The Boy Scouts file for bankruptcy, then issue two vastly different statements

So many people have sued the Boy Scouts of America over childhood sexual abuse that the organization has filed for bankruptcy. The organization made one official statement and one heartfelt statement. While what happened is terrible, their communication about it is intriguing.

Let’s start with this. Childhood sexual abuse is horrifying and awful, ruining lives. Any organization that works with children must have policies in place to prevent and stop such abuse. The Boy Scouts have this now, but they were too lax in the past, resulting in abusers getting away with repeated offenses. There is no getting around this: the organization screwed up and the result was ruined lives. In no way is this post an attempt to excuse or justify any of their past actions or inactions.

As any reader of this space knows, however, what an organization does after it recognizes a screwup is crucial. The Boy Scouts did two things: they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and they apologized. This two-track response has a lot to recommend it.

Analyzing the Boy Scouts’ statement on the bankruptcy

The position that BSA is in now is this: it has major assets, including land, and huge liabilities to those who are suing. Furthermore, it has local “councils” that have their own assets and problems. Allowing suits to proceed one by one with no organized process isn’t fair to those suing, or to the current scouts, or to the local councils. That’s what demanded the Chapter 11 filing.

Here’s some of the statement that BSA made about that filing:

The Boy Scouts of America Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy to Equitably Compensate Victims While Ensuring Scouting Continues Across the Country

Local Councils are Not Filing for Bankruptcy as They are Legally Separate and Distinct Organizations

IRVING, TX – February 18, 2020 – The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) today announced that the national organization has filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code to achieve two key objectives: equitably compensate victims who were harmed during their time in Scouting and continue carrying out its mission for years to come. The BSA intends to use the Chapter 11 process to create a Victims Compensation Trust that would provide equitable compensation to victims.

Scouting programs, including unit meetings and activities, council events, other Scouting adventures and countless service projects, will continue throughout this process and for many years to come. The BSA fully intends to maintain its commitments to its members, families, volunteer leaders, employees, retirees, donors and alumni to the fullest extent permitted by bankruptcy laws. The organization also will pay its vendors and partners for all goods and services delivered from today forward.

Local councils, which provide programming, financial, facility and administrative support to Scouting units in their communities, have not filed for bankruptcy. They are legally separate, distinct and financially independent from the national organization.

“The BSA cares deeply about all victims of abuse and sincerely apologizes to anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting. We are outraged that there have been times when individuals took advantage of our programs to harm innocent children,” said Roger Mosby, President and Chief Executive Officer. “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.” . . .

Additional information about the BSA’s multilayered safeguards, our commitment to support victims, and our efforts to be part of the broader solution to child abuse is available at www.scouting.org/youth-safety.

Read the BSA’s Open Letter to Victims here.

More information and updates about the restructuring are available via the national organization’s dedicated restructuring website, www.BSArestructuring.org. Victims, as well as vendors and other potential creditors who have questions about their claims may contact Restructuring@scouting.org or call 1-866-907-BSA1 for the fastest response.

This is a straightforward statement of the facts behind the bankruptcy. It also includes clear instructions for scouts who were sexually abused, and a site at bsaretructuring.org with resources. Finally, it includes a pro-forma apology.

On an objective basis, this is effective. On an emotional basis, though, it seems coldhearted and far too businesslike. If this were the only statement from the BSA, it would be a failure. But it isn’t.

The head of the BSA also wrote a sincere apology

There is a second statement on the BSA restructuring site, addressed to the scouts who suffered. It’s below:

An Open Letter to Victims from the Boy Scouts of America

Any incident of child abuse is one too many.

As a father, a former Scout, and the National Chair of the Boy Scouts of America, I am truly heartbroken that you were harmed during your time in Scouting and that you carry unfathomable pain.

I am outraged that individuals took advantage of our programs to commit these heinous acts.

I am also outraged that there were times when volunteers and employees ignored our procedures or forgave transgressions that are unforgivable. In some cases, this led to tragic acts of abuse. While those instances were limited, they mean we didn’t do enough to protect the children in our care – to protect you.

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.

Please know we have worked consistently over many years to implement multilayered policies to keep kids safe. As knowledge on child sexual abuse prevention has advanced, so have our expert-informed policies, including mandatory background checks and trainings, a ban on one-on-one interactions between youth and adults, and mandatory reporting of any suspicion of abuse to law enforcement. Today, we believe the BSA’s youth safety measures are the strongest and most effective policies found in any youth-serving organization.

