Twenty-two years ago, the Boy Scouts of America took brass knuckles to the family of a boy who had been molested by his Scoutmaster.
The man had been kicked out of a Rhode Island troop in 1980 for abusing Scouts and was convicted of child molestation. Yet one night a few years later, he introduced himself to a moribund troop in northern Virginia, and next thing you know he was a Scoutmaster again. He revived the troop – and had sex with several of the boys, most often with the one who became known as Infant C.
The lawsuit that Infant C’s family subsequently filed against the BSA might seem to have been easy money for the family. But the family had secrets that made people cringe: The father was an alcoholic who was having affairs with men. The mother had had an affair with the Scoutmaster. The boy, as 12-year-old males are apt to do when someone offers to introduce them to sex, repeatedly went along.
In depositions, lawyers for the Scouts asked the boy things like whether he enjoyed getting fellated by a 40-year-old man.
The BSA attacked the family and won the lawsuit – but to this day, the corporation and the thousands of volunteers who make Scouting work are paying a heavy price.
The latest damage came last month, when the BSA – accustomed to stories like “Autistic Scout Saves Teacher” (CNN, last October) – got buffeted by headlines like “Boy Scouts Accused of Hiding Pedophiles” (Portland Oregonian).
The accusations sprang from a civil trial in Oregon that focused attention on thousands of files about adults who’ve been banned from Scouting for alleged sexual conduct with children. The files were part of a youth protection system the BSA set up soon after its founding 100 years ago and aptly named the Confidential Files. Those files have protected countless boys from harm – and have helped cost the BSA millions of dollars in damages and legal fees, and spurred incalculably bad publicity, ever since they were first exposed in the case of Infant C v. the Boy Scouts of America.
This is the story of how the most sensitive personnel files at one of the country’s most venerated youth organizations became public. It offers lessons for all youth groups about how to respond to allegations of youth worker misconduct and to public scandal. Some observers think the BSA dragged out this scandal by refusing to publicly discuss the extent of its sex abuse problem or to learn from its own incidents about how to combat that problem.
The story is based on my two decades of studying and reporting about abuse in Scouting, first for a newspaper, and later as author of a book about sex abuse in the Scouts. Materials reviewed and catalogued include more than 2,000 of the files, reams of depositions and trial transcriptions, and countless interviews with molesters, victims, Scout officials and others familiar with abuse in Scouting.
While all youth programs run the risk of drawing in people who are sexually attracted to children, certain elements of Scouting have made it especially vulnerable: the sudden access to lots of children, the authority of uniformed Scout leaders, the opportunities for isolation at camping trips and other activities, and the close mentoring relationship that Scouting promotes between its men and its boys. That becomes clear from reading the files.
The BSA started those files soon after its founding in 1910. In a speech to the Scouts National Council in 1935 – as reported by The New York Times – James West, the BSA’s first chief scout executive, explained the “red flag list” of leaders who had been removed for various causes. (The “red” referred to stickers placed on index cards that the BSA had for every volunteer.) An adult can get kicked out of the BSA for many reasons, including public drunkenness, mishandling troop funds and committing crimes.
Molesting children has always been one of the most common. West said Scouting sometimes drew men who “undertake to deal with sex matters … and sometimes give way to temptation and develop practices which make them degenerates.”
West said the BSA had confidential files on 3,000 banned leaders, about 1,000 of whom had committed “morals” offenses – his code for sex abuse.
What began as an index card system with stickers grew into thousands of files and a computer database, which are together called the “Ineligible Volunteer File.” Their existence has complicated the BSA’s persistent claim that it didn’t know it had an abuse problem.
“They realized they had a problem, and they created a system to deal with it,” psychologist Gary Schoener testified in last month’s trial in Portland (Doe v. BSA). “You don’t create a system if you don’t have a problem.”
Handling the files
The way the files were compiled and handled illustrates how the system was vulnerable to error and eventually caused the BSA trouble.
When an adult gets kicked out of Scouting because he is considered unfit, the local Scout executive – a professional who oversees Scout units in a geographic area – is supposed to inform national headquarters. He sends national a Confidential File cover sheet, which contains basic biographical information on the alleged offender, along with supporting information, such as memos from Scout leaders explaining the incidents, news clips, police reports and statements from offenders, victims and parents.
So when someone registers as a Scout volunteer, the person’s name is sent to the national office, which checks it against the Confidential File database.
