Updated September 17, 2020 - 8:29 am
Scott Powell said he suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a Boy Scouts of America scoutmaster for years, first in Arizona and then in Henderson when he and his mother moved in with the man.
Now Powell, 58, is one of 111 Nevada residents and nearly 10,000 people nationwide who have filed claims against the BSA alleging the organization knew about the abuse but failed to stop it.
“It’s an organization supposedly to help kids,” Powell said. “Why wasn’t there some kind of oversight of the scoutmasters? Clearly, there was not enough supervision of the adults.”
Powell, of Las Vegas, said John Craig Cowan moved to Bullhead City, Arizona, in the early 1970s and became the scoutmaster of a local troop while working as a physician’s assistant. Powell was about 11 years old at the time and was looking for a father figure after his parents’ divorce.
Cowan was not romantically involved with Powell’s mother, but they were friends. When Cowan moved to Henderson, he convinced her to share a house to save money, Powell told the Review-Journal.
Cowan repeatedly molested Powell but told the boy he was providing medical treatment, Powell claimed.
The Boy Scouts declined an interview but provided a statement to the Review-Journal.
“We have a very low threshold for removing someone from our Scouting programs,” the statement said. “Again — this is because our priority is to protect kids, first and foremost, above all else.”
But lawyers for the victims said the BSA knew about the abuse, keeping perversion files on as many as 70,000 staffers and volunteers. The nonprofit failed to turn over the records to authorities or warn families, said Andrew Van Arsdale, an attorney at Abused in Scouting, a group of lawyers who have banded together to represent victims sex abuse by Boy Scout leaders.
“They knew it was going on, didn’t tell people it was going on and deliberately hid the files,” he said.
Van Arsdale’s website lists nearly two dozen Nevada scout organizations with abuse allegations. Plaintiff’s attorneys identified more than 30 abusers in nearly two dozen troops and other BSA entities, according to the attorneys.
Hundreds of lawsuits were filed around the country alleging similar abuse by BSA employees and volunteers. In February, with abuse allegations increasing, BSA filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Delaware. Judge Laurie Selber Silverstein set a Nov. 16 deadline for claims.
The chairman of the Boy Scouts issued an open letter in February apologizing for the abuse and announcing a trust to compensate victims. “While those instances were limited, they mean we didn’t do enough to protect the children in our care — to protect you,” Jim Turley’s letter posted on news websites said. “On behalf of myself and the entire Scouting community: I am sorry. I am devastated that there were times in the past when we failed the very children we were supposed to protect.”
In 2015, Nevada lawmakers increased the criminal statute of limitations on sex assault from four to 20 years but only for cases that happened on or after Oct. 1, 2015. In Nevada, the civil statute for claims is 18 years after the victim’s 20th birthday or 20 years after discovering the abuse.
Las Vegas resident Donavan Kinser, 48, was about 8 years old when he attended a scout jamboree in Reno. He said a scoutmaster got him alone and molested him.
“Those are things an 8-year-old shouldn’t be seeing,” he said. “I’ve had to live with it my whole life.”
He said he never went to another jamboree and eventually left the group.
Powell and Kinser are part of a group of more than 100 Nevada residents or people who claimed they were abused in the state by BSA personnel. In the past two weeks, 25 additional Nevada residents have approached lawyers about starting a claim. With the bankruptcy deadline looming, lawyers expect about 200 Nevada victims by mid-November.
“These are not fondling cases that happened one time,” he said. “These are repeated sodomy over a number of years. Scoutmasters violently raping children.”
Scouting has declined in popularity from its peak in the 1970s, when BSA claimed more than 6 million members. Now about 2 million participate in the program.
Van Arsdale said the bankruptcy was an attempt to limit the organization’s liability in the face of a number of states extending the statute of limitations for filing sex abuse claims as part of reforms sparked by the #MeToo movement.
BSA’s bankruptcy filing froze civil cases with the expectation that the federal court can determine the settlement. Van Arsdale expects to have 25,000 victims nationwide by the deadline.
He said BSA is culpable because the organization knew of abuse for about a century.
“They didn’t do enough to stop it,” Van Arsdale said. “They didn’t put in proper screening criteria to screen them out in the first place.”
Van Arsdale said that after the filing deadline, negotiations will determine how much the BSA will set aside for victims. In similar abuse cases, the average was around $400,000 per victim, but he declined to say how much his clients will seek.
The lawyers expect to be paid about 30 to 40 percent of the settlement.
Powell’s abuse continued for years in Henderson, particularly when his mother moved out of the house to get married. Powell said his mother did not know about the abuse and told him she thought it was best for him to stay with Cowan.
“When I was 16, I put a stop to it,” said Scott, who now lives in Las Vegas. “I never saw anybody from the Boy Scouts come and look in and see what was going on in Bullhead City.” He said he did not tell anyone about the abuse until he was an adult.
Powell said the abuse stopped, but he had to live with Cowan for two more years until he was old enough to earn money to move out.
Decades later, Cowan was charged with possessing and making child porn. He pleaded guilty to the possessing porn charge and received probation and a suspended sentence in 1996, Clark County court records show.
Cowan was never prosecuted for what Powell says happened to him. Powell said his mother saw the news about Cowan’s arrest in the 1990s but even then he didn’t tell her Cowan abused him. Public records show Cowan died in 2009 in Arizona.
Kinser said the history of abuse justifies disbanding the BSA.
“How do you change something that’s been wrong for 100 years?” he asked.
But Powell said the organization should survive if it can institute proper controls.
“It’s a good idea,” he said. “It’s the practice that’s the problem. If they could find a way to keep it (sex abuse) from happening and find a way to responsibly run the organization, then it should continue.”
BSA has a program to train people to identify abuse and to report it at www.scouting.org/training/youth-protection/ There is a dedicated 24-hour help line to receive reports of known or suspected abuse that might put youths at risk. The phone number is 844-726-8871.
Contact Arthur Kane at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Kane is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.