This story contains descriptions of child sexual abuse and may be disturbing for some readers.
COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — A pair of skimpy swim trunks was how Mujaddid Muhammad’s stepfather discovered his 9-year-old son had suffered repeated sexual abuse at the hands of a once-trusted figure: his Boy Scout troop leader.
Muhammad, now 56, of Columbus, said he kept the months-long abuse he endured at camping outings and his scout leader’s house bottled up for nearly two decades, refusing to tell a soul until he was 25 years old.
“My mom thought the world of him,” he said. “She thought he was a good big brother, a good mentor for me, you know, so she would allow him anytime to come get me, not knowing this abuse was going on.”
The childhood abuse set Muhammad up for a “self-destructive” life, he said, including a series of drug and robbery convictions that landed him behind bars for more than 30 years in state and federal prison.
But now, five years after his release from prison, Muhammad and fellow Ohio survivors of the revered Boy Scouts of America are demanding accountability – and a fair share of the $2.7 billion bankruptcy settlement – from the 112-year-old youth organization they entrusted with their lives.
“When pedophiles are going around and raping kids, they’re not just raping them,” Chris Graham, a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of a Powell priest, said. “It’s also a robbery; they’re stealing these kids’ voices.”
Boy Scouts ‘perversion files’ released, bankruptcy follows
Plagued with sexual abuse claims since the 1920s, the BSA was ordered by a judge in 2012 to release thousands of internal documents nicknamed the “perversion files” that detailed a list of troop leaders accused of pedophilia.
“The Scouts certainly, in all of these cases, could have referred the cases to the appropriate authorities, whether that’s a state attorney general or local police or anything,” said Eric Palmer, a Chillicothe attorney who was molested when he was 12 years old by his troop leader. “In most of these instances, the Scouts never did that, and again, this is for decades.”
The perversion files cleared the way for the filing of thousands of sex abuse lawsuits, and with them, massive legal costs – ultimately forcing the Scouts to file for bankruptcy in 2020.
“While we know nothing can undo the tragic abuse that victims suffered, we believe the Chapter 11 process — with the proposed Trust structure — will provide equitable compensation to all victims while maintaining the BSA’s important mission,” Roger Mosby, BSA’s president and CEO, told NBC in 2020.
Ohio survivors blocked from getting 100% share of settlement
A 281-page ruling handed down by a federal bankruptcy judge on Monday solidified most plans for the BSA to divvy up $2.7 billion – the largest child sex abuse case in U.S. history – among the 82,209 survivors who filed claims against them.
Of those claims, nearly 2,000 hail from Ohio.
But because of Ohio’s civil statute of limitations – which bars child sex abuse victims from pursuing civil action against a perpetrator once they turn 30 – survivors like Muhammad and Palmer are only slated to receive between 30 and 45% of their total share of the settlement, according to state Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati).
While 86% of child sexual abuse goes unreported nationwide, victims and survivors who choose to report don’t come forward until an average age of 52, according to a March 2020 report from the child protection think tank Child USA.
“What that means is if a pedophile rapes a kid, so long as that kid keeps silent, the pedophile gets off scot-free,” Graham said.
A complicated “scaling factor” imposed in the BSA’s bankruptcy settlement weighs the amount of damages each survivor can recoup based on the length of the state’s statute of limitations, Seitz said.
“If you’ve got a longer statute of limitations, the way the settlement reads is you might be entitled to greater compensation than if you had a shorter statute of limitations,” he said.
For instance, the BSA’s compensation calculator estimates that an Ohio boy scout who was raped may be entitled to damages between $22,500 and $637,875.
But in California, where the statute of limitations for child sex abuse claims is 10 years longer than in Ohio, scout abuse survivors could redeem between $60,000 and $1.7 million in damages.
“If you had a victim that was similarly victimized in a state with a long statute of limitations versus one with a shorter statute of limitations,” Seitz said, “Why should they not both be eligible for the same amount of compensation that the bankrupt defendant is willing to pay?”
