News and Views

A message from Bishop Easterling on Boy Scout units charted by UM churches

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Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

 As many of you are already aware, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) filed for bankruptcy relief in early 2020, after becoming overwhelmed with liability exposure arising from pending and threatened sexual assault lawsuits nationwide. BSA leadership is seeking to resolve all victim abuse claims involving the BSA and its local councils. As I recently communicated, my primary response to this development is profound sorrow and grief for the unfathomable harm inflicted on the survivors by their Boy Scout leaders.

 I am writing now, more directly, to all local churches within the Baltimore-Washington Conference to provide an update on the pending bankruptcy case; to describe the impact those proceedings are currently having on The United Methodist Church’s longstanding ministry with Scouting; and to provide local churches that currently sponsor a Boy Scout unit, or that are thinking of doing so, with guidance on how they should proceed while the bankruptcy case is pending.

 Guiding Principles

 The current reality makes it necessary for United Methodists to be clear-eyed, focused, and pragmatic in evaluating the material impact the pending bankruptcy proceedings may have on our Scouting ministry and more broadly in our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That said, the leadership of the Baltimore-Washington Conference is steadfast in insisting that our primary focus, and our overarching purpose, must be working to heal the unspeakable harm that has been inflicted on the survivors of sexual abuse. Our faith and belief in the power of prayer commend us to pray for the survivors and their families. But we will do more than pray. As the resolution process unfolds, we in the Baltimore-Washington Conference are committed to working toward repairing harm and reaching a fair and just resolution on these matters. 

 By the same token, as the bankruptcy case makes its way through the judicial system, it is important to understand that our local churches are not in an adversarial process with local Scouts or Scout leaders in our communities. We are grateful for all those in our communities who continue to invest in the formation of young people through Scouting. The guidance we offer is gauged to ensure that the United Methodist ministry in Scouting not only continues but thrives.

 Additionally, this tragic situation is also a reminder to us who are charged with the stewardship of the life of congregations and their ministries to be vigilant, to regularly update each congregation’s Safe Sanctuary Policy, and continue to offer training on, review, and monitor the implementation of the policy in our ministry settings. 

 Update on the Bankruptcy Case

 To ensure that United Methodists have a presence in the process and to protect our interests, the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) organized an “Ad Hoc Committee” comprised of several Conference chancellors, GCFA’s General Counsel and Associate General Counsel, and representatives of the General Commission on United Methodist Men, including its General Secretary and its Director of Scouting Ministries. The Committee then retained outside bankruptcy counsel to ensure that United Methodist churches and their annual conferences have a voice in the bankruptcy proceedings. 

 Earlier this year, the BSA filed a proposed “Plan of Reorganization and Disclosure Statement.” More recently, the BSA announced that it has reached an agreement with lawyers representing various groups of claimants, to resolve all claims asserted against the BSA. After conducting a thorough review of the BSA’s proposed plan and the outlines of its agreement with the claimants’ lawyers, the Ad Hoc Committee and its outside counsel — along with attorneys representing Roman Catholic chartered organizations — have reached the conclusion that the BSA’s proposals leave their Chartered Organizations out on a limb by themselves. These Chartered Organizations include you, the local United Methodist churches that sponsor or host a Scout troop, pack, crew, or other units. The details of these plans are still being played out, but the BSA is placing all of our United Methodist churches who have ever been involved in Scouting in a very difficult position.

 Continued Exposure of Chartered Organizations

 Historically, the BSA developed charter or sponsor agreements that its local councils used to document the relationship with Chartered Organizations, including local churches. These charter or sponsor agreements had long placed supervisory and other obligations on local churches, which have since been used in litigation to expose local churches to significant abuse claims. Beginning in 1976, however, the BSA agreed to provide substantial liability protection to Chartered Organizations by naming all Chartered Organizations as “additional insureds” under the BSA’s own insurance policies. Thereafter, the Chartered Organizations’ status as “additional insureds” under BSA’s policies was understood to protect our local church Chartered Organizations from lawsuits seeking damages for abuse perpetrated by some Scout leaders, with the insurance covering both the costs incurred for legal representation and any damages awarded to survivors.

 However, despite the BSA’s consistent past assurances that it would indemnify Chartered Organizations against claims related to official Scouting activities and that it held enough insurance to cover any liability imposed on their Chartered Organizations, we now know that the BSA did not have sufficient insurance. This leaves United Methodist local churches at risk of having no available insurance coverage through the BSA and of having to pay significant sums to compensate survivors of abuse for any damages they suffered. In addition, the local churches will have to pay for the cost of their own attorneys to defend those claims, should any be filed. 

