WASHINGTON -An extraordinary collection of nearly 1,250 secret files kept by the Boy Scouts of America to document cases of child sex abuse within the organization must be released into the public record as long as the names of the victims and the people who reported the incidents are redacted, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled today in an order upholding a finding by a lower court.
The ruling affirms that “it’s not okay for youth organizations to keep secrets about dangers to children,” said Oregon attorney Kelly Clark, who served as lead trial counsel on the 2010 civil trial that brought public attention to the existence of the Boy Scouts’ so-called “perversion files,” which were intended to weed out ineligible volunteers. The jury awarded $20 million to the victim in that case. Youth Today published an extensive account of the case in its April 2010 issue.
The ruling means that for the first time ever, these secret files – which total more than 20,000 pages covering a time frame from 1965 to 1985 -- will be made available to the public, Clark said.
“These files show that long before this particular man was abused, the Boy Scouts knew they had a serious child abuse problem and they didn’t do anything to make things safe,” he said. “The public can now make up its own mind.”
Patrick Boyle, the former editor of Youth Today and the author of a book about the files, described today’s decision as a nightmare for the Boy Scouts. “This is the kind of thing that the Boy Scouts have been fighting for decades. Really, no youth organization wants its secret personnel files released,” Boyle said. “It’s now happened.”
Child abuse experts will be studying the files for a long time, Clark said, because they document in extraordinary detail the patterns of sex offender behavior.
A few things jump out right away to anyone studying the files, he said: most offenders were single men in their 30s, they did not have their own children in their troop, the abuse usually occurred after-hours, and it happened in scout leaders’ homes.
Just a few policy changes in the 1960s – such as prohibiting one-on-one time or overnight stays at scout leaders’ homes, or requiring more stringent screening for volunteers who did not have kids in the troop -- could have saved thousands of boys from abuse at the hands of their adult leaders, Clark said. Such policies were only put in place in the 1990s, he said.
The Boy Scouts released a video statement on its website as well as a written note expressing its concern that the ruling would discourage survivors of sexual abuse from coming forward.
“The Boy Scouts of America's Ineligible Volunteer Files are maintained to keep out individuals whose actions are inconsistent with the standards of Scouting, and Scouts are safer because those files exist. The confidentiality of the files encourages prompt reporting of questionable behavior, removes the fear of retribution, and ensures victims and their families have the privacy they deserve,” the statement read.
“While we respect the court, we are still concerned that the release of two decades' worth of confidential files into public view, even with the redactions indicated, may still negatively impact victims' privacy and have a chilling effect on the reporting of abuse.”
At least one advocacy group for sex abuse survivors, however, doubts the ruling will have such an effect. Instead, said Curtis St. John, a spokesman for the support group Male Survivor, “It will set a precedent that organizations will no longer be able to hide behind closed files that should be investigated rather than hidden.”
“For other youth organizations, the lessons here are, if you’re going to keep files about a problem that involves kids, make sure you’re reading those files and trying to help those kids,” he said.