As attorney general and as a gubernatorial candidate this year, one of Democrat Andy Beshear’s biggest issues has been protecting Kentucky children, particularly from sexual predators. Beshear frequently touts his record of hammering on pedophiles and child-porn offenders.
“Whether it’s been years or whether it’s just been days, let us seek justice for you,” Beshear said as he proposed legislation last year to allow him to convene a statewide grand jury to investigate sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church. “That’s how we stop this activity from occurring again and make sure we try to build the type of commonwealth where no child and no person is ever harmed.”
But Beshear sang a different tune six years earlier in Paducah.
Then, as a lawyer in the firm of Stites & Harbison, Beshear successfully defended the Boy Scouts of America from two lawsuits filed by men who said they were sexually molested by their scoutmaster when they were minors in the 1970s. The men — with some evidence, including a 1979 letter — said Scout officials knew at the time of their scoutmaster’s predatory behavior but failed to stop it.
In court filings, Beshear chided the men for waiting too long to come forward — an “inexcusable delay,” he called it — arguing that under Kentucky law, if they were sexually molested as children, they needed to sue anyone they held responsible within five years of their 18th birthdays or else forfeit their claims to compensation. That filing deadline passed in the 1980s, he said.
Although the alleged victims protested that they didn’t know about the Scouts’ alleged cover-up until recently, Beshear convinced McCracken Circuit Judge Tim Kaltenbach, who incorporated much of the lawyer’s reasoning into his June 12, 2012, order of dismissal. The suits never would see the public scrutiny of a jury trial.
“In this case containing allegations of the tragic crime of child sex abuse, plaintiff has waited too long to file his claims under Kentucky law,” Kaltenbach wrote.
As old internal records documenting hundreds of sexual abuse and misconduct allegations have surfaced, the Boy Scouts of America has been fighting similar claims across the country at a cost of many millions of dollars in legal fees and, when necessary, settlement payments. Scout leaders at the organization’s headquarters in Irving, Texas, said in December that they are “working with experts to explore all options available,” in response to news reports about a possible Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Whenever possible, the Scouts try to do what Beshear did: have these child-sex liability suits dismissed before trial by citing the statute of limitations, the time limits imposed by each state on legal actions. It’s unfair for people to sue today over alleged sexual molestation from their long-ago childhoods, the Scouts contend.
Cal Pfeiffer, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse who sits on Beshear’s Survivors Council, said he’s offended by the idea that claims of abuse are less legitimate when people need time to come forward. Sexual abuse survivors might be silent for decades because they are ashamed or their memories are repressed, among other reasons, Pfeiffer said.
“Hearing (Beshear’s) argument, that does surprise me given the way he talks about victims now,” said Pfeiffer, a member of the Louisville branch of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
“My first thought is, that’s hypocritical,” Pfeiffer said. “I mean, I have friends who are attorneys. And I know they would defend someone on a murder case. They wouldn’t even want to know if their client had done it, because that would make it harder to represent them. But it kind of irritates me, too, because with attorneys, if they can turn on a dime and represent either side of an issue, then it’s like we don’t really know what they think, do we?”
Defending children has been a core issue of Beshear’s tenure as attorney general. He created the Office of Child Abuse and Human Trafficking Prevention and Prosecution in January 2016, shortly after taking office, to prevent Kentucky children from becoming victims of abuse and sexual exploitation, he said. He also has been an active supporter of Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky.
In a recent opinion piece for newspapers statewide, Beshear said crime victims deserve to be heard.
“As I travel the state, I continue to hear from individuals and their families who have transformed their trauma and want to advocate for changes in policies and decisions that impacted them and other victims,” Beshear wrote. “I learned early on as attorney general that government, especially when it came to offering services to victims, had to do things differently in order to give a voice to these survivors and ensure that what we do helps and uplifts those who have experienced trauma.”
In an interview this week, Beshear said there is no inconsistency between his political positions and his work in Paducah. He said he properly defended the national and regional Boy Scouts, organizations that he believes did nothing wrong, and not the scoutmaster accused of molesting adolescent Scouts or the local troop leaders on whose watch the alleged sexual abuse occurred.
“What I’d say to Cal is, when you’re a lawyer you represent clients, and when you’re in a law firm, that’s the business that they do, and that I represented an organization. I would have never represented an abuser,” Beshear said.
“I think the Boy Scouts have done a significant amount over the last 30 years to certainly improve practices and procedures,” Beshear added. “But we’re talking about a case in the ‘70s where no one had the best practices and procedures in place. During the 1970s, society unfortunately approached a lot of these things differently.”