Jim McDonough's life was a mystery for years to his wife, his children, his friends — even to himself.

He was the straight-A student who barely finished high school, the loving husband who drank his way to divorce, the unflappable dad prone to snapping, the public official urging others to get help but declining to seek it himself.

What none of them knew — and what the Ramsey County Board chairman wanted to forget — was that he had been sexually abused for years by a scoutmaster at a time when he had turned to the Boy Scouts for guidance and support.

"I had pushed this past so far deep, I couldn't connect it," McDonough said last week after revealing the long-kept secret in a 20-page lawsuit filed in Ramsey County District Court against the Boy Scouts and its central Minnesota council.

"But now … I understand where that anger came from, the unwillingness to trust and this strong sense of wanting to control. That was it."

The revelations stunned many who know the 60-year-old native of St. Paul's East Side as a calm, low-key consensus builder on the board and a leader on transit, workforce and sexual violence issues.

"It was a shock. I had no idea that he had this in his background," said Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt, who was asked by McDonough to fill in board colleagues the day he announced the lawsuit.

"I told him he was a man of great courage. He said he didn't know if it was courage or not, but it was the right thing to do to help countless others and give them a voice."

A flood of e-mails

McDonough said last week at his Payne-Phalen home that reaction to the news about his past had been overwhelming. He needed hours to catch up on e-mails flooding his phone, and got hugs at a meeting of the Itasca Project, a group of local CEOs and politicians that, McDonough said, is "not a group that tends to throw around hugs a lot."

A mother told him through her tears that she had seen him on the news and talked with her 9-year-old son the next morning about predators.

"I don't know why I'm crying," she said. McDonough told her: "You're crying because you love your son and you know you did the right thing."

McDonough, who is charging the Boy Scouts with negligence and fraud, is seeking more than $50,000 in damages. He wants a jury to decide what the Scouts owe him.

"There will be people that are cynical, [saying] this is a political move for him, or all he wants is the money," he said. "You know, that's not it. I can dismiss them because there's so much good out of it."

But it took a long time to get there.

Turning point

McDonough was 12 when he joined Troop 12 at First Covenant Church on the East Side. His father, Jim, a truck driver, was in the closing stages of a rare lung disease that would kill him in 1969, and both parents thought scouting would help their son fill the void.

McDonough said that some of his most valuable experiences came from his years in the Scouts, where he learned camping and rope lashing and how to identify trees.

"I was starving for that. The kids there, I loved them. The bonds were so strong," he said.

But the adult leader was Leland (Lee) Opalinski, a 26-year-old bakery route salesman who, McDonough said, picked up on his vulnerability and began to find reasons to spend time alone with him.

The abuse began almost immediately.

"You just became an inanimate object, and almost removed yourself from your body," McDonough said. "There were times when I could almost feel like I was up here watching what happened, or turning my head to not watch what was happening.

"And then other times it was very emotional. I would just weep and I would just hope he would ask me, 'Why are you crying?' so I could tell him, or ask him, 'Why are you hurting me?' He never asked."

It continued for four years, McDonough said. By May 1971, when he decided to quit scouting and never see Opalinski again, his father had died and he was working as a landscaper to help support the family. He had also begun smoking marijuana and sneaking into the family liquor cabinet.

"I can't figure out what's going on with Jim," his teacher wrote in a note to his mother. "He's not turning in his assignments, he's not getting his work done. He used to get A's and now he's barely passing."

McDonough no longer dreamed of college. After graduating from Johnson High School in 1973, he got a job at the nearby Whirlpool plant making freezers. He moved into an apartment and began doing "just about every drug but heroin," he said.

It didn't stop when he and his high school sweetheart, Carol, married in 1976. After their first son was born in 1977, she left him and filed for divorce. McDonough was devastated but gradually regained her trust with the care and attention he showed for their son. They remarried in 1980.

The turning point came three years later, when he was arrested for DWI. McDonough opted for treatment at St. John's Hospital and realized how much he wanted to straighten out his life. He raced through Alcoholics Anonymous' Big Book several times.

"I understood that I would get what I wanted with my son … and for that love to grow with my wife, if I took care of myself," he said.

'I'm stepping up'

The couple had two more sons and a daughter, and in 1990 McDonough went to work for the St. Paul School District as a glazier. When two of his sons wanted to join the Boy Scouts, McDonough agreed as long as he could be a scout leader. He began volunteering at the local rec center and helped build up youth sports programs. Parents suggested he run for office.

In 2000, McDonough filed for the Ramsey County Board. With limited resources and little name recognition, he door-knocked the district furiously. He knocked out incumbent Dino Guerin in the primary and then edged DFL state Rep. Steve Trimble by 185 votes in the general election. He has held the seat ever since.

In all those years, McDonough never told anyone about the abuse; he blurted it out once to Carol, he said, but she doesn't remember. He said he had grown comfortable with the notion that no one would ever know.

That changed in 2013, when the Legislature passed the Child Victims Act, lifting the statute of limitations on sex abuse cases for three years. He reconsidered.

"In my head the question was, what am I going to do with that opportunity?" he said. "Let the three years go away and nothing changes, or step up somehow either as John Doe or Jim McDonough?

"I'm stepping up. [The Legislature] did this for people just like me. I could do something that actually made a difference."

The Boy Scouts' central Minnesota chapter, the Northern Star Council, said that Opalinski was barred from scouting in 1971 after the organization learned he pleaded guilty to a charge of indecent liberties with another teenage boy and placed on seven years' probation.

McDonough said he's given his tormentor, who died last year, little thought. It's the Scouts that are to blame, he said, for harboring Opalinski and continuing to protect predators. He wants the Scouts to release the names of 49 Minnesota adult leaders who have been accused of abuse.

"We need adults to make strong connections with young kids," he said. "But we need them to be healthy, and we need it to be in a controlled environment so we don't put the kids at risk."

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035