This was explained somewhat to the mother of Infant C in 1984, when the “registrar” with a local Scout program in Reston, Va., urged her to enroll her boy in the troop of a “dynamic” new leader, Carlton Bittenbender. The mother later said the woman assured her that “they have a big computer down in Texas where they run all the names through to spot any bad apples.”
Not all the bad apples. The system had gaps.
The BSA’s training of local leaders about its system was not uniform. In some abuse cases, local professional and volunteer leaders said they’d never heard of the Confidential Files. Others were unclear about what scenarios required them to send a Confidential File to national. Some thought it required conviction of a crime; others did not. They weren’t always sure who was supposed to send the information. Sometimes, no one did.
In the case that went to trial in Portland last month, for example, Scoutmaster Timur Dykes resigned after admitting to molesting 17 Scouts, but kept working with the troop informally and molested more boys.
At BSA headquarters (now in Irving, Texas), compiling the files and maintaining the system was an unsavory add-on task for the registration director, who mostly handled such things as the membership rolls and subscriptions to Boys’ Life magazine. For most of the 1970s and 1980s that was Paul Ernst, an accountant by training who arrived at the BSA after working for a company that made leather goods for horse race harnesses. Ernst worked in statistical services and data processing before becoming registration director, and thus the point man for keeping unfit adults out of Scouting.
Ernst and the BSA’s in-house attorney decided when they had enough information for a Confidential File, and periodically took a stack of them to the second-in-command, Director of Administration Joseph Anglim, who stamped them with his name.
Even when all that happened, some molesters circumvented the system by changing their names slightly on their applications. That’s one way that Thomas Hacker of Indiana became the most prolific molester in Scouting: He moved among troops and schools for 25 years, molesting, by his estimate, “well over 100” boys.
In the case of Bittenbender, no one from Rhode Island sent a file to national after he resigned from his troop there and pleaded guilty to molesting a Scout. When Bittenbender later volunteered to run the Virginia troop, he was surprised that he was not rejected by any screening mechanism at national.
Bittenbender became a confidant of Infant C, who had a troubled family life – a common characteristic of victims in the Confidential Files. That led to a sexual relationship that lasted more than a year.
After the abuse allegations exploded, the shock and pain among the victims’ families was compounded when they learned that Bittenbender had been caught doing the same thing with Scouts before. They were further offended by the BSA downplaying the extent of abuse in Scouting. Local Scout officials told angry parents in the troop that such abuse almost never happens.
Infant C’s mother went on a computer database and found articles about 10 other recent cases; she decided the BSA was lying.
To many observers, it would have seemed natural for the BSA to use the files to figure out the abuse problem in its ranks and how to curtail it. But Ernst, Anglim and the in-house attorney, David Park, said they never thought of that. In interviews and depositions, the men said they never noticed how many of the files were about sex abuse and saw no value in examining them to see how molesters use Scouting.
That would mean they did not notice, for instance, that through the 1970s and 1980s, the annual number of files about sex abuse ranged from two dozen (1978) to 302 (1989) – representing more than half of all the files during that time. Anglim put his stamp on the cover sheets of each one, sometimes next to descriptions of the causes: “child molesting,” “birthday spankings to boys,” “10 counts of secondary sex offenses with boys.”
Yet in 1990, Anglim told a reporter, “Almost all we knew about this problem was what we read in the papers.”
That has been central to BSA’s public response on this issue: Abuse was everywhere, but American society didn’t know much about how child molesters operate. The BSA acted according to the standards of the time.
Indeed, schools and churches acted much the same as the BSA: Make the molesters go away and keep the cases quiet.
For the BSA, however, that claim is complicated by its treasure trove of files about molesters – and a specific type of molester to boot: men who molest boys. They account for the vast majority of the abuse cases. Retired FBI Special Agent Kenneth V. Lanning, who served for years as the bureau’s specialist on child sexual victimization, has seen many of the files and concluded that, “The group of people who can tell you more about how Boy Scout leaders have molested boys for the past 100 years is the Boy Scouts. …
“I know about a lot of cases [through the FBI], but I don’t know about nearly as many cases as they know about.”
Outsiders see trouble
Even a few outsiders saw some patterns in Scouting’s abuse cases and suggested that the BSA do more to combat the problem. When the New Jersey Department of Youth and Family Services investigated a Scoutmaster in 1980 for abusing Scouts, the investigator was surprised to find how easily molesters could join Scouting and that the boys were not taught about abuse.
That offender’s Confidential File includes a memo from the investigator urging the BSA to use background checks to screen applicants or to “help sponsoring institutions be more thorough” in selecting leaders, and to create an educational program to help Scouts “identify potentially abusive situations” and “report any compromising situations immediately, without fear or guilt.”
