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Appeals court rules Boy Scouts not liable in sexual abuse case

HARTFORD — Connecticut’s second-highest court ruled Monday that the Boy Scouts of America and a local council of the group aren’t liable for a former scouting leader’s sexual molestation of a boy.

The Appellate Court panel issued a 3-0 ruling that upheld a lower court decision in favor of the national organization and the Connecticut Rivers Council chapter, which argued they couldn’t be held responsible for the abuse by former Tolland resident James W. Harris III.

The decision came in a lawsuit filed by a man who said Harris sexually abused him numerous times between 2001 and 2007, starting when he was a 10-year-old Cub Scout and after Harris became his stepfather. Claims against Harris in the lawsuit remain pending.

Harris was sentenced to 15 years in prison in March 2009 after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting the boy and two other children.

The victim, now in his early 20s, alleged in the lawsuit that the Boy Scouts of America and the Connecticut Rivers Council had a duty to protect youths in their organizations and failed to shield him from Harris’ abuse. The council provides scouting programs in 127 of Connecticut’s 169 towns.

His lawyer, Frank Bartlett Jr., said he was disappointed with the Appellate Court’s ruling, and he and his client will be deciding whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court. Bartlett said former Boy Scouts of America Chief Scout Executive Robert Mazzuca, who retired in August 2012, has acknowledged that the organization has a duty to protect children.

“It’s clear they have a responsibility to protect youths and scouts from abuse,” Bartlett said.

An attorney for the Boy Scouts didn’t return a message Monday.

The victim told police that Harris, a leader of an eastern Connecticut Boy Scouts troop, took him on numerous camping trips sponsored by the Boy Scouts and sexually abused him during the trips. Harris married the boy’s mother in 1999, two years before the abuse began.

The Appellate Court agreed with the Boy Scouts and the Connecticut Rivers Council, who argued they were not liable because it’s up to the local troops and packs to select and oversee their volunteers. The national chapter and council said they don’t direct or supervise the activities of local troops and packs.

“As regrettable and tragic as the circumstances of this case are for the plaintiff, we agree with the trial court that the defendants were not in control of the situation and that Harris is the person responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries, not the defendants,” Judge Douglas S. Lavine wrote in the decision.

The court also rejected another argument by the plaintiff that the trial court improperly denied his request for documents showing the Boy Scouts’ “knowledge of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse within scouting” in the time before the plaintiff was abused. The trial court ruled that the request was too vague.

Similar lawsuits have been filed in several states seeking to hold the Boy Scouts responsible for sexual abuse by scout leaders.



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