After more than 20 years of rejecting accusations that it mishandled the problem of sex abuse in its ranks, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) yesterday admitted that its response was sometimes “wrong” and apologized to victims.
“There have been instances where people misused their positions in Scouting to abuse children, and in certain cases, our response to these incidents and our efforts to protect youth were plainly insufficient, inappropriate, or wrong,” the BSA said in a “Open Letter to the Scouting Community.”
“For any episode of abuse, and in any instance where those involved in Scouting failed to protect, or worse, inflicted harm on children, we extend our deepest apologies and sympathies to victims and their families.”
It’s unclear whether victims will feel moved by the organization’s statement. “The apology is not accepted,” said Matt Stewart, a California man who settled an abuse lawsuit against the BSA in 2007. Saying that the organization apologized only after lawsuits and media reports exposed its failure to prevent and confront abuse, Stewart said, “The Boy Scouts covered up these cases. How can you put an ‘I’m sorry’ behind that?”
The BSA’s conciliatory statements were nested within a defense, as the Texas-based nonprofit stressed that the extent of abuse in Scouting is relatively low, and that its system has largely has “functioned well in keeping many unfit adults out of Scouting.”
The statement marks a new approach for an organization that has long responded to allegations about a sex abuse problem with tones ranging from virtual silence to defiance.
A Shift in Tone
Since the late 1980s, journalists and lawyers have used more than 1,800 “confidential files” about people the BSA banned for sex offenses — made available through lawsuits — to contend that the organization had a significant abuse problem, failed to adequately screen out dangerous volunteers, poorly investigated many abuse complaints by Scouts and sometimes hid abuse from parents, the public and law enforcement.
The BSA’s standard public response has been to issue prepared statements saying that it cares about youth safety and lauding its child protection system; it has refused to discuss or even acknowledge the extent of abuse in Scouting, or the organizational response to incidents.
As recently as two years ago, the BSA saw no reason to apologize. During a civil case in Oregon — after a plaintiff’s attorney pointed out in closing arguments that the BSA had never apologized to his client or other victims — BSA attorney Chuck Smith told jurors, “You’ve heard the argument we haven’t apologized to the plaintiff, we haven’t apologized to the parents, we haven’t apologized to the country. Had there been an apology, what would these lawyers be telling you? ‘Why did it take so long?’”
The jury hit the BSA with $18.5 million in punitive damages. Soon thereafter, the organization began softening its tone. It quickly settled another lawsuit, issued a statement saying “we extend our sympathies to the victims” in that case, and instituted changes that it had previously refused, such as requiring all volunteers to go through its youth protection training.
The BSA statement on Tuesday also said that it will review decades-old cases to make sure that local police are informed of past abuse accusations. And it released an internal analysis of some of its abuse cases, which found that the BSA’s “Ineligible Volunteer” file system, while not perfect, “has functioned well in keeping many unfit adults out of Scouting.”
The organization is trying to get ahead of a new wave of media reports about abuse in Scouting. The Los Angeles Times has published stories in recent weeks re-examining some 1,800 files that were first analyzed in the early 1990s by several news organizations and in this book. And several major news organizations are preparing stories based on the pending release of about 1,200 such files from the Oregon lawsuit that the BSA lost in 2010.
“With the upcoming release of the files in Oregon, we felt it was important to put the files in context and to make sure we’re clear about how we feel about this issue,” said BSA spokesman Deron Smith.
On a broader level, the BSA and other youth organizations see a cultural shift — driven largely by the Catholic Church and Penn State abuse scandals — whereby the public is growing more unforgiving of venerated institutions that appear to have mishandled sex abuse allegations.
“People are not just only outraged, but they’re asking for changes, too,” said Sarah Kremer, who leads mentor screening and youth safety training as program director of the Mentoring Institute, based in Redwood City, Calif.
Finally, an infusion of fresh blood at the BSA appears to be leading the organization to come out a bit more about this issue. That includes Michael Johnson, a former Texas detective who in 2010 was named youth protection director, and Wayne Brock, who took over as the chief scout executive on Sept. 1.
It is unclear if the BSA’s new approach will dilute some of the fury that victims and the public might feel as the stories continue. In the Catholic Church scandal, the reluctance of Church leaders to publicly apologize (they eventually did) is often cited as fueling the onslaught of lawsuits and media coverage.
“Apologies are usually easy and vague,” said David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “They can often seem like public relations moves, rather than sincere gestures.”
That’s how Stewart sees it. “That’s the mantra of other organizations that allowed this to happen for decades,” he said. “Once they get caught, they issue an apology.
“The lives of the victims are ruined. How can you tell me sorry after I was abused for 13 years?”
Patrick is a veteran journalist with extensive experience covering youth issues as former editor of Youth Today, and as a reporter and contributor to several notable news publications. He is the author of Scouts’ Honor: Sexual Abuse in America’s Most Trusted Institution, and a Huffington Post blogger who specializes in fathering issues.