Scout’s Honor Law: Ohioans shouldn’t get short end of the stick
That’s where House Bill 709, or the Scout’s Honor Law, comes into play.
Graham, a citizen lobbyist and outspoken advocate for statute of limitations reform, said he pitched an idea to Rep. Jessica Miranda (D-Forest Park) to ensure Ohio’s BSA victims receive 100% of their share of the settlement.
“We’re talking about passing a law that would bring hundreds of millions of dollars to survivors in Ohio,” Graham said.
Scout’s Honor Law, introduced by the bipartisan duo Miranda and Seitz on July 22, would abolish the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims – but only in cases where survivors file claims against a bankruptcy estate.
“This is, in my view, a way of making sure that Ohio victims of abuse, alleged abuse at the hands of the Boy Scouts, are treated equitably with similarly situated victims in other states,” Seitz said.
Under the bankruptcy settlement, Graham said “a footnote of a footnote” allows the scaling factor – which sets Ohio survivors’ damages at 30-45% of the total share – to be adjusted if the state legislature enacts a bill within one year to expand or abolish the civil statute of limitations.
“It’s the reality that the Boy Scout settlement is here, it is now, and there is less than a year now to adopt anything that would improve the statute of limitations in a particular state,” Palmer said.
A brotherhood of ‘debilitating demons’ with healing on the horizon
It’s been 40 years since Palmer, now 51, said his scout leader pinned him to the ground and assaulted him at Camp Chief Logan in southern Ohio. But recounting how his body was “frozen in place” still brings him to tears.
Palmer said he stopped going to church, where his scout leader was frequently involved. And his grades in elementary and middle school “tanked.”
“I managed to get through some of those things, but we all have debilitating demons that will be with us for the rest of our life,” he said.
Although Palmer’s perpetrator publicly confessed to molesting several boy scouts in a Facebook message in 2020, the Chillicothe troop leader was never criminally charged, as the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution in Ohio had expired.
“It was a relief that he admitted to doing it, but it was also trauma all over again. Literally the couple days after he posted, I don’t think I could get up off the couch barely,” Palmer said. “It’s those little things that we relive – not little things – but it’s those things we relive in little bits, if not day after day, certainly week after week.”
Palmer could not bring himself to speak about the abuse until he was 40 – a little earlier than the average age of 52 at which child sex abuse victims come forward. It is notable for victims to come forward at all, as 86% of child sex abuse goes unreported altogether, according to the child protection think tank Child USA.
That’s why he, Graham, Muhammad and fellow BSA survivors — a brotherhood — are urging state lawmakers to overhaul what they called Ohio’s antiquated statute of limitations laws. Although Rep. Seitz is fully on board with HB 709 given the “unique set of circumstances” posed by the Boy Scouts of America case, he has been a staunch opponent of earlier attempts to expand SOLs in Ohio.
“I believe statutes of limitations exist to encourage people to bring forward their claims when their story is fresh, when their witnesses are more available, when the documents and other evidence are more easily preserved than if we were to wait 20, 30, 40, 50 years down the line,” Seitz said.
Muhammad, who was released from prison in 2018, is now the community resource director of the Horizon Prison Initiative, a non-profit that works with incarcerated people in Ohio to help them process trauma and reduce recidivism.
“I came across a saying that ‘Trauma not transformed is transferred. Hurt people hurt people,’ and that’s the state that I was stuck in,” Muhammad said. “What I coined from that phrase is ‘Trauma transformed is healing transferred. Healed people help people.’ And that’s what I seek to get from the work that I do in helping others come to grips with their trauma.”
Getting a check in the mail from the institution that failed to protect him, Muhammad said, would be one step forward in rectifying “all of the ramifications” of the trauma he endured at 9 years old.
“When I came home, I told everybody that it was about legacy now,” he said. “I’ve been gone for 30 years, you know, so it will be redemption for my family.”
Contact the Sexual Assault Response Network of Central Ohio’s (SARNCO) 24-hour sexual assault helpline at 614-267-7020.