Release of abuse files presents Scouts a challenge

Published 9:28 pm Monday, October 22, 2012

True to their motto, the Boy Scouts tried to be prepared. For months, they braced for the backlash sure to follow the court-ordered release of voluminous confidential files detailing decades of alleged sex abuse by Scout leaders.
Now the files are public, lawyers are calling for a congressional investigation and the Boy Scouts of America — as so often in recent years — finds itself embattled.
The files released last week are old — dating from 1959 to 1985. Many of the alleged abusers listed in the files may well be dead. And the Scouts, while apologizing for past mistakes, have significantly improved their youth protection program in recent years.
Still, release of 14,500 pages on alleged abusers is an unwelcome development for an organization struggling to halt a decades-long membership drop while incurring relentless criticism for its policy of excluding gays.
“It does pose a challenge for the Scouts, whether they’re going to be able to win back the confidence of the public,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “I’m sure for some period of time, there’s going to be a concern.”
Before the files’ release, the Scouts commissioned an internal review by a University of Virginia psychiatrist, Dr. Janet Warren, who tallied more than 1,600 abuse victims in her review of the confidential records. She described the rate of abuse with the Scouts as “very low” compared to the national rate, and suggested boys were safer in the Scouts than elsewhere in their communities.
Since the files were released — the consequence of a successful $20 million lawsuit against the Scouts in Portland, Ore. — the BSA has apologized for not following up on some of the allegations that were documented. It also has stressed the strides made by the organization to improve its youth protection policy.
Among other measures, the Scouts now prohibit one-on-one adult-youth activities, mandate criminal background checks for all staff who work with youth and include an insert for parents about child protection in the handbook issued to new scouts.
All adult volunteers must take child-protection training and also are directed to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement authorities and Scout leaders, even if this would not be required by state law.
However, the Scouts say they don’t have data to document trends regarding abuse within their ranks, a source of frustration to experts who’d like to track the impact of the new policies. The two lead lawyers in the Portland lawsuit — Kelly Clark and Paul Mones — note that the Scouts are a congressionally chartered organization and are now asking Congress to investigate the effectiveness of the child protection program.
Wayne Perry, the Scouts’ national president, said he’d welcome any inquiry.
“We’ll be there,” he said Monday. “We’ll talk about where we fell short in the past and where we are today and how important it is to protect kids.”
Many people posting their views on social media questioned the Scouts’ recently reaffirmed policy of excluding gays while seemingly shielding child abusers in their midst.
“It’s a double whammy for the Boy Scouts right now because they’re already under the gun because of the gay issue,” said Thomas Plante, a professor at Santa Clara University who researched the Roman Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse scandal.
He noted that both the Scouts and Catholic hierarchy had disapproving policies toward homosexuality, yet failed to grapple forthrightly with sex abuse. “That contradiction, that hypocrisy, creates that much more of a story,” Plante said.
But the Scouts have legions of staunchly loyal supporters, including several of the nation’s major conservative religious denominations who have given no sign of disaffection. The Mormons’ Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints charters more than 37,000 Scout troops with a youth membership of more than 420,000; Roman Catholic parishes charter about 8,500 units with about 283,000 members.
Some in the Scouts’ extended family — the moms, dads and kids that trek to troop meetings every week, pack up for camp-outs every summer, spend their weekends practicing knot-tying and fire building and flag folding — were quick to rally in support.
Ken Miller, a first-year assistant scoutmaster with Troop 1085 in the Detroit suburb of Berklee, Mich., said he remains a firm believer in the Scouts’ mission even after reading about the files.
“With the latest media accounts, I think it’s going to have an effect of scaring some people off,” Miller said. “But in the long run, I think this will all be a benefit because scouting has been under such scrutiny, and the organization has made changes designed to prevent this from happening again.”
Patrick Boyle, a journalist who in the early 1990s was among the first to expose efforts by the BSA to hide the extent of sex abuse among Scout leaders, said the files will serve as a valuable tool for other youth groups.
“You have to be blind not to see the patterns of abuse in scouting when you read these files,” Boyle said. “If you ran an after-school program, a sports league, a YMCA, you should look at these to see how abusers get access to these organizations, how they get access to abuse kids.”
Indeed, most major youth groups, over the past decade or two, have already instituted protection policies similar to those adopted by the Scouts.
Even as they make collective strides against abuse, many youth groups share with the Scouts the problem of declining membership as sports leagues, academic pressures and the lure of video games divert boys to other afterschool pastimes.
The Scouts’ membership peaked in 1972 at more than 6 million boys and adult leaders. Now there are 2.7 million Scouts and 1.1 million adults.
Many of the Scouts’ critics contend that the organization could boost its membership, and garner good will, by ending its ban on gays and atheists.
But Perry, a Mormon who took over as BSA national president this year, contended that neither the membership policy nor the reports of past sex abuse were the main factors behind the dwindling Scout numbers.
“Our impediment to growth is that the average young male spends 43 hours a week on electronic media,” he said. “Our problem is the high quality of video games, and our job is to compete in that kind of space.”