Three Strange Tales
I still remember the first time I felt uncomfortable about an adult scout leader. At age 14 I was with a group that was spending a week working at a scout camp to get the place ready for the summer camping season. One of the adults, a single guy in his early 20s that had been involved in the organization as a youth, was promoting some activities that I thought were pretty edgy.
It all appeared to be in fun. For example, the man tried to get some of the boys to pretend like they were making out with him as a joke on other scouts. This guy generally related well with the boys and they liked him. But the way the whole episode played out felt creepy to me. I left the area rather than participate in the activity.
This guy wasn't all bad. I heard some shady rumors about him, but I never saw anything happen that would warrant legal or scouting sanction. In fact, as an older teen I occasionally worked for the guy helping with his mobile disco business. (Yeah, that dates me.) He was later excommunicated from the LDS Church for illicit activity (with a female), but he was re-baptized a few years later. I lost track of him after that.
During this same period I knew an older youth through scouting that had a serious problem with pornography. He introduced a friend of mine to porn. It turned into an addiction that he battled for years. The older youth became an adult and then left the area for a couple of years. When he returned, he finished his degree and then got a job working for the BSA as a district executive. It was rumored that he was inviting selected youth to his apartment to view porn. He changed jobs right after that.
Eventually this guy married a woman that was much older than him and had kids that were half this guy's age. They moved out of state. But I ran into the guy on a couple of subsequent occasions. One time he was at a mountain main rendezvous with a handful of 13-year-old boys that were running around in nothing but breech cloths and tennis shoes. I never heard what became of this guy after that.
When I was 17 I spent the summer working at a scout camp. One of the adults on staff was a single man in his mid-20s that related well with the boys. There were a few occasions when he discussed matters that made me feel somewhat uncomfortable, but I never saw anything 'happen.' The following summer while he was working at a different camp, I heard that he was 'kicked out' of the BSA for something that was kept very hush-hush.
A few years later this guy was married and was somehow again involved in scouting. By that time I was an adult and had been through the BSA's youth protection training, which was a fairly new program. From this perspective I noted a number of things about this man that made me uncomfortable, so I kept my eye on him. Somehow it didn't surprise me at all when he was sent to prison for rape of a teenage boy that had been left in his charge by a somewhat dysfunctional family. An acquaintance that had reason to know about the case said that prosecutors had evidence suggesting that this fellow had had well over 100 victims starting from the time he was a young teen.
I note these instances in light of the recent release of the older portion of what has become known as the Boy Scout perversion files (click link to search and view actual files). (See the BSA's site that discusses abuse in the organization.) This KSL.com article is similar to hundreds of others that have been published about the release of the files. I checked these files in vain for the names of the men mentioned above, since most of the incidents I cited occurred well before 1985, the last year covered by the current file release. (Files covering recent more cases will be released in the future.) Could some of these guys be involved with the BSA today?
One might think from the stories above that I think of the Boy Scouts as an organization filled with pedophiles. The linked KSL.com article quotes psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Warren who reviewed the files with a team of graduate students as saying that the files show that the rate of abuse in the BSA was "very low" in comparison with other organizations that deal with youth.
My personal experience as a youth and as a volunteer covering decades of membership in the BSA comports with Dr. Warren's findings. For every child abuser that has wheedled his way into the leadership ranks of the BSA there have been hundreds of other upstanding men and women that have simply been volunteering their time and efforts to improve the lives of boys. The three cases I cited are notable because of their exception from the norm.
Organizations that serve youth are magnets for pedophiles. The infamous bank robber Willie Sutton wrote in his memoirs after his release from prison that his policy had been to "Go where the money is...and go there often." The reason that schools and youth organizations attract pedophiles is because that's where potential abuse targets can be found in rich abundance. Thus, pedophiles go where the kids are and they go there often.