Then there were entreaties in the early 1980s by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America – from President David Bahlmann and legal adviser Donald Wolff – to team up to fight abuse. One idea was to share information about people banned from each organization for alleged molestation.
“We met a brick wall,” Wolff said. “More important” than the BSA’s unwillingness to explore any ideas, he said, “was their attitude of not wanting to admit they had a problem or wanting to deal with it openly like we were. The Boy Scouts was pretending there was no problem.”
The American Camp Association (ACA) got the same response in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it approached the BSA about working together to develop better training, screening and supervision to combat molestation at camps. Bob Ditter, a clinical social worker who has helped craft such policies and procedures for the ACA and the Salvation Army, among others, had known about some BSA abuse cases and was shocked by the “really lax” adult supervision he witnessed at Scout camps.
Ditter talked to Scout officials in Boston, where he is based, and elsewhere, but recalled last month, “I found the Scouts to be one of the most resistant organizations to deal with when it came to trying to implement training or increased awareness.”
That’s the attitude the Virginia parents found. After Bittenbender resigned and the extent of his abuse there and in Rhode Island surfaced, the troop’s parents formed a committee to suggest how the Scouts could improve its screening of adult volunteers and teach Scouts about abuse. The local professional Scouters said no. They said the BSA had a screening system and that these incidents are rare. The meetings turned angry.
Judy Etheridge, who headed the committee, later called the last meeting “a night of evasion. … They refused to acknowledge that they had to take a leadership role in this.”
The BSA did soon revamp some of its processes to cut down on abuse opportunities and produced some high-quality educational materials about abuse, with the help of a committee composed of some of the country’s most respected abuse experts. But the BSA insisted it was acting because it became more aware of the abuse problem in society as a whole, not because of abuse in Scouting – a claim that even some of those committee members found hard to understand.
Playing down the problem
To understand the BSA’s approach, think of a corporation that gets word of a product defect – like Toyota and its sudden acceleration gas pedals. The BSA convinced itself that the sex abuse incidents were a smattering of unrelated exceptions, not some fundamental flaw. It didn’t know how to solve the problem anyway.
But it did know that if word of the problem got out, as Ernst explained in one lawsuit deposition, it would “harm the name of the Boy Scouts of America. Parents would not let their sons and daughters join.”
So the BSA acted like the Roman Catholic Church did with its pedophile priests: It minimized the problem to itself and worked to conceal it from others.
The Confidential Files are littered with memos between local and national officials about efforts to keep cases quiet by imploring local police and journalists not to sully the good name of the BSA because of an aberration. Among the statements in the memos:
South Carolina: “I hope the news media maintains its silence related to his involvement with Scouting. This will certainly help us, not only in your area, but across the country.”
Illinois: An admitted abuser agreed to resign “in return for no further legal action on the part of the [Scout] council.”
Tennessee: Scout officials talked a victim’s parents out of contacting police or the local human services agency, because the offender promised “it would never happen again if they’d let him go.” Months later he molested another boy and was arrested.
Local Scout officials, in fact, did believe such cases were almost unheard of; they didn’t know how many files were at national. As for national, although officials said they never counted the abuse cases, they sometimes pretended that they did. For example:
In 1984, the BSA’s spokesman told a newspaper covering a case in Pennsylvania that there were eight to 10 such reports a year. In 1983, according to the Confidential Files, there were at least 71.
In 1988, the BSA told The Associated Press it had received 100 abuse allegations in the past decade. The files show there were 653.
Also that year, a BSA paper about child abuse declared, “The number of reported incidents within the Boy Scouts of America over the years is statistically smaller than in society.” BSA officials later admitted they had no data to back up the claim. In 1993, the BSA repeated the claim to Newsweek.
How they became public
In the early 1980s, stories and court cases about sex abuse in day care centers (remember the McMartin Preschool furor in California) increased public knowledge about abuse in youth institutions. It also spurred many lawsuits, including some against the BSA by former Scouts who’d been abused by their leaders. At least 15 families filed such suits in 1987; one of them was the family of Infant C.
That same year brought what appears to be the first trial in an abuse suit against the BSA. An Oregon jury awarded the victim $4.2 million, with the BSA getting about half the bill. A key to victory: The plaintiff’s attorney, William Barton, got a copy of the molester’s Confidential File.
In Virginia, the attorney for Infant C, Douglas B. Wessel, brought Barton into that case. “We thought they had to have a bunch of these” Confidential Files, Wessel recalled. The lawyers set out to get those files into the trial, to contend that the BSA knew it had a persistent abuse problem and had not done enough to combat it.
