For 44 years — as a husband and father, working as a glazier for the public schools, volunteering for community programs and through five elections to the Ramsey County Board — Jim McDonough kept the secret.
But on his 60th birthday Tuesday, the Ramsey County Board chairman couldn’t keep it to himself any longer. Thanks to the Minnesota Child Victims Act, he said, he no longer had to.
McDonough filed a civil suit in Ramsey County District Court Tuesday against the Boy Scouts of America and its St. Paul-based Northern Star Council for allegedly failing to protect him in the late 1960s and early 1970s from four years of sexual abuse at the hands of an adult scout leader.
In an emotional news conference at his attorney’s office in Minneapolis, McDonough said the abuse, which happened from when he was 12 to 16, killed his desire to go to college and launched him into years of self-destructive behavior that finally ended with counseling in the 1980s.
He said he long had been resigned to the fact he would never tell anyone, and was OK with that. But he said the Child Victims Act, which became law in 2013 and opened a three-year window to sue in cases previously barred by the statute of limitations, gave him the chance to “make some changes” and confront his past with the love and support of his family and friends.
“This shame is no longer mine,” he said. “The shame belongs to my predator. This shame belongs to the Boy Scouts of America. No longer will this sexual abuse define me.”
The alleged predator was identified in McDonough’s complaint as Leland (Lee) Opalinski, then a 26-year-old bakery route salesman who met McDonough in 1967 while volunteering as a scout leader with Troop 12 at First Covenant Church on St. Paul’s East Side.
Just months after McDonough refused to see him anymore, Opalinski pleaded guilty in August 1971 to a charge of indecent liberties with another teenage boy and was placed on seven years’ probation. Opalinski, who had been living in Forest Lake, died last year at age 73.
McDonough said that he no longer gives much thought to Opalinski. But he remains angry with the Boy Scouts for not doing more to protect him against the scout leader, whose “sexual misconduct was foreseeable,” according to the complaint.
In a statement released by communications director Kent York, the Scouts’ Northern Star Council said the organization removed Opalinski in 1971 after learning of the allegations against him. Scout officials put him in their Ineligible Volunteer Files, which blocked him from further participation.
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our youth members, and we are profoundly saddened when anyone uses their position to harm any child,” the statement said.
Looking for answers
McDonough is seeking more than $50,000 in damages on several counts of negligence and fraud. His suit also alleges that the Boy Scouts failed to adequately respond to an institutionwide sexual abuse epidemic within scouting.
He said that he would let a jury decide how much in damages he should get for his “wasted” years. But more than that, he said, he wants answers from the Boy Scouts.
“This comes to light and it’s not about the kid anymore [for the Boy Scouts]. It’s all about the brand, all about the image,” he said. “How do good people get to that point? How do good people continue that today?”
A team of lawyers is working on McDonough’s suit, led by Patrick Noaker of Minneapolis. It includes Stephen Crew and Peter Janci of Portland, Ore., and Idaho-based Leander James, who have won significant verdicts in suits against the Boy Scouts and forced the release of about 5,000 of so-called “perversion files” listing Scout leaders whom the organization suspected of sexually abusing boys.
“Once [the Boy Scouts] find a pedophile among them, they have never gone back and investigated to determine whether that pedophile had abused others. And we, the people who do this kind of work, we know they never have [just] one victim,” Crew said.
The files include 34 known pedophiles in Minnesota from 1960 to 1991; the Boy Scouts also have files on 49 Minnesota Scout leaders from 1992 to 2004 against whom abuse allegations have been made.
McDonough wants their names to be made public. But York said that the names are withheld from the public because those not prosecuted may be innocent of a crime. He said that the files have been released to law enforcement officials and that the individuals named are barred from scouting.
McDonough has served on the Ramsey County Board since 2000, representing most of St. Paul’s East Side. As chair of the county’s Regional Railroad Authority, he played a key role in the $243 million project that restored the Union Depot as a multimodal transportation hub. His county biography also notes his work in sexual violence prevention.
He joined the Boy Scouts when his father was dying and his mother was hoping that Scout leaders could serve as mentors for him. When he told his mother two weeks ago about the abuse, she told him that she had failed him. “I said, ‘No, Mom, the Boy Scouts failed me,’ ” he said, his voice cracking.
According to the complaint, Opalinski befriended McDonough, gained his trust and then “induced and directed [him] to engage in various sexual acts … on dozens of occasions.”
It was only last summer, McDonough said, that he began to think seriously about filing a suit and telling people about what happened decades ago. His position on the County Board was one reason he decided to go ahead.
“It’s important for me that I use that to be able to help give other people strength to seek out help, to challenge all of us to do better … in looking out for our kids, looking out for predators,” he said.
McDonough, who has four grown children, said he felt conflicted when his sons wanted to join the Boy Scouts. He agreed to it only after becoming their Scout leader, and going on every camping trip and to every event, he said.
St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who has sued the Catholic Church and other organizations on behalf of sex abuse survivors, said Tuesday that he plans to bring another case against the Boy Scouts involving Opalinski, whom he described as “a serial offender.” He applauded McDonough’s “courageous and bold and unselfish act.”
“He’s a public figure who had the courage to break his silence, and it sends a powerful and healing message to other survivors that they can speak up,” he said.