Learning from Molesters: What the Scout Scandal Teaches Us

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Should the Boy Scouts say sorry? Should the pope resign?

Those are among the questions that people have been asking in recent weeks as the Scouts and the Roman Catholic Church have been pummeled by allegations  of ignoring or covering up sex abuse in their ranks. Now that a jury in Portland, Ore., has found the BSA negligent in handling a sex abuse case that drew national attention, it’s time to do this:

Get past the anger at the organizations and focus instead on what would help  protect youths: the molesters.

No one wants to pay attention to molesters. But for 30 years, there have been repeated revelations about sex abuse in youth institutions – day care, schools, sports teams, churches and troops. Have we learned anything?

Not much. Like the Church and the Scouts, we just want these repulsive people to go away.

That’s tragic, because the Scout and Church scandals give us an unprecedented opportunity to learn about men who molest boys. Lawsuits have forced the Scouts to produce 5,000 files about adults they’ve kicked out for allegedly molesting kids. The John Jay College on Criminal Justice has collected information on nearly 5,000 priest and deacon molesters, and files about dozens of those cases are on line.

Here’s some of what I’ve gleaned from reading the files that have been made public, along with interviewing molesters and victims for newspaper projects, a television project and a book:

You’d like the molesters

Many of the offenders are described as “pillars of the community”; some won “citizen of the year” awards in their towns. While a socially awkward stranger-kidnapper occasionally makes big news, what’s more typical are these men, many of whom are regular guests in the homes of families whose children they molested.

One such man was Carl, a Scout molester whom I grew to like when visiting him in a Virginia prison. A former Navy pilot, singer in a church choir, decorated Scoutmaster, Carl was one of those guys who seemed to know everything. If you needed help patching your roof, Carl would bring his ladder and join you.

So you can understand why one victim of the Rev. Ted Feely described how happy he was to see the priest arrive at his Ohio home: “He is a priest, friend, mentor, chaperone and Shepherd that graces this family with his presence at numerous meals and watches the Bears football on Sundays with Dad.”

They’re not gay

At least not openly. That’s not allowed in the Scouts or the priesthood, and look what happened.

 Most Scout leaders accused of having sex with boys had wives or girlfriends. One molester told me about his “knockout” girlfriend who “liked to wear very skimpy things,” drawing ’atta boy smiles from the dads in the troop.

Sex abuse experts say pedophilia is a sexual preference that is distinct from a person’s preference in adults. How can a man be attracted to both women and boys? Consider some of the characteristics of pre-pubescent boys: little body hair, soft voices, clear skin and no bulky muscles. Thomas Hacker of Illinois, one of Scouting’s most prolific molesters – “well above a hundred” victims during  25 years  – lost interest in boys when developmental changes began turning them into men.

A caveat: Several of the Scout molesters told me that, through therapy, they began to wonder if they had repressed their homosexuality and channeled their sexual energy toward boys.

But a lot of them are single

Priests have to be. But among the Scout files I’ve read that state the marital status of the alleged offenders, most of those offenders (776 out of 1,311) were single (not those who were divorced). That doesn’t mean single men who work with children are pedophiles. Just have your antenna up when a single man voluntarily devotes a lot of his time to working with kids without having any of his own among them.

They have an eye for needy kids

Molesters read kids better than most of us – especially troubled kids. “A child could walk into a meeting, a group activity, and I could stand there and say, ‘family problems,’ ” one Scout molester in New Jersey told me. He’d take special note whenever a boy “would follow me around like a puppy.”

Such children are especially vulnerable to a molester’s attention. Witness this statement from a victim of the Rev. Paul Shanley: “My parents were heavy drinkers and were physically and emotionally abusive to me and my siblings.” Shanley took him for a drive and “told me that he knew that I had it rough at home. Father Shanley immediately made me feel safe and understood. I believed he was going to rescue me from my family.”

They take advantage of absent parents

Overburdened Scout leaders complain that BSA stands for Babysitters of America. A convicted abuser told me about his first Scout campout: Although several parents had said they’d help, the adults all dropped off their kids and drove away. “It was just me and 20 kids.”

We parents can’t hover over every meeting, practice and game. But I try to heed the advice given to me by one victim’s father: “If your kid’s involved, you should be involved.” If you can’t be the coach or Scoutmaster, be the statistician, the e-mail coordinator, the snack parent. Hang around at least some practices. Establish your presence.

 They make secrets

One of the fastest ways to bond with adolescent boy is to engage him in activities that would set off his parents: things like smoking, drinking alcohol and looking at porn.

The victim of the Rev. Feely, writing in the third person, recalled a trip they took together, which included “eating all the wrong things: cotton candy, Cokes, burgers and elephant ears. Father Ted even convinced Donald to try one of his Camel cigarettes, but it was all right because it was their secret.”

This also provides blackmail fodder if the youth threatens to fink about the sex.

They are seducers, not rapists

Coercive sex is not the norm. Most pedophiles “seduce their child victims pretty much the same way men and women have been seducing each other since the dawn of mankind,” says retired FBI Special Agent Kenneth V. Lanning, who served for years as the agency’s child abuse expert. They “shower them with attention and affection and kindness. Or buy them presents.”

They build friendships, then make sexual advances. In Massachusetts, the Rev. Richard L. LaVigne invited a boy to do a few odd jobs. “The more that I worked at the church,” the boy later wrote, “the more Father LaVigne would cut short the work and bring me into his personal living quarters and spend social time with me.” Later the boy enjoyed the priest “taking me out to an ice cream parlor in Shelburne Falls, or taking me to the movies in Greenfield.”

Explained the victim of a Florida Scout molester: “He’d treat you like a king.”

They count on kids being afraid to tell

Some of the saddest documents in the files are statements from boys saying that they were afraid to tell their parents –  thinking that they’d get in trouble, or fearing that the sexual acts meant that they were gay. Youth workers and parents need to educate children about this topic, perhaps with the help of books, video and websites. A BSA videos,  A Time To Tell, is one such resource and is available on line.

They don’t consider it abuse

That’s why men who profess to care for children can also molest them. As Hacker, the Illinois Scout leader, wrote to his therapist after resigning from a troop for abuse: “I still couldn't see any harm to the children.”