“The Scouts fought it like crazy,” Wessel said.
The judge ordered the BSA to turn over copies of 10 years’ worth of files on alleged abusers, spanning 1975 through 1984. The BSA produced 231 files.
The BSA still had a chance to keep the files from becoming public. Before the trial began in late 1988, the BSA offered settlements of up to $1 million – with the stipulation that the offer would be withdrawn when the files were submitted in court.
The BSA liked its odds in the trial. True, Bittenbender’s Scouting history exposed the failings of BSA’s screening system. And Infant C was suffering psychological problems that would require years of therapy.
But this was a dysfunctional family, which the BSA’s attorneys attacked from the trial’s opening statements with lines like, “What kind of family is this?” Plus, Virginia’s charitable immunity law dictated that if the jury decided the boy or his family contributed to the damage in any way, it could not award damages against the charity.
“They had a real good shot at zero” damages, Wessel said of the BSA. “They made some calculations” that they didn’t need to up their offer, because they might win anyway.
Money was not the family’s only motive. The boy and his mother felt betrayed by Bittenbender and the BSA. They wanted people to know about the extent of abuse in Scouting, and they wanted the BSA to take steps to better detect and reduce abuse. Infant C “felt strongly about this,” Wessel said, but his mother “was the prime mover.”
The Confidential Files were submitted in court and made national headlines.
But when the jury reached a verdict in early 1989, it assessed no damages against the BSA and hit the local scout council for only $45,000. In a cruel twist that turned on a little-known element of Virginia’s public defender law, all the money was used to pay the fees of the defense attorney for the molester.
The BSA seemed to have gotten by with a few days of bad news. In the long run, Infant C attorney Wessel believes, the corporation’s decision to win at the cost of letting the files become public “obviously backfired.”
Slowly, the Infant C files went the pre-Internet version of viral: The Washington Times copied Wessel’s set, and used that as the basis of a database project that found 416 abuse cases in Scouting from 1971 through 1989. That project, published in 1991, was the basis for a report on the CBS- TV program Inside Edition, which was seen by an attorney who had filed an abuse lawsuit against the Scouts in Sacramento, Calif.
Attorney Mike Rothschild got the newspaper project and showed it to a judge, who ordered the BSA to produce all Confidential Files involving abuse for about the same period that the newspaper had covered: 1971 through November 1991. The BSA came back with 1,871 files.
Again, the files made national headlines.
The suit was settled, but the files were not sealed. They became the basis of a report on ABC news magazine Day One in 1993 and helped The Times reporter publish a book the next year called Scout’s Honor: Sexual Abuse in America’s Most Trusted Institution.
Ever since then, victims and their attorneys have been using the book and copies of the California files to learn about abuse in Scouting and to press new lawsuits. In two of those suits, the BSA had to submit yet more files: 5,000 in Seattle, covering 1946 to 2007, for a case that was settled on the condition that the files not be released (T.S. et al v. the BSA); and most recently, 1,100 files spanning 1965 to 1985, for the case that went to trial last month in Portland.
That case marks the third time that the submission of the files has made national news. Yet Scouting has hardly taken the same pummeling that the Catholic Church has over its molesting priests. While a lot of Americans have it out for the Church, largely because of its moral preaching about sexual matters, people by and large admire the Boy Scouts or simply consider it square. The BSA has gotten a lot of leeway from the public.
That, however, has allowed the corporation to virtually ignore its massive database about child molesters in its ranks. People who have reviewed the files expressed puzzlement that the BSA still hasn’t used them to better understand abuse in Scouting.
“The Boy Scouts, in these files, have extensive information about these cases,” said Lanning, the former FBI agent. “All you have to do is study them. If you can’t, hire somebody who can.”
When he served on Scouting’s youth protection committee in the 1990s, Lanning suggested that the BSA study the files for patterns that would help it combat abuse. The BSA declined. It also did not follow the suggestion of committee member David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, to study whether the BSA’s new child protection efforts were effective, perhaps using the files as one research tool. Last month, Finkelhor praised the BSA’s educational materials but said he was “frustrated” by the corporation’s refusal to see if its efforts were working.
Also last month, psychologist Schoener took the stand in Portland and marveled at what the BSA’s files on abusers reveal about men who molest boys.
“You fell short,” he said of the BSA. “You did the right thing by keeping the files. You just didn’t use them effectively.”
The BSA’s response to the Portland case, and information about its youth protection program, are at http://www.scouting.org.