I regret that these measures weren’t always in place or weren’t always enough. The fact is that predators harmed innocent children in Scouting programs, and for this I am deeply sorry.

The BSA cannot undo what happened to you, but we are committed to supporting you and to doing everything in our power to prevent it from happening to others. It is a social and moral responsibility that I and the entire organization take extremely seriously. We believe that all victims should receive our support and compensation – and we have taken decisive action to make that possible.

Specifically, the national organization of the Boy Scouts of America has initiated a voluntary financial restructuring to ensure we can equitably compensate all victims of past abuse in our programs, through a proposed Victim’s Compensation Trust.

I encourage you, and all victims to come forward and file claims so you can receive compensation from this Trust. We will provide clear notices about how to do so.

I want you to know that we believe you, we believe in compensating you, and we have programs in place to pay for counseling for you and your family by a provider of your choice.

We have also partnered with 1in6, a trusted national resource for male survivors, to expand their services so that you are able to anonymously access vital support from trained advocates when and how you need it. You can access these services at www.1in6.org/BSA.

The abuse you suffered weighs on us all every day. But your courage also motivates us to do more for the children we are entrusted to protect. We will do better – for you, for kids today, and for kids tomorrow.

Yours in Scouting,
Jim Turley, National Chair, Boy Scouts of America

As apologies go, this is the best you can do.

It is written in the first person from the head of the organization.

It apologizes directly to those who were harmed, in human terms.

It explains, without being defensive, what happened before and how things are better now.

It provides resources for those who were harmed.

Every company that hurts people should have its leader write a statement like this.

The effectiveness of the two-statement solution

As I’ve read hundreds of statements from companies that have screwed up, I’ve been struck by the challenge these companies face.

They write a statement that is intended to be businesslike and explain facts to stakeholders. Such statements are often cold, self-justifying, and self-serving.

They include an apology within that statement. The context undermines such apologies, and they often come off as insincere.

This may be an unsolvable problem if there is only definitive statement.

The BSA’s solution — writing a heartfelt, emotional apology free from defensive self-justification, and second more businesslike statement with facts and information — appears to be the right solution to such a problem.

I believe this is best practice for every company that screws up.

Please, if your organization takes care of children, or customers, or anyone, put the safeguards in place to keep us safe.

But if and when you screw up, consider issuing two statements like this. It will keep your head and your heart from interfering with each other, and is therefore far more effective.

3 responses to “The Boy Scouts file for bankruptcy, then issue two vastly different statements

  1. Agree with all of your comments, Josh. The only thing that was not addressed in the Chair’s apology was how the breakdown in reporting (over decades) failed between local councils and the national federation. “Ignorance” of “upper management” of the abuse is no excuse. It’s why we had a Royal Commission in Australia to investigate institutionalised child abuse, primarily through religious institutions and schools, but not excluding other organisations. Despite this, more explosive allegations have just surfaced from yet another exclusive, high-end, religious-based boys school in Melbourne.

    The clear explanation identifying the separation between the two that will support the existing victims and protect the “institution” of the local councils may well be the same barrier that fails to protect potential future victims. I think they need to more clearly identify how the fed supports the councils and, likewise, where members, parents, volunteers, employees, etc can escalate past local management where they feel they are not being supported or their concerns addressed or adequately investigated.

    1. I agree with you, Rob, that this needs to be very accurately identified and fixed. That being said, it’s an additional piece of communication that belongs in, for example, a written FAQ on their website for those who seek the details of those (and other) answers, as well as provided as clear message points to their team members who will be faced with such questions by different stakeholders.

  2. As always, really well analyzed and expressed, Josh. 

    The two statement approach they took represents the two essential and necessary “action” and “communication” sides of crisis management. While there are some slight changes that I would have advised for each of the communications, BSA did and seem to be doing a good job in both communicating their apology and empathy, and taking the necessary actions to prove that they are finally taking this situation seriously, righting the wrongs committed (though we can all agree that these are wrongs that can never truly be righted), and putting measures in place to change their culture and prevent future acts (or risks) of abuse.

    This entire strategy, along with more to be done behind the scenes and more yet to be done consistently moving forward, is absolutely needed if they have any chance of mending broken trust and doing right by those they have failed.

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