A Boy Scout leader sang 'Hakuna Matata' while naked. The organization didn't investigate, suit says
The allegation is part of a $320 million civil lawsuit filed in March 2017 by the parents of two teens.
Former Scout leader Michael N. Kelsey, right, closes his eyes as his defense attorney Shane Hug takes notes at the St. Lawrence County Courthouse in Canton, New York, in Oct. 21, 2016.Jason Hunter / Watertown Daily Times Pool
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For the worried New York mom, her young son’s account about how his scout leader stripped naked and belted out a bawdy version of “Hakuna Matata” in front of the boys was a big red flag that something was terribly wrong in Troop 95.
Michael Kelsey, according to an affidavit the mother later signed and filed with Dutchess County Supreme Court, performed “The Lion King” song “with his hips gyrating and penis swinging about” on April 13, 2012, in a locker room after a “night swim” at a pool in Millbrook, New York.
“All of this occurred not only in front of my son, but also in front of the other boys present at the time,“ the woman stated in the affidavit.
When she complained, a den mother assured her that “Mr. Kelsey’s behavior was a serious issue and Troop 95 would investigate.”
But a short time later, the mom told NBC News, she got a call from the troop leader Richard Robbins that left her shaking her head in disbelief.
“He basically told me that he talked to the other boys and they didn’t see or hear anything,” she said. “He said maybe my son misunderstood what he saw. I said, ‘My son misunderstood a naked man singing ‘Hakuna Matata?’”
Four years later, Kelsey, who was then a Dutchess County, New York, lawmaker, was convicted of sexually abusing two 15-year-old scouts on an overnight camping trip.
Now that affidavit is part of a $320 million civil lawsuit filed in March 2017 by the parents of the two boys. It accuses the Boy Scouts of America of being “grossly negligent, careless and reckless in their ownership, management, control, care and maintenance of Boy Scout Troop 95.”
NBC News, at the request of the parents who are trying to preserve their sons’ anonymity, is not identifying either by name. Nor is it identifying the name of the worried mother who filed the affidavit and who, like the others, lives in Dutchess County.
“These instances demonstrate a culture in the Boy Scouts of America of not focusing on their own policies,” the father of one of the teens told NBC News in a lengthy telephone interview. “They were required to report this the minute they found out. Instead, they did nothing.”
“It’s my position that they are protecting their own,” the mother of the other teen told NBC News during that same phone interview. “It was all hush-hush.”
And to make sure this doesn’t happen to other Boy Scouts, the parents have been pushing for passage of a bill that would require scout leaders and others who work with youth organizations to immediately contact law enforcement if they hear any reports of suspected sexual abuse.
The BSA, however, insisted in a statement to NBC News that the "Hakuna Matata" allegation was investigated and that it did not involve Kelsey at all.
“The incident involved a youth who engaged in inappropriate behavior, not directed at any other youth, during a Scout activity,” the BSA statement said. “The youth’s behavior was immediately addressed by the unit leadership at the time of the incident.”
The youth was not identified by name and the statement did not say whether he was a scout.
Questioned directly by NBC News about this incident, a BSA spokesman declined to go beyond what was said in the statement.
Told of the BSA’s counterclaim, the father of one of the 15-year-olds told NBC News via email he was “not surprised.”
“That has been their position since this broke,” he wrote. “They have never produced any evidence of an investigation other than reporting that (the worried mom’s) son was wrong.”
The lawsuit, in which Kelsey is representing himself even though he was disbarred after his conviction, comes as the BSA has been battling hundreds of other lawsuits around the country as former scouts have come forward with abuse allegations.
The Boy Scout have insisted repeatedly that the days when they failed to keep predators out of the ranks are long gone. The angry mother of one of the abused teens said scouting is still a magnet for pedophiles.
“What happened to our sons is proof that they are still not doing enough,” the woman said. “If the boys had not come forward at told us, we would never have known.”
At the time, Kelsey was “a rising star” in local Republican Party politics. He also ran a business called Away Adventures that offered kayaking and camping trips for kids and adults.
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The parents of the abused teens said their sons even campaigned for Kelsey, but don’t think the fact that he was a prominent politician is the reason why he was allowed to continue being an assistant scoutmaster after the “Hakuna Matata” incident.
“Kelsey had been in the troop since he was 11 years old,” the mother of one of the abused teens said. “He knew all the people in the Hudson Valley Council.”
“He was highly regarded by everybody in the troop and by the scoutmaster Rich Robbins,” said the father of the other abused teen. “In fact, Robbins had been his scoutmaster.”
NBC News called Robbins’ lawyer, William Frame, for comment. He did not return a phone call. Robbins also could not be reached for comment.
Kelsey, 41, is currently an inmate at the Mid-State Correctional Facility in Marcy, New York. NBC News has reached out to him by mail for comment.
But Kelsey, who has been banished from the BSA, continues to maintain his innocence. In July, his attempt to get his conviction overturned was denied, court records show.
