Number of cases expected to jump in August when one-year window opens for old claims
According to The Buffalo News, Ronald C. Williams has served prison sentences in three states for child sex abuse felony convictions over the past 28 years. But Williams’ penchant for sexually abusing children goes back to when he was a K-9 patrolman on the Buffalo police force and volunteered with the Boy Scouts, according to Bob O’Donnell of the Town of Boston.
O’Donnell said Williams, who had been his Cub Scout leader, abused him at least 10 times in the mid-1970s, when O’Donnell was 13 or 14 and Williams took him canoeing and camping on Eighteen Mile Creek.
“The guy pretty much raped me, more than once, by giving me enough alcohol so that I didn’t even realize what was going on,” said O’Donnell, who is now 54.
Williams is among the more than two dozen Western New York-area Boy Scout leaders since the 1950s who have been accused of molesting children or of sex-related offenses. Nineteen were charged with crimes.
When a one-year window opens in August allowing decades-old claims of sex abuse to be heard in New York courts for the first time, some attorneys said the number of lawsuits against the Boy Scouts of America could rival or even surpass those facing Catholic dioceses.
O’Donnell has hired attorney Jason P. Amala of Seattle to sue the Boy Scouts, under a new state law that gives survivors of sex abuse by Scout leaders an opportunity to seek justice in a civil court.
“If they knew, they should be held accountable,” said O’Donnell. “The Scouts made it seem to parents like it was a safe place to send their kids, and it wasn’t. I guarantee that my family would not have sent me there if there was a chance at all of anything like this happening.”
In April, Michael Surbaugh, chief scout executive for Boy Scouts of America, apologized to victims of abuse and encouraged them to come forward. He also said the organization will pay for unlimited counseling by a provider of their choosing.
Court orders since 2012 in other parts of the country have made public the names of about 5,000 Scout leaders who were accused of abuse in internal Boy Scouts of America “Ineligible Volunteers” documents known as the “perversion files.” Amala said he believes the names revealed in the files amount to a fraction of the overall number of Boy Scout perpetrators.
“Most of the people that we have represented over the years have been abused by Scout leaders who are not in the files,” he said.
Minnesota attorney Jeffrey Anderson last month said the organization was withholding the names of additional Scout leaders.
Recent testimony by an expert witness who was retained to audit Boy Scout files has found 7,819 alleged perpetrators in the perversion files, Anderson said. The expert witness, Janet Warren, also found 12,254 victims of abuse in her audit, he said.
The files are getting renewed attention since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in February signed the Child Victims Act, which extends the statute of limitations going forward on child sex abuse lawsuits until the victim’s 55th birthday. The new law also allows lawsuits in child sex abuse cases that were time-barred under the previous statute of limitations to be heard in court, as long as a claim is filed between this Aug. 14 and Aug. 14, 2020.
How Scouts handled claims
The perversion files provide a detailed look into alleged child sex crimes of Scout leaders and how the organization handled them before 1987. They include the names of 22 men from Western New York and more than 130 across the state.
In 13 of the Western New York cases, Boy Scout executives banned a Scout leader after law enforcement made them aware he was suspected of, charged with or convicted of a crime – or after the alleged crime became public in a newspaper account.
In eight of the cases, Boy Scouts banned a volunteer based upon reports of alleged abuse from parents or from the victims themselves. The files don’t mention if the Boy Scouts referred those cases to law enforcement for investigation.
“If it’s a complaint they receive directly, without an arrest or conviction, they don’t appear to take it as seriously,” said Amala.
In one 1977 case, however, the files clearly state that the Boy Scouts contacted law enforcement, after the mother of a 15-year-old boy complained to Genesee Council No. 367 that Scoutmaster Laverne S. Lamkin had molested the boy multiple times on a camping trip to Nova Scotia.
The day after receiving the complaint, the Council executive discussed it with Genesee County Sheriff Roy J. Wullich, who at the time also served on the executive board of the Council. Wullich agreed to investigate.
Lamkin told an undersheriff that he was asleep and “must have been dreaming” when he fondled the boy’s genitals, according to the Scouts’ files. Lamkin wasn’t formally charged. Wullich gave him two options: resign from the Boy Scouts or be investigated further. Lamkin resigned.
Eight of the Western New York cases in the perversion files date back to the 1960s. Four were in the 1970s, and 10 were in the 1980s.
Warren, the University of Virginia expert on sexual crimes against children who analyzed the complete and unredacted Ineligible Volunteer files, said in April that all cases in the files from the past 50 years were reported to law enforcement.
Warren said the Boy Scouts’ use of a database to prevent unsuitable adults from accessing children was “cutting-edge” and effective and that there was no evidence of a coverup.
The Boy Scouts now refer to the Ineligible Volunteer Files as a volunteer screening database. Surbaugh said the files were the first step in the development of a comprehensive set of strategies designed to provide the best possible youth protection system.
