Saying he was sexually abused for almost a year by a scoutmaster, a Wilmington man has filed suit against the Boy Scouts of America and the West Chester Latter-day Saints church that sponsored his troop.

Melvin Novak, 28, said at a news conference Wednesday that his childhood "just fell apart" after he was abused by Vance Hein, a family friend, a prominent member of his Mormon congregation, and the scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 84.

As a matter of policy, The Inquirer does not identify victims of sexual abuse. However, Novak and his attorneys said they wanted to spread awareness about his case and sexual abuse in general.

The suit contends that the Boy Scouts concealed information and downplayed the prevalence of sexual abuse in scouting, and that scout officials should have kept Hein away from contact with young boys.

 The suit, which seeks $550,000 in damages, is among the first in Pennsylvania dealing with alleged sexual abuse by scoutmasters since the Boy Scouts released files dating to 1965 that detailed the identification and expulsion of more than 1,200 sexual abusers from their ranks.

"We need to make people more aware of what's going on and the danger inherent in allowing young boys to be part of a program that goes unsupervised and unchecked," said Stewart Eisenberg, Novak's attorney.

Novak said that the abuse began when he was 14 and continued for nearly a year. In the suit, he said Hein "groomed" him for abuse, promising entrance into a special "brotherhood" if he performed sexual acts.

"From the time I was 8 years old, he was like Santa Claus," he said, adding that Hein bought him a new computer, mentored him, and even took him on a trip to Canada.

It was after the trip to Canada - during which, Novak said, Hein sexually assaulted him - that Novak finally told his parents that he had been the victim of abuse. He had been skipping school and running away from home as a result of the abuse, he said, and his parents were at a loss.

"I just lost it," he said. "I just wanted everything to stop."

Novak eventually reported the abuse to police, and Hein was sentenced to 15 years' probation in 2000. In August, he was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in state prison for possessing child pornography.

Hein said that the abuse destroyed his childhood. He completed high school only through a home-school program. He never finished college. He said he has had trouble holding down jobs and sustaining relationships, has struggled with depression and anxiety, and, from ages 15 to 21, dealt with a serious substance-abuse problem.

The Mormon church places high value in scouting, he said, and joining the Boy Scouts was "kind of expected - it's a calling." Hein, he said, was a prominent church member beloved by many congregants.

"This guy is still worshiped in my church today," he said.

Novak's suit names Hein, the Boy Scouts of America, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Chester County Boy Scouts Council, and the Marshallton Second Ward Mormon Church as defendants.

Church officials could not be reached for comment.

Chester County Boy Scouts council officials said they had not seen the lawsuit, but expressed regret for any abuse against scouts.

"Any instance of child victimization or abuse is intolerable and unacceptable," the council said in a statement, adding that the organization uses background checks and requires all members to report suspicions of abuse to law enforcement.

Novak's father, Melvin Sr., said at the news conference that he was proud of his son for speaking out.

"It never occurred to me that there was potential evil there, because so much is good and wholesome," Melvin Novak Sr. said. "If I had known [about allegations of abuse in the Boy Scouts], I would have been more cautious. I'm supportive of him and the courage he's portrayed."

Contact Aubrey Whelan at 610-313-8112 or at awhelan@philly.com, or follow @aubreyjwhelan on Twitter.