan, an attorney with CHILD USA, a non-profit that tracks such laws. One of those states, Rhode Island, allows such claims against only perpetrators, not institutions, she said.
“I think we’re on solid legal ground here,” Aitan Goelman, an attorney and part of a consortium of lawyers representing alleged victims of abuse by the Boy Scouts of America, told CNN. “We don’t see this as a one-off case. This could be a model for other cases.”
There are potentially many other cases in the offing.
Last year, in a Minnesota trial unrelated to the Boy Scouts of America, an expert witness who had done work for the organization testified the BSA had revoked the registrations of 7,819 people from 1944 through 2016 on the belief that they were involved in sexually abusing a child, and that it had identified 12,254 victims.
The witness, Janet Warren, a professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia, had been retained by the BSA to review its database of so-called “ineligible volunteer” files.
Those files are referenced in Monday’s suit, in which the plaintiffs characterize the files as “overwhelming evidence that Scouting attracts large numbers of pedophiles.”
The suit claims that the BSA “destroyed tens of thousands of files,” but that the organization still maintains “ineligible volunteer” files.
The Boy Scouts of America did not immediately respond to direct questions about the particulars of the case, but in a statement shared with CNN, the organization said it was “committed to fulfilling our social and moral responsibility to fairly compensate victims who suffered abuse during their time in Scouting, while also ensuring that we carry out our mission to serve youth, families and local communities through our programs.”
“We care deeply about all victims of child abuse and sincerely apologize to anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting,” the BSA said. “We are outraged that there have been times when individuals took advantage of our program to abuse innocent children. We believe victims, we support them, we pay for counseling by a provider of their choice and we encourage them to come forward. It is the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) policy that all incidents of suspected abuse are reported to law enforcement. ”
The BSA went on to say that under its current policies, adults are banned from having one-on-one situations with scouts in person, online or by text message. The organization said it currently has a “thorough screening process” for adult staff and volunteers that includes criminal background checks.
Warren, speaking after her testimony in 2019, said she found no evidence of a cover-up on the part of the Boy Scouts of America.
The window statute in Washington, DC, remains in effect until May 3, 2021.
Among the allegations made by the seven other men in the suit are repeated instances of fondling and forced anal or oral sex.
A plaintiff alleging abuse in North Carolina in the 1990s says a “range of sexual activity” was forced upon him by an assistant scoutmaster “on a daily or near-daily basis,” according to the suit. That man’s alleged abuser was ultimately arrested and convicted after the plaintiff reported the abuse to his scoutmaster, according to the filing.
Another former scout from Florida alleged he went to sleepover parties hosted by an assistant scoutmaster featuring pornographic movies. That same leader, the man alleges, entered the former scout’s tent on at least two camping trips to fondle and masturbate the boy. The suit says that leader was later arrested and convicted for lewd acts unrelated to his role at BSA.
Another man accuses an Oklahoma scout leader of at least four instances of abuse in the late 1990s. The suit says that man was arrested and convicted in part for his abuse of the plaintiff.
Another man, who says he was abused by the leader of his Texas boy scout troop in the early 90s, alleges 20 to 30 instances of anal penetration by his assistant scout leader, according to the suit. The suit says he “experienced a psychological breakdown around the time his son asked to join BSA.”
In three of the eight cases of alleged abuse, according to the lawsuit, the Boy Scouts of America was notified and failed to act.
‘I don’t trust people’
The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages of an amount to be determined at trial.
Kessinger told CNN, however, that he wants accountability.
“I don’t care one bit about money,” he said. “It’ll go to my 10-year-old.”
Kessinger said he told his parents about the alleged abuse when it happened in 1994. “I was told to be quiet and we’ll deal with it.”
But justice never came, Kessinger said, and the man he says abused him has since died.
Kessinger said the incident left him with a sense of guilt and anger.
“I thought it was my fault,” he said. “I became a professional fighter. I fought for 12 years. I had an anger issue.”
The incident also left him with a distrust toward other men, he said. “I always felt like somebody was out to get something from me if they were a man.”
Kessinger said he’s worked through his experience in therapy. He said he’s a welder now, with his own company, and getting over the alleged events of more than 25 years ago. But he said the experience still impacts him in the way he raises his son.
“My boy, he doesn’t get to do none of that fun stuff unless I’m there with him,” he said. “I don’t even let him spend the night at his friend’s house. I don’t trust people.”
“I want accountability,” he said. “What about that little boy who’s out there right now while we’re talking, who doesn’t know his whole world is about to be flipped upside down?”
Kessinger said he wants organizations like the BSA to have stricter vetting requirements for volunteers.
“We vet our law enforcement – they carry a gun,” he said. “These guys raise our youth.”
CNN’s Elizabeth Joseph, Jason Hanna and Kristina Sgueglia contributed to this report.