Area Boy Scouts operating normally after national group, mired in sex abuse allegations, files bankruptcy

By JOSHUA WILSON,

The Pine Burr Area Council will not be affected by the recent bankruptcy filing of the Boy Scouts of America national organization, local leaders told the Forrest County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Earlier that morning, the Associated Press reported that the national organization, which is 110 years old, was filing for bankruptcy protection “in the first step toward creating a huge compensation fund for potentially thousands of men who were molested as youngsters decades ago by scoutmasters or other leaders.”

Leaders of the local Scouts council were on hand for the board’s regular monthly meeting, which was moved to Tuesday because of the Presidents’ Day holiday, to ask for continued board support in their operations. The Scouts had been on the agenda prior to the Tuesday bankruptcy announcement.

Before making the funds request, Zach Ross, chief operating officer for the local Scouts, addressed the board about the Chapter 11 filing.

“We are affiliated with the national council, and we send them roughly $10,000 to $12,000 per year,” Ross said. “However, money given locally stays here locally, and their finances are separate from ours.”

Ross opened the floor for questions from supervisors, but the board had little to say about the bankruptcy filing. Quincy DeJarnett, a Scouts district executive, then updated the board on recent good news from the organization, including the opening of a new STEM education Scouts group at Presbyterian Christian School.

DeJarnett also discussed new and expanded operations in Hattiesburg, including groups at Aldersgate Mission, a ministry of Main Street United Methodist Church, and at the Family YMCA. A group is also active in the Hattiesburg High School junior ROTC program, he noted.

“We served 500 youth from Forrest County last year,” Ross said.

The Scouts requested $8,300 from supervisors, an increase of $800 from the prior year. The cash is used for local programming and also provides scholarships, according to Ross.

After a brief discussion about the board’s earmarked money for scholarships, District 4 Supervisor Rod Woullard motioned to approve the amount. The vote was unanimous, and Ross and DeJarnett thanked the board for their ongoing support.

“Of our 17 counties, Forrest County gives the most,” Ross said.

According to their website, the local Scouts group was first organized in 1927 with eight boys and now serves thousands of youth across south Mississippi. The local Scouts are a separate legal entity from the national organization, Ross clarified in a Wednesday interview.

“Our assets are owned by the Pine Burr Area Council, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded and operated in the state of Mississippi,” he said. “We have our own executive board.”

Casey Norwood, the local council’s chief executive officer, said in a Wednesday interview there is no pending litigation related to the Boy Scouts and sexual abuse in south Mississippi, but two abuse claims – both dating back to the late 1960s and early ‘70s – have been made.

“The claims were made in the last six months, and I referred both of those claims to the national office,” he said. “They’re looking into it. We have no record of the accused perpetrator ever being registered with our council, but I have turned it over to the national office.”

In recent years, the national organization has been plagued by declining membership and sex abuse settlements. The bankruptcy filing is the organization’s attempt to survive a barrage of lawsuits, many of them made possible by recent changes in state laws to allow people to sue over long-ago sexual abuse.

The national organization could be forced to sell some of their vast property holdings, including campgrounds and hiking trails, to raise money for a victims’ fund that could top $1 billion. Up to 5,000 victims are expected to seek compensation.

According to the AP, most of the abuse cases date to the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, before the Boy Scouts adopted mandatory criminal background checks, abuse-prevention training for all staff and volunteers, and a rule that two or more adult leaders must be present during all activities. Many of the lawsuits accuse the group of negligence and cover-ups.

Wayne Perry, a past president of the national organization, said Scout families won’t notice any differences as a result of the bankruptcy and touted the protections now in place for young people.

The Scouts have 261 local councils, all of which operate independently of the national organization, but some of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, including Seattle-based Mike Pfau, have indicated their clients may go after local council property holdings, too.

“We believe the real property held by the local councils may be worth significantly more than the Boy Scouts’ assets,” Pfau told the AP.

According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, nationally, local councils hold 70 percent of the Boy Scouts’ wealth.

The local council owns and operates Camp Tiak, which encompasses 1,200 acres and is four miles north of Wiggins near the Forrest County border.

Norwood said the local council is operating normally.

“This is a national issue, and we are open for business,” he said. “We are still moving forward.”