CBC News has learned that Scouts Canada has signed out-of-court confidentiality agreements with more than a dozen child sex-abuse victims in recent years, shielding the incidents from further media attention.
In many of the agreements, a confidentiality clause prevents victims from revealing the amount paid or even the fact that there was a settlement. At least one bars a former boy scout from publicly divulging that the abuse took place.
Scouts Canada has refused to disclose details about any of the settlements. Sources tell CBC News that some settlements were around $200,000.
“An organization like Scouts has some advantages in trying to keep this quiet,” says Rob Talach, a London, Ont., -based lawyer. “Their core message and their core objective in society is a morally positive one.”
CBC’s investigative unit searched civil court records across the country and found a total of 24 lawsuits filed against Scouts Canada since 1995.
Of those, plaintiffs in 13 lawsuits have signed confidentiality agreements.
In all the civil suits, plaintiffs accused the youth organization of failing in some way to protect them during incidents spanning the 1960s to ‘90s.
Confidentiality agreements are common in the business world, but some people question their use when dealing with the sensitive topic of child sex abuse.
“Scouts Canada has never in my particular case admitted any responsibility or ownership of the problem,” said one victim, who signed a confidentiality agreement and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Scouts Canada was interested in minimizing the financial cost to them and to making sure that nobody else ever found out about it.”
One plaintiff, whose confidentiality agreement forbade him from publicly revealing any details about the abuse, said the silence is difficult.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” said the victim who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “And my real instincts in this are to get on a hill and just shout it out.”
Opening up about the abuse felt like a “giant leap” off a cliff, he says, but it was followed by a cheque contingent on keeping it “a secret again for the rest of my life.”
Other confidentiality agreements were less restrictive, but required that the victims not disclose the amount of the settlement or even its existence.
Even those victims felt muzzled by the contract.
“The fact that you’re not allowed to talk about it, you feel victimized again,” said Mark Johnston, who broke his agreement to speak about the settlement. “How can you make sure people are aware that this kind of stuff can happen if you don’t talk about it?”
“If you remain totally silent, then it’s just going to happen again.”
Confidentiality clauses in sex-abuse lawsuits came under scrutiny during the Cornwall inquiry, a three-year probe into how the local Roman Catholic diocese and other authorities dealt with an alleged “pedophile ring” in the eastern Ontario community.
Inquiry Commissioner Norman Glaude’s final report in 2009 recommended that the church ban the use of confidentiality clauses in settlements.
“For survivors of sexual abuse, where secrecy and shame are part of their injury, having to maintain silence in return for payment can have very negative consequences,” he wrote.
Talach, a lawyer who represented childhood abuse victims, says confidentiality agreements can become problematic.
“Though they may be technically legal on paper, they produce a chilling effect on the victims and on those involved that may overstep what the agreement was intended to do,” said Talach.
Even though a confidentiality agreement may bar victims from discussing just the settlement, it may “in the mind of a victim” prevent them from mentioning it to others, including police, says Talach.
Talach, whose clients have sued the Catholic Church, says the church no longer attempts to secure the confidentiality agreements – in part because when disclosed, such agreements garner additional negative press.
Seattle-based sex-abuse lawyer Tim Kosnoff says confidentiality agreements are designed with one aim in mind.
“It’s about institutional protection,” said Kosnoff. “This is a multi-billion dollar institution. They have a powerful, valuable brand.”
“[The Boy Scouts] just happen to be in the business of selling an image of wholesomeness and which the American public has accepted.”
Kosnoff, who has represented clients alleging abuse by Scouts, the Catholic Church and other large organizations, says he won’t allow his clients to sign agreements with confidentiality clauses.
“It’s the same immoral behavior led to the abuse in the first instance,” says Kosnoff. “They don’t want to help [victims], they want to silence them forever.”
One sex-abuse victim who spoke to CBC News is calling for Scouts Canada to lift confidentiality clauses on its settlements with victims.
“The whole issue of this particular cycle of abuse within the Boy Scouts will never end until people start speaking the truth and allow other people to speak the truth.”
If you have more information on this story, or other investigative tips, please firstname.lastname@example.org.