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We Know What We Don’t Know: How Safe is Scouting Today?

By March 30, 2013June 19th, 2020No Comments

Not a week goes by, it seems, but that we see this story, somewhere, similar to this: Boy Scout leader (or former Boy Scout leader) arrested (or convicted, or sentenced) for abusing children.

Now, of course, each one of these stories represents a tragedy: some young life, or lives, forever scarred by betrayed trust and sexual exploitation. I hardly need repeat what it now well-established in the mental health literature–that sexual abuse of a child, especially from a trusted adult, is a lifelong event. It often damages or destroys a person’s ability to trust, to be intimate, to experience spirituality. It may trigger early and sustained addiction problems–to alcohol, drugs, gambling or–ironically enough, sex.  It may cause a person to spin in and out of serial relationships, broken marriages, dysfunctional relationships with children, even his own children.  Sexual abuse is a kind of vandalism of the soul, and recovery from it takes enormous work and lasts a lifetime. No matter how many times I meet or advocate for an abuse survivor, I never get used to the stories, and I never stop being saddened and angered.

But the larger story I want to note here is one I have written about before.  And that is the question of how safe is the Boy Scouts of America these days?  We now know, because of the public release of the so-called Perversion Files— a release that I am proud to say was triggered by our 2010 trial in the Kerry Lewis case–that for decades up until the 1980’s at least, BSA had thousands of notices that its program was systematically being infiltrated by pedophiles, and that tens of thousands of boys were being abused in Scouting. Still, BSA took no action at all to make its program safer, to warn boys, parents or the community about the dangers of abuse in Scouting.  This is the key reason, in my view, why the Portland jury in the Lewis case hit BSA with nearly $20 million in damages, most of it punitive damages, in 2010.

But the BSA has said for many years now, essentially, “that was then, this is now; we are safer now, and in fact, we are the safest youth organization around.”  And there is no doubt that BSA has put in place some good policies to minimize abuse, and has apologized for its past mistakes–for which they should be applauded.  But is the new system working? Is BSA a safe organization these days?  If so, then why is it that we still see so often stories like the one above?  Dozens and dozens of such stories, over the last couple of years, of Scout leaders arrested for abusing boys.  How can that be, if the BSA is so safe?  I mean, for all the abuse problems in the Catholic Church over the last decades, we no longer see weekly stories about recent abuse in the Church; so why do we continue to see such stories in BSA?  How safe is BSA anyway?

Truth is, we don’t know: because the BSA won’t tell us.  They know: I mean, they continue to keep Perversion Files, they study–at least they say they study–the problem of abuse in Scouting.  Why won’t they release the data on what they know?  Why won’t they release the modern Perversion Files?  The public has never seen the Perversion Files from 1985- today, and in fact, BSA fiercely fights any attempts by our office or other lawyers to obtain them in litigation.  Why?  What is BSA hiding?  If it is such a safe organization, then show us.    And, if they won’t show us, it is up to Congress–which oversees BSA as a congressionally chartered corporation–to force BSA to tell the public what it knows about the current abuse numbers, statistics, studies.  Paul Mones and I have repeatedly petitioned Congress to do an audit of BSA’s current practices, to no avail.

So the fact is, as matters now stand, and just judging from the frequency with which Scout leaders are STILL being arrested, convicted, sentenced, for child sexual abuse, we have to assume that kids are still not safe in Scouting.  I wish that were not so, and I wish I did not have to say it.  But that is the only responsible conclusion that people who care about preventing child abuse can draw from stories like the one above, and from BSA’s continued stonewalling about letting the public know what it knows about its modern abuse problem. The ball is in their court, and so far, they show no indication that they plan to do anything about that.