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Boy Scouts of America, Sexual Abuse and the Struggle to Eradicate Child Molestation

Since mid-October of 2012, the Boy Scouts of America have attempted damage control. As has been widely reported, several media organizations have recently won a court case in Oregon that forced the Scouts to reveal files they wanted to keep secret. These files indicate wide-spread problems in the way the Scouts handled allegations of sexual abuse within their organization.

The confidential and highly detailed documents cover only a couple of decades—from 1965-1985—and include 1,200 files and more than 20, 000 pages. In the documents, the pedophiles have had their names covered-up but the persistent presence of sexual predators in the Scouts is clear. Some of the pedophiles were already convicted when they joined the Scouts as volunteers. Some would eventually be brought to justice after abusing children, but, in many cases, abusers were put on Boy Scout probation or simply told to leave the organization. In too many instances, protecting the image of the Boy Scouts of America seemed paramount to protecting children or pursuing justice against predators.

Since some of the alleged pedophiles were not reported to police, some joined other youth organizations and even returned to the Scouts in different regions of the country. Such confidential files have been kept since the early 1900s and more will be released, no doubt. A Texas court will soon decide if more recent files will be released to the public. Since the documents are so damning, there is little wonder why the Scouts did not want them available for public viewing.

Ostensibly created to keep suspected and convicted pedophiles from joining or staying in the organization as scoutmasters and volunteers, the files seemed to be a way for the Scouts to mete out their own form of justice. In many cases, however, this totally failed. In response to public outcry, the Boy Scouts of America President Wayne Perry recently said that “We failed some of our kids and we have to say we’re sorry” (“Boy Scout files Reveal Long History of Child Sex Abuse Cases”).  For victims, saying sorry is insufficient. Many, no doubt, will now compensation and pursue well-deserved justice.  As in many cases of child sexual abuse, a lone victim may feel completely powerless and lost. Now that these documents have finally been made public, some victims who previously felt helpless may step forward knowing that they are not alone.

Since many of the cases will be decades old, since many of the alleged abusers may be deceased, and since most states have strict rules governing statutes of limitations, the legal challenges may be daunting for attorneys handling the Boy Scouts of America sexual molestation cases. On the other hand, recent revelations about the Catholic Church and Penn State make juries and the general public more sensitive to such cases.  This may make the possibility for fair settlements more likely in the oncoming lawsuits.

One victim who knows that victory is possible is Oregon’s Kerry Lewis. In 2010 he was awarded tens of millions of dollars in punitive damages after he sued the Boy Scouts for not protecting him more effectively against a child molester. That offender lost his position as a Scout Leader but was allowed to remain as a volunteer in the organization in the 1980s when the abuse occurred.  The files that were used during the case are the same that have been made public recently. In the Lewis case, the documents were sealed and were to be used only in the court. For the last two years, the Scouts have been fighting to keep their secret documents out of the public eye. They have failed. And as the previously secret documents reveal, this is not the only way that the Boy Scouts of America have failed.

In recent decades, the Boy Scouts of America have tried to make up for past wrongs. They have put into place much more rigorous training and regulatory standards for handling sexual abuse allegations. For instance, alleged sexual abuse must be reported to police, all volunteers are supposed to aggressively look for signs of trouble and, perhaps most importantly, no adult is supposed to ever be alone with scouts (Boy Scouts of America: Youth Protection).

Many of the recent protections seem to be based on commonsense and should have been in place from the Scout’s inception. Because they kept a file on dangerous men in the organization, they clearly knew that they had a problem. Rather than looking at each case as an individual, isolated and rare instance, they should have done much more to provide safety systematically. They may soon learn the consequences for not having done so much earlier.