Retired judge Jeffrey Sherlock

Retired District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock has been appointed a special master in the case involving the Montana Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

Thom Bridge, Independent Record

A lawsuit filed six years ago by women who say the Montana Council of Boy Scouts of America committed fraud when it knowingly put them at risk of sexual assault would be the first of its kind to go to trial if a resolution is not reached in mediation later this week.

In 2011, five women who were later joined by a sixth filed a lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America and the Montana Council, saying the organization committed fraud and was negligent by putting them in danger from a child molester. In the 1970s the women were members of a Kalispell Explorer group led by William Leininger Jr., who was convicted of sexual abuse in 1976 and died in 2002 after a lengthy prison sentence.

Mediation is set for Nov. 2 in Cascade County District Court; if that is unsuccessful, a trial is scheduled for Nov. 27.

“Now for the first time we have a fraud claim,” said attorney Gilion Dumas, who is representing the women. “That would be the first in the nation.”

The six women are now in their early to mid-50s. Three still live in Montana, while the other three live in Alaska, Oregon and Missouri. Leininger was the leader of an Explorer Scouting group in Kalispell in the 1970s. Explorer Scouting operated various outdoor, craft, life and career skills training, as well as citizenship, service and character-building programs for adolescent boys and girls.

Though recent news has focused on a decision by Boy Scouts to allow girls into the program, young women ages 15-20 have been extended Explorer membership since 1971.

The women claim Leininger was made a Scout leader without anyone in the Montana Council taking reasonable efforts to check his background or suitability to be a leader. He also was not properly monitored, according to court documents.

The lawsuit also claims institutional fraud, saying the Montana Council misrepresented and failed to disclose the dangers and prevalence of child molesters in scouting. Boy Scouts knew from at least the 1960s that Scout leader and volunteer positions were being used by predatory child molesters to gain access to and victimize children, according to court documents. 

Court records state five of the women were sexually assaulted by Leininger under the guise of teaching them first aid bandaging techniques. Documents say he also gave a sixth girl, who was 13 at the time, alcohol during a camping trip and raped her.

According to an order written by former judge Jeffrey Sherlock, appointed special master in this case, the Montana Council knew through volunteer leaders and employees that Leininger had a significant history of alcohol abuse and hospitalization. It also did not do sufficient research when choosing Leininger as a Scout leader and the committee's selection of him did not include proper screening or interviews and consisted only of signing him up, according to Sherlock's order.

Scout rules required all Explorer overnight activities provide separate housing for boys and girls, with an adult female leader housed with and responsible for female participants. Alcohol was not allowed. However, Scout leadership in Kalispell knew Leininger took Scouts on outings where he was the sole adult leader of the co-ed Kalispell Explorer post. 

The Montana Council “had the means to exercise reasonable care and failed to do so, leaving (the girls) and others exposed to a sexual predator who plied them with alcohol," Sherlock wrote, creating a "zone of risk" under which the Boy Scouts could reasonably “foresee some injury resulting to minor female members."

Sherlock said the sexual abuse was foreseeable because of extensive Ineligible Volunteer Files that showed the Boy Scouts organization was aware of sexual abuse occurring within its organization.

Since the 1960s, the Boy Scouts have created "ineligible volunteer files" documenting volunteers with known perversions. The files were released in 2012 after an order by the Oregon Supreme Court and included six men from Montana, including Leininger. The document release followed a 2010 Portland case, of which Dumas was a part, where a jury ordered that Boy Scouts of America pay $18.5 million to a man who was abused by a former scoutmaster.

A representative for the Montana Council has not returned a phone call seeking comment.

Mediation will be held in Great Falls and be handled by a retired Oregon judge, Lyle Velure, who has mediated sexual abuse claims against the Portland Archdiocese. If a resolution and settlement are not reached, a trial is scheduled for Nov. 27 in Cascade County District Court.

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