Normally, the Boy Scouts of America wins headlines like this: “Autistic Scout Saves Teacher” (CNN, last October). But today, the headlines are like this: “Boy Scouts Accused of Hiding Pedophiles” (Portland Oregonian, Thursday.)
That’s because a civil trial that got under way Wednesday is focusing unusual attention on sex abuse by Scout leaders, with a victim’s attorneys announcing that they will reveal Boy Scout files on more than 1,000 leaders who were accused of abuse from 1965 to 1985.
The existence of thousands of abuse cases in Scouting is not new – it was reported in a book in 1994, Scout’s Honor (by this writer, now available for free here) and has made headlines before. But it is news, because very few people know about the extent of abuse in Scouting, and some of the files in the Oregon case have never been revealed.
Thanks to these files kept by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) – commonly called the Confidential Files – we know more about abuse in Scouting than in any other youth-serving organization. With news organizations like The New York Times, Associated Press and ABC-News reporting this week about the trial and the files, this is a good time to look at what is known about abuse in Scouting, and what lessons that knowledge offers for other youth groups.
The following information is based on thorough examinations of more than 1,800 of the Confidential Files, which were obtained by this writer from a civil case in the 1990s, and other reporting. Those files cover 1971 through 1991, thus overlapping, to a great degree, with the files in the current Oregon case.
When did abuse start in Scouting?
The BSA began in 1910, and soon it established a “Red Flag List” to keep track of leaders who did something offensive and got kicked out. One of the most common offenses was sexual activity with children; the date of the first abuse case is not clear.
What are the Confidential Files?
That’s the common name for the Ineligible Volunteer Files maintained by the BSA to keep track of people whom it bans from Scouting. One can be included on that list for a variety of morals-related offenses, ranging from public intoxication and excessive cursing in front of the youths to theft and murder. When people register to work with a Scout unit, their names and other identifying information are forwarded to national headquarters in Irving, Texas, and checked against this list.
Almost every person on the list is an adult (a few youths have been banned for sexual acts with other youths).
A person does not have to be charged or convicted to be put on the files, although the criteria for inclusion in the files have often varied.
How often does abuse occur in the BSA?
No one knows for sure, but the Confidential Files offer the best indication.
From 1971 through 1991, the BSA banned 1,871 people for alleged abuse. A analysis shows that 1,426 of those cases involve men convicted or suspected of molesting Scouts – an average of 68 a year. (Others were accused of molesting other youths, such as their own children, or youths whose affiliation with the Scouts is not clear from the files.)
Each year, at least 99 Scouts reported being abused by their leaders.
How did the Confidential Files get released?
The BSA has been sued dozens of times for sex abuse. Several plaintiffs’ attorneys have asked courts to order the BSA to produce the files, but only a few have succeeded. The years listed denote the year the files were released, not the year the lawsuit was filed:
* Infant C v. BSA, Fairfax County, Va., 1989 – For the first time, a judge orders the BSA to turn over some of its Confidential Files to a plaintiff’s attorney. The order is to produce all files from 1975 through 1984 that involve allegations of sex abuse. The BSA submits 231 files, which the plaintiff’s attorney submits as evidence.
* Doe v. Trueman, Sacramento County, Calif., 1992 – A judge orders the BSA to release all Confidential Files involving sex abuse allegations from 1971 through November 1991, nearly 21 years. The total is 1,871 files. Those files were not made public.
* Doe vs. BSA, Portland, Ore., 2010 – In the current case, the BSA was ordered to produce Confidential Files about abuse from 1965 to 1985. It is not clear yet how many files are involved. The attorneys said the files show that the organization knew of at least 1,000 suspected molesters during that period.
* T.S., M.S. and K.S. vs. the BSA, Seattle, Wash., 2007 – Court orders BSA to give plaintiffs’ attorney files on sex abuse cases since 1946, totaling more than 5,000 files. That case was settled, and the court ordered that the files not be made public.
What is the legal argument against the Scouts?
Most of the lawsuits are based on these contentions:
* The Confidential Files show that the BSA knew it has a persistent problem with abusers within its ranks and failed to adopt policies and procedures to prevent molesters from joining, to discover molesting early and to respond to allegations of abuse in a uniform manner.
* The BSA did not train its professionals and volunteers adequately about how to prevent molestation and how to respond to allegations.
* These failures allowed some molesters to continue molesting even after allegations were taken to Scout officials, and, in some cases, even after the men were arrested for or convicted of child molesting.
* The BSA acted to cover up the extent of abuse in Scouting.
What is the BSA’s defense?
* The national headquarters does not choose leaders; the local sponsoring organizations do that.
* The BSA did not know anything more about child molesters in the 1960s-’80s than any other organization, and acted no worse than any other organization.
* No one has a fool-proof system for detecting potential child molesters or discovering their actions right away.
* The number of abuse cases is small compared with the number of Scouts and leaders.