For this reason, youth centered organizations need to be extra wary and impose protections for youths just as strong as the protections banks employ to prevent theft and robbery. As a scouting leader I have learned to carefully watch the men that relate with boys on a peer-to-peer rather than an adult-to-child basis. The boys like them, but these guys are the most likely to abuse youth. They should never be allowed to be with youth without a trusted adult present.
The Cover Up
The need to protect youth the way a bank protects money is the basis for concerns voiced by some of the BSA's critics. While the rate of abuse has been low in the BSA, the files reveal a clear pattern of covering up crimes involving abuse of youth by scout leaders, as well as a pattern of inadequately protecting youth.
It's not like it was a concerted top-down effort. Rather, the pattern shows up in myriad decisions made by local scout executives, law enforcement, and political leaders that felt that it was more important to maintain the squeaky clean BSA brand rather than see justice done. This flies directly in the face of being true at all times—one of the main values promoted by the BSA.
It is possible that some officials' actions stem from a general poor understanding of child sexual abuse and the discrete manner in which our culture once handled such matters.
The BSA's youth protection policy has evolved slowly during my decades as an adult volunteer. Adult leaders have been required to take youth protection training for nearly three decades. But until recently the requirement has not been rigidly applied. "Two-deep leadership" (having two qualified adults present with youth at all activities) has been required for nearly as long. But leaders still often end up alone with youth due to the challenge of getting enough volunteers to be where and when they are needed.
The BSA only began requiring mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse two years ago. I have mixed feelings about this. Right after I was trained on the policy I attended an event where an 18-year-old young man (technically an adult) and a 14-year-old boy acted far more affectionate toward each other than is normal. To me it looked like the older boy was following the standard abuse pattern of grooming the younger boy to be his victim.
Per the reporting policy, I reported what I had seen, being careful not to infer more than I actually knew. An official later contacted me to get more information. I was aware that other adults were also interviewed. Later I was informed that law enforcement officials had been involved but had declined to pursue action. However, the young man was disbarred from the BSA and was informed that he will never be permitted to register with the BSA in the future.
Admittedly, I don't know everything that the investigation revealed. I only know that it didn't rise to the level of legal action. But it almost seems as if the BSA has gone from being careless about abuse to being overly cautious. It may be that any adult that is suspected of abuse or even potential abuse will be permanently booted out of the Boy Scouts to prevent even the appearance of evil.
It's important to protect youth members of the BSA, but is it proper to permanently brand an adult on the basis of very little evidence?
Honesty Is the Best Policy
The Boy Scouts has been under fire for its insistence on banning openly gay activists from its ranks. The revelation that for years the BSA failed to adequately protect youth from abusers in order to protect its reputation adds fuel to the organization's detractors—some of whom would have us believe that Eagle Scouts are one of the greatest threats this nation faces.
It appears to me that the cover up methods employed by the BSA for decades have ultimately led to worse damage to the organization's reputation and brand than would have been the case had instances of abuse been made public when they originally occurred. It is also arguable that keeping abuse quiet likely led to more victims being abused.
Everyone that is interested in the value of the Boy Scouts should also be interested in weeding out the bad apples in the organization. The BSA insists that, despite past failures, it is now handling youth protection seriously and appropriately. But it seems undeniable that the organization's brand has been seriously harmed by its own lack of integrity.
The first point of the Scout Law is trustworthiness. The way to earn trust is to act consistently trustworthy. The BSA has not done so when it comes to child abuse. Trust once broken is not easily regained. You can't just snap your fingers and magically gain the trust of others. It takes time and consistency.
One Bad Apple?
The question is whether the cover up of the abuse (even if it was a low rate of abuse) by the BSA means that the organization is irredeemable. As one that has loved scouting and that benefited much from the program as a youth, I have to say no. This glaring blemish does not counteract all of the good that scouting does.
The high ideals and values promoted by the Boy Scout program are still as valid as ever and are needed by society more than ever. Destruction of the program is not the solution to its flaws. Rather, living true to scouting ideals is the way forward.