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On Boy Scouts, Scoutmasters and Gays: Reflections on BSA’s Policy Changes

By April 21, 2011December 22nd, 2015No Comments

Second only to coverage of the police manhunt for the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings this past week was the media frenzy surrounding the news that the Boy Scouts of America have decided to modify their historic exclusion of gays in Scouting.  In a kind of split decision, the national board of BSA decided to instigate a test policy allowing boys who identify themselves as homosexual to participate in Scouting, but not, at least for now, to allow openly gay men to serve as Scoutmasters. This, in the face of all sorts of heavy pressure on BSA over the last few years—large corporate sponsors, gay rights organizations, big media all arguing for openness and inclusion; while religious and cultural conservatives, plus at least three of BSA’s largest constituent groups (Catholic, Mormon and Baptist church hierarchies) vigorously opposed any revisions—made the decision all the more difficult for BSA. For no matter what they decided, they would upset some large and important part of their base. It was a kind of no-win situation for them. And, indeed the decision seems to have angered as many people and organizations as it pleased. Perhaps the most interesting and telling reaction of all came from Salt Lake City, where leaders of the Mormon Church—the single largest sponsor of Scout troops in the nation—simply issued a statement that the LDS Church would study the new policy over the next few weeks and months. I expect—predict, if you will—that as goes the LDS Church on this question, so will go the BSA.  I have no idea how the Mormons will ultimately respond to the new policy, but with half the troops in the nation, it seems unlikely that BSA can or will make its experiment permanent if the LDS Church were to come out in full force against it. Beyond that, readers of this blog, certain press outlets and advocates for survivors of child sexual abuse have all inquired of me this last week about the implications of this policy change for the problem of abuse in Scouting, and for the accountability of BSA for decades of turning a blind eye to that problem.  I received calls, for example, from national groups, so-called “family values organizations,” wanting me to introduce them to clients or former clients who have “been abused by gay Scoutmasters,” as a way to show that allowing in more gays would increase the likelihood of abuse in Scouting, and thus that the historic BSA policy of excluding gays from Scouting is still the right way to go.  I did not return the calls: these groups have never indicated the slightest interest in the abuse problem before now, so I suspected their calls had nothing to do with abuse and everything to do with another agenda.  I also received inquiries from certain press outlets, wanting me to “confirm” that child abuse in Scouting has nothing to do with sexual orientation, and thus that the BSA was on the right track in opening itself up to gay boys, even if not yet to gay Scoutmasters.  Again, I returned none of these calls, for again I sensed an agenda at work. Now I take no position on whether BSA’s new policy is good for the organization, or for the boys involved in Scouting, for that matter.  But the fact is, that the relationship of sexual orientation in the context of the BSA child abuse scandals is no more and no less complex than it is in any other institution that has struggled with child abuse scandals—the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church, public schools, athletic leagues, etc. I will explain my comment: but first, I should note that my comments come from my experience as an advocate and attorney for child sexual abuse victims in courts, legislative halls and public discussion for nearly twenty years now. Over those decades I have been honored to represent something over 300 abuse survivors, and have consulted with probably another several hundred as well.  I have heard their stories of grooming, seduction, abuse and devastated emotional and spiritual lives as a result of their abuse. I have seen the cover-ups of institutional child abuse problems within the “institutions of trust” that I mentioned above, as well as in others. I have taken depositions of dozens of perpetrators, priests, nuns and bishops (and one Cardinal) of the Catholic Church, as well as Mormon Church leaders, BSA Scoutmasters, leaders and executives. I have read thousands of pages of internal documents concerning child abuse: sub secreto, or “secrete archives,” of the Catholic Church, the confidential “Perversion Files” kept  by the BSA, and similar records in other organizations. I have argued dozens of legal cases before judges and juries.  And it is from those experiences, and not as a sociologist, psychologist, historian, politician or any of the other fields of expertise that we have seen weighing in on the social or public policy questions wrapped up in the gay issue within Scouting that I offer these thoughts. Now my observations about the relationship between sexual orientation and child abuse begin with the fact that child sexual abuse is almost always a relational crime. Very few victims of abuse are assaulted out of the blue by total strangers.  Sexual exploitation and abuse almost always arises out of a relationship of trust between the child and the perpetrator, whether the latter is a parent, step-parent, uncle or other relative, teacher, coach, religious minister or Scout leader.  Thus it is important in thinking about the relationship of sexual orientation to abuse to remember this relational element.  Of course, Scouting produces such relationships of trust, just as does the involvement of kids in churches, schools or sports.  To the extent of considering these relationships of trust—and to that extent only—does the question of the sexual orientation of adults around youth become of interest.  Perhaps a thought experiment might help show why. If a common-sense parent, for example, wise in the ways of the world, was on the local PTA, supervising an upcoming overnight field trip for middle-school students, that parent would probably want to know that male teachers were not going to be sleeping in the same rooms as the girl students, or female teachers with boys. This is so, not because the parent would assume that the teachers are pedophiles, but simply because prudence and caution—and the recognition that these kids have relationships of trust with these teachers and thus might be more vulnerable to manipulation or seduction– would seem to dictate it.  