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Army Doctor Files Civil Suit Against Boy Scouts Over Sexual Abuse

Aired 6/13/13 on KPBS News.

It's been more than two decades since an Army major said he was sexually abused as a teenage Boy Scout, but he hasn't forgotten the incident. And he wants to make sure the Boy Scouts of America don't forget either.

Drew Belnap was on his way to Schoepe Scout Reservation at Lost Valley in Warner Springs when it happened. The 17-year-old Boy Scout was riding with scoutmaster John Atwood, when Atwood decided to take a detour. The two camped overnight, and Atwood provided alcohol to the young scout. That's the when the sexual assault occurred.

Drew Belnap, pictured with his grandmother, as an Eagle Scout.

When they arrived at camp the next day, Belnap told a camp volunteer about what had happened.

"They arranged for me to go home, without Mr. Atwood, and I went home, and never heard anything form the Scouts at that point," said Belnap, who is now 39 years old.

After returning home from the camp, Benlap confided in a friend about the incident and learned he too had been abused by Atwood. Together, the boys told their parents, who then contacted police. Eventually, Atwood was convicted of sexually abusing the boys and a third victim.

Now 22 years later, Belnap, an anesthesiologist in the Army, is filing a civil case against the Boy Scouts of America, Atwood and the group that runs the camp. The suit was filed Wednesday in the Superior Court of California in San Diego.

"Hopefully there will be more good that can come from this and that more kids will be protected and not one more Boy Scout will be harmed as I was and have to endure the lifelong struggles that come with that," Belnap said of his role within the organization.

Drew Belnap, left, and his lawyer, Irwin Zalkin, answer reporters' questions at press conference Wednesday, June 12.

While a statute of limitations on sexual abuse charges does exist in California, a federal law makes an exception for active duty service members.

Belnap said his decision to file suit was sparked by last year's court-ordered release of the so-called "perversion files": records from the Boy Scouts of America alleging the organization was aware of and tried to cover up instances of sexual abuse.

"That stirred up feelings of wanting to do better – I knew that the Boy Scouts can do better, and can and should enforce their policies to better protect the youth that they are entrusted with, especially at Scout camps," he said.

Belnap said the Boy Scouts of America has had a policy against one-on-one time between leaders and young Boy Scouts since 1987, but this was regularly not enforced when he attended the camp in Warner Springs. He wants to organization to better enforce its existing policies and even develop more, such as properly vetting scout leaders, said Belnap, who is now a scoutmaster in the Boy Scouts.

"I felt that I would do a good job and make sure the boys were protected," he said.

But even though Belnap said he has forgiven Atwood in order to move on with his life, the father of two young girls and a 3-year-old son said he's unsure if he would let his own child join the Boy Scouts.

"If they (the Boy Scouts) react in a way that I feel would be a safe environment for my son, then I will enroll him in the scouting program at that point, but if I don't see the changed, then I'll have to make the determination at that time," he said.

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