Also named in the civil lawsuit are Robbins, the BSA’s Hudson Regional Council, and the Our Savior Lutheran Church in Fishkill, New York, which sponsors the troop. The BSA and the others named in the suit don't appear to have filed an official response, based on a search of the New York State Uniform Court System.
The lawsuit contends the BSA failed to vet Kelsey when they made him assistant scoutmaster. It says the scouting organization should have been aware of his “propensities” when they allowed him to accompany their sons in August 2014 on a trip to the Cranberry Lake State Campground in St. Lawrence County, New York.
It was there, prosecutors charged, that Kelsey on the first night of the trip groped the genitals of one of the scouts for 10 to 20 minutes while the teen tried to sleep in the scoutmaster’s Volkswagen Jetta.
Kelsey later tried to do the same to the other 15-year-old but the sleeping scout batted his hand away, prosecutors said.
The parents of the abused teens said the boys didn’t tell them what happened until months later.
They said the boys first confided in each other about what Kelsey did to them in September 2014.
“They didn’t tell us,” the suing mother said. “They formulated a plan to tell another assistant scoutmaster they trusted who then went directly to the scoutmaster and told him.”
Robbins supposedly suspended Kelsey for a year, but he did not notify the rest of the troop or the parents, the parents said.
In the meantime, Kelsey continued to show up at scouting-related events and parties where he mingled with the boys, they said.
It wasn’t until Dec. 13, 2014, that one of the boys finally told his parents what happened on the camping trip, they said.
“The four parents went immediately to the scoutmaster’s house and one of the first things he said was, ‘I’m so glad the boys told you,’” the mother of one of the abused teens said.
“I was furious,” she said. “I said if my son broke his arm, wouldn’t you tell me? He said, ‘Of course.’ So my son gets molested and you don’t tell me?”
The angry dad said he asked Robbins point-blank whether the BSA requires them to report any suspected sexual abuse.
“He said yes, but he said the boys told him not to say anything and that he had to think about who is clients are and what it for his clients,” the dad said. “That was the word he used, clients.”
Kelsey, the parents said, had never given them cause for concern before. They said Kelsey organized all kinds of fun outdoor activities like camping and kayaking trips for the scouts.
“He was highly regarded by everybody in the troop,” the dad said.
The mother said, "On the surface, he was everything every parent hopes for in a mentor. Our kids had fun with him. But, again, if you look at the profile of a child molester, they don’t look like the monsters that they are. They manipulate victims, they manipulate families.”
After talking to Robbins, the parents said they called a friend who was a New York State Police trooper and a sting operation was set in motion, court records reveal.
When the boys balked at making a taped call to Kelsey, the mother of one of the victims volunteered to do so, the records state.
“He admitted that he attempted to molest my son,” she told NBC News. “He said that he thought he was in love with my son. He also admitted molesting (the other teen) and that he had these feelings all the time and that he can control himself."
That was enough for the State Police to issue a warrant for his arrest.
When his case went to trial in 2016, Kelsey insisted in an opening statement that he was innocent and in the midst of a breakdown at the time of that call. He told the court his family has a history of mental illness, and that the teen’s mother “took advantage of me” during the surreptitiously recorded phone call.
“I’m here personally to tell you that I am not guilty of the crimes that I am being accused of,” he said. “I am not a pedophile. … I am not a pervert.”
Instead, Kelsey said he had been “deserted” by the boys and at one point likened himself to Jesus, saying he was called on to “suffer for the sake of others.”
Both 15-year-olds took the stand and testified that Kelsey had molested them and groomed the rest of the troop. They also described how Kelsey, during scouting trips, led the boys in a game called “padiddle,” during which “the losing player would remove an article of clothing,” according to court records.
Prosecutors also played the recorded telephone call during which Kelsey could be heard saying, “I reached for him in an area I shouldn’t have.”
In the end, the jury found Kelsey guilty of first-degree sexual abuse, first-degree attempted sexual abuse, forcible touching and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, and he was sentenced to five years in prison and 10 years of post-release supervision.
Kelsey was running for re-election when he was indicted and refused to halt his campaign even after the local GOP endorsed another candidate. He lost in the primary.
The parents said they spent tens of thousands of dollars on therapy for their sons, the sons’ siblings, and themselves. They said their boys have mostly put what happened behind them, but the family is still feeling the aftershocks.
“When you are a victim of such a crime, it’s like throwing a rock into a pond,” the mother said. “The ripples are the boys’ losing trust in people, losing faith, the parents having to deal with betrayal by people we considered friends, the stresses that happen within the family unit.”
The mother who filed the “Hakuna Matata” affidavit said that after complaining about Kelsey she felt ostracized by some of the other parents, so she yanked her son out of Troop 95.
“I never took my son back after that,” she said. “It was very unfair, especially to my son. He really wanted to be an Eagle Scout.”
Corky Siemaszko is a senior writer for NBC News Digital.