Note also, however, that the policy of separating out these teachers and these kids assumes that the teachers are heterosexual.  But what, then, to do about a lesbian teacher and the girls, or a gay teacher and the boys?  Ah, well, that is an interesting question.  Contemporary, pop-culture correctness would not even consider restricting a gay or lesbian teacher from bunking together with students of the same sex.  But what about the common-sense parent?  I dare say that he or she might think more carefully about it.   And again, not because our hypothetical parent would assume that the gay or lesbian teacher is a pedophile, any more than he or she would in separating out the male teachers from the girl students. But because the parent would recognize that the teachers have relationships of trust with the students. This, to me, seems to epitomize the problem with which the national BSA board has been struggling. Now I want to anticipate an objection. I am not saying that the percentage of pedophiles is any greater amongst gay adults than it is amongst heterosexuals.  My own observation in the hundreds of abuse cases I have seen is just the opposite: a pedophile is a pedophile, whether or not his or her habit of abuse is towards girls or boys. I have seen as many “heterosexual pedophiles” as “homosexual pedophiles.” I have heard testimony about men preying on boys and on girls, about women abusing boys and girls.  And, to repeat, I am no social scientist, yet I would wager that the sociological studies would bear out the idea that gays and lesbians have no greater tendencies or percentages of abusing children than do heterosexuals. The problem inherent in the BSA context (and that of the churches, schools, athletic leagues as well) is this: organizations that promote trust relationships between mentors and children—generally a good idea, of course, provided we have the right kinds of mentors—by definition have a significant risk of child abuse within those organizations.  So these organizations must anticipate that problem, understand it in their own context, and take aggressive action to prevent it. This, for decades, the Boy Scouts of America badly failed to do.  One of the historic problems with Scouting, as traditionally practiced in this country, is that of lax screening and oversight of these would-be mentors, as the Perversion Files make clear, and as we proved in the 2010 trial of Kerry Lewis v Boy Scouts in Portland.  This, and not the sexual orientation of the Scout leaders per se, is why so many boys were abused in Scouting. I mean, we can talk all we like about the problem of abuse in the Catholic Church, for example, but it is unlikely that very many, if any, men went into the priesthood for the purpose of molesting children. Many no doubt entered the seminaries as a way to avoid—so they thought—having to deal with their own sexual confusion or sexual struggles: such has been well-documented in the mental health literature.  But I have never encountered any priest who joined the Catholic clergy specifically to abuse kids. Simply put, there are easier ways to gain access to kids than undergoing eight years of philosophical and theological training and taking lifetime vows of obedience, poverty and celibacy.  None of that can be said of the BSA context.  For in Scouting, as is apparent to anyone who has ever spent any significant time reading the Perversion Files, practiced and serial pedophiles for decades specifically targeted Scouting as an organization with easy access to boys, a built in system for cultivating relationships of trust, and a lax oversight. So are these pedophiles “gay” because they abuse boys?  No. They abuse boys because they are pedophiles, and they choose boys because that is their pedophilic preference—just like a heterosexual teacher who abuses girls is a pedophile who happens to be heterosexual. So the concern I have about BSA’s new policy is the same as the concern I have had about their old policy: BSA fosters relationships of trust, and that is the context in which child abuse happens.  And the fact is, that even with some policy changes and increased vigilance in the last few years, BSA still has a long way to go to make its organization as safe as it could be for children, and to assure America that its current policies are working. I have written repeatedly wondering why, if BSA is so safe now, they will not release the modern Perversion Files (1985-date), why they will not show us the abuse statistics from the 1990s and 2000s, why we don’t know—but are only asked to take BSA’s word for it—that BSA is a substantially safer place now than in decades past.  I don’t know if allowing in gay boys will increase the likelihood of Scout on Scout abuse; or, for that matter, if allowing gay Scoutmasters would increase the likelihood of adult-child abuse.  But, like the streetwise parent in the hypothetical above, I would choose to assume so: NOT because I believe gays more likely than anyone else to abuse others, but because Scouting is inherently a relational program and child sexual abuse is inherently a relational crime. So if I were in the executive leadership of BSA, I would worry about the impact of the revised policies on the abuse problem. I would study current policies and their effectiveness.  And then I would plan as if the problem were going to get worse.  I would assume the worst, plan for it, and put all the best policies in place for it.  Now, it may be that BSA has done all that and is doing all that and plans to continue doing all that in the future.  But they have not told us that, they have not explained it to America, they have not been fully forthcoming about the existing problem of abuse in Scouting—adult on child, Scout on Scout, and any other kind of abuse that occurs in Scouting; nor have they told us that they have put into place even stronger abuse prevention practices in light of the revision of their approach to gays in Scouting.  And until they do that, I—and anyone else who understands child sexual abuse—should be uncomfortable about the new policies, just as we are uncomfortable about the old policies.