SCOUT LAW demands that scouts be “trustworthy” and “loyal.” Newly released Boy Scouts of America files indicate that, over many decades, some leaders failed to respect the trust that boys and their parents placed in them, choosing loyalty to accused pedophiles or the institution’s reputation over the welfare of the scouts.
The Boy Scouts have apologized, admitting that some members “failed to defend Scouts from those who would do them harm” and that their conduct was “plainly insufficient, inappropriate, or wrong.” But it will take much more time and effort to lift this stain.
Two lawsuits have resulted in the release of thousands of Boy Scouts documents on accused child predators, some dating back to the 1940s, others as recent as 2005, which the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times obtained and scrutinized. The files do not indicate that sexual abuse was or is pervasive in the Boy Scouts. But they do sketch out years of tragic, life-rending mistakes leaders apparently made when confronted with evidence of abuse, in the absence of the comprehensive youth-protection policy the organization says it now has.
Many of the files, part of a blacklist of suspect scout leaders, are thin. But Boy Scouts officials appear to have failed to report to police hundreds of instances of alleged abuse, and too often they appeared to have failed even to separate the accused from youth. Sometimes, accused abusers were allowed to volunteer again in different troops, apparently because no one checked the blacklist. It seems some leaders did too little because they wanted to avoid sullying the scouting program, didn’t want to embarrass victims, believed that the sexual predators had been cured or simply gave the accused the benefit of the doubt.
The New York Times discovered, for example, that after a scout leader admitted to “acts of perversion” and promised to “resolve this situation,” a Boy Scouts executive urged the organization to drop the issue. “If it don’t stink,” the executive wrote, “don’t stir it.” The Los Angeles Times unearthed a Boy Scouts form letter that assured dismissed adult volunteers that their files would remain confidential so that their “standing in the community” would not be affected. In some cases, this sort of negligence led to more abuse. It also, no doubt, discouraged boys and their parents from reporting other instances of abuse to Boy Scouts officials; who knows how many stories are still unknown, how many wounds remain unhealed.
The Boy Scouts respond that the organization has thoroughly overhauled its rules. Individual leaders are no longer allowed to be alone with scouts. The organization screens adult volunteers and trains them to spot abuse.
But not until 2010 did the organization begin requiring members to report suspected abuse to police. Now it has a responsibility to demonstrate not only that better policies are in place but also that those policies are working. That will require greater transparency — the Boy Scouts fought the files’ release — including in a planned review of more recent files. The organization must also recommit itself to helping the victims who are still suffering, particularly those who live in states with laws that make them ineligible to sue.