 Adjusting Your Near-Term Relationship with BSA

 The Ad Hoc Committee believes that the vital interests of United Methodist Chartered Organizations are not adequately protected under the BSA’s current proposed plan. This may change, but until future developments become more certain, the Committee’s advice is for all United Methodist Chartered Organizations to limit their exposure to future claims and withhold approval of the BSA’s proposed plan. 

 More specifically, the Committee recommends that local churches across the denomination adjust their relationship with the BSA and its local councils for at least the balance of this calendar year. We agree with this recommendation. Under the Bankruptcy Code, the BSA’s ability to reorganize and continue operations requires that it obtain Bankruptcy Court approval of a feasible business plan. The BSA will need the cooperation and support of United Methodists — who have more chartered organizations than any other denomination — to convince the Court that its business plan is feasible. Our solidarity, then, is a means of demonstrating to the BSA that United Methodists love Scouting and will accept responsibility for their role in this tragedy, but they cannot fairly be asked to shoulder the BSA’s own liabilities.

 If your local church currently charters a Scout unit, we recommend that you NOT renew that chartering agreement when it is up for renewal or re-chartering this fall. Instead, we recommend one of two options, the choice of which is up to you.

  1. Tell the local Scout council that you will NOT renew that chartering agreement but will only extend the current agreement until December 31, 2021.  
  2. Tell the local Scout council that you will NOT renew that chartering agreement but will enter into a Facilities Use Agreement with their unit until December 31, 2021. This will act similarly to a lease allowing the Scout unit to use your space, but they will be responsible for everything else, including the selection of leaders.

 If your local church currently has a Facilities Use Agreement with a Scout unit, we recommend that you NOT renew that agreement when it is up for renewal this fall, but only extend it until December 31, 2021. Also, make sure your Facilities Use Agreement has appropriate indemnification and insurance provisions included, and that you require the Scout unit to provide you a certificate of insurance indicating the church has been added as an additional insured on all policies.

 If your local church does not charter a Scout unit at this time, we recommend that you NOT consider chartering a unit until the bankruptcy case is finalized and we understand how the United Methodist relationship with Scouts will continue in the future.

 We understand that these recommendations are extraordinary, but we believe they represent the only prudent course of action at this time. We are determined to preserve a robust United Methodist involvement in Scouting, but not on terms that impose unfair burdens on our local churches. Our sincere hope is that making these recommended adjustments paves the way for a reorganization plan to emerge that provides fair treatment to all Chartered Organizations. In any case, once a reorganization plan is finally approved by the bankruptcy court, we will know better how to proceed.

 Final Thoughts

 We know the value of Scouting. It has played a very large role in the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church for a very long time. And for just that reason, it is particularly painful that the BSA is not proving faithful to the promises it made to indemnify and insure United Methodist Chartered Organizations. As things currently stand, we would be dishonoring our obligation to be faithful stewards by reflexively re-committing to the relationship we have had with the BSA in the past. Until we know how the BSA will be organized and operate in the future, we must make some changes. We will do all in our power to continue The United Methodist Church’s long connection with Scouting, but the near-term changes we make today will make that outcome far more likely.

 As always, we thank you for your leadership during a season filled with challenges. You have led through the pandemic, stepped forward to initiate efforts to end racism, and faced local challenges with conviction and courage. The Baltimore-Washington Conference strives to provide resources and support its congregations’ needs in their efforts to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our commitment to the safety of all people in ministry settings, with a particular emphasis on young people and those most vulnerable, is affirmed in our Safe Sanctuaries Policy and in our Sexual Ethics Policy and related processes.

 To provide additional support during the resolution process of this present matter with the Boy Scouts of America, we have hired a clergyperson, the Rev. Rebecca Iannicelli, to consult with our Chancellor, Tom Starnes, and to serve as a principal point of contact for our local churches on these issues. Rev. Iannicelli can be reached via email at Rev. Iannicelli has a longstanding dedication to Scouting and, owing to her prior work as a practicing lawyer, has for several years on BWC’s Cabinet resourced congregations that have faced various legal challenges. In this new temporary role, we are confident that Rev. Iannicelli will be able to provide one-on-one guidance to congregational leaders as they navigate this most recent challenge.

 Let us always remember that we are never apart from the grace and mercy of our Lord. In many ways, this is also a season of renewal and hope. God is unfolding opportunities to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer faith, hope, and healing to a hurting and anxious world. May the peace of God dwell within you as you lead the church forward.

 Peace and Blessings,
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling
Baltimore-Washington Conference and Peninsula Delaware Conference
The United Methodist Church