“We have a very low threshold for removing someone from our scouting programs. Individuals are added to our volunteer screening database based on suspected or known violations of our policies. They don’t need to have been arrested or convicted of crimes to be added to the database,” said Surbaugh. “This is because our priority is to protect kids, first and foremost, above all else.”
Banning accused leaders
The Boy Scouts appear to have kept most accused leaders in Western New York from continuing to serve in the organization – unlike the Catholic Church, where priests accused of abuse often were removed from one parish and placed in another parish.
There were exceptions. In 1974, the Boy Scouts approved the registration of Kenneth Dingman on a two-year probationary term, even though Dingman’s name had been on the ineligible volunteer list since 1971, according to the Scouts’ files. Dingman ended up pleading guilty to sexual abuse in 1975.
In another instance, Richard J. Aycott was banned in 1961 due to conviction of impairing the morals of a minor, according to the Scouts’ files. Nonetheless, the Greater Niagara Frontier Council in 1973 recommended to the national organization that Aycott be allowed to register again on a probationary period. It’s not clear from the files whether Aycott resumed being a Scout leader.
Lawyers who have reviewed the ineligible files more broadly said the Boy Scouts granted plenty of second and third chances to men who were sexual predators. Some files show Boy Scouts allowing offenders to remain as volunteers despite years of disciplinary proceedings, notices and other red flags, said attorney Jeff Herman, whose law offices in Florida and New York City specialize in sex abuse cases.
“There’s a lot of similarities between the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church in documenting known predators,” said Herman.
Scout executives also knew for decades that the organization attracted men who were looking for easy access to children and yet gave no warning to families about it, said Herman.
“They didn’t go to the police and to the families and to the other troop members with what was going on. It was very hush-hush,” he said.
The ineligible volunteer files released so far don’t include at least eight Western New York Scout leaders who have been criminally charged since 1990 with child-related sex offenses, such as molestation, sodomy, statutory rape and possession of child pornography, according to a Buffalo News search of archives and public records.
The Boy Scout files also don’t mention at least four Buffalo priests affiliated with the Scouts who were named to the Buffalo Diocese’s list of clergy with substantiated allegations of abuse: the Rev. Samuel Venne, the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits, the Rev. Joseph A. Schuster and the Rev. James H. Cotter. Despite his multiple convictions, Williams is not among the Scout volunteers listed in the “perversion files,” either.
O’Donnell said he first met Williams in Cub Scouts. Williams was cubmaster for Cub Pack 588 in Blasdell, according to multiple media accounts from the 1970s.O’Donnell said Williams was popular with kids and had the trust of parents, by virtue of being a Scout leader and a cop. He kept a horse at a property in Blasdell and brought his K-9 dog to Scout meetings in the Blasdell village hall, O’Donnell recalled.
O’Donnell said he remembers being given peppermint schnapps and whiskey with ginger ale on the canoe trips alone with Williams.
“I think he used that merit badge system to be able to get us away into the woods and that type of thing,” said O’Donnell. “He was good at doing things that boys especially would want to be a part of, like go-carts and building stuff in his yard.”
O’Donnell said he was too scared to say anything at the time about Williams.
“I remember him telling me not to tell,” he said. “I did whatever I possibly could to push it out of my head.”
Williams retired from the Buffalo police force in 1987. He was charged in 1991 in Florida with three counts of committing a lewd, lascivious or indecent act for fondling a victim under the age of 16. He pleaded guilty in Duval County Court and was sentenced to 3ø years in a Florida state prison.
Less than a decade later, in 2000, Williams had returned to Western New York and was living in Pendleton and operating a bait-and-tackle shop in Cheektowaga when Cheektowaga police charged him with engaging in a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old boy who was his employee. Williams fled to Pennsylvania after an Erie County grand jury indicted him on sodomy and sex abuse charges. He ultimately pleaded guilty to third-degree sodomy and was sentenced to one to three years in prison.
He was convicted again in 2006 in Pennsylvania on an indecent assault charge involving a victim under the age of 13 and is serving a sentence of up to 15 years in state prison.
After learning of Williams’ first conviction, O’Donnell said he went to Buffalo police to report what Williams had done to him. A detective told him there was nothing they could do with the information because the alleged abuse happened long after the criminal statute of limitations expired, he said.
“At that time, I just let it go,” said O’Donnell. He said he tried to bury the trauma of the abuse in the back of his mind, but he believes it strained his relationships with family and friends and ultimately ruined his marriage. “I really think he changed the course of my life.”
In a statement to The News, the Boy Scouts of America said it believes victims and cares deeply about them, but it did not receive any report of suspected abuse connected to Williams.
“Had we known of any abuse or suspected abuse, we would have immediately reported Mr. Williams to law enforcement, removed him from Scouting, and barred him from ever re-entering our programs,” it said.
O’Donnell said he hasn’t contacted the Boy Scouts about the alleged abuse, but it always has gnawed at him, and his anger has intensified since he learned that a friend also was abused by a Scout leader. That’s when O’Donnell said he decided he wanted to pursue a lawsuit.