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Boy Scouts host groups for forum on sex abuse

NEW YORK — Even as its past policies on sex-abuse prevention fuel debate, the Boy Scouts of America is hosting an unprecedented closed-door symposium Thursday with other national youth organizations, hoping to share strategies to combat abuse.

The 10 participating groups, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the YMCA, and Big Brothers Big Sisters, will hear presentations from some of the nation’s top experts on child sex-abuse prevention. They also will discuss the sensitive topic of how uncorroborated information about potentially threatening adult volunteers might be shared among youth organizations.

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Planning for the daylong session in Atlanta began late last year, part of longstanding efforts by the Boy Scouts to demonstrate a commitment to preventing abuse problems that have bedeviled it and other youth groups for decades.

The Boy Scouts have been criticized for a lack of transparency in the ways they handle sex abuse allegations. They have fought to keep their so-called ‘‘perversion files’’ confidential, and those files reveal many cases where the Scouts failed to protect youths from pedophiles.

Two weeks ago, the Scouts released files from 1959-85 on 1,200 alleged pedophiles after Associated Press, The Oregonian, The New York Times, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and other news media won a court case against the organization.

The public is excluded from the Thursday symposium, but the organization says that will encourage candid discussion among participants.

Michael Johnson, a former police detective hired by the Scouts in 2010 as national director of youth protection, has organized the symposium, calling it a ‘‘groundbreaking opportunity’’ for groups serving more than 17 million youngsters to discuss shared challenges and antiabuse strategies.

‘Crazy as it sounds, this hasn’t been done before.’

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‘‘Crazy as it sounds, this hasn’t been done before,’’ Johnson said.

One of the symposium’s sessions will look at the type of confidential files kept by the Boy Scouts since the 1920s, with a range of verified and unverified allegations involving thousands of adults deemed to pose a threat of abuse.

The Scouts’ policy — not always adhered to over the decades — is to share substantive allegations with law enforcement. Thursday’s symposium will include discussion of whether, and how, these types of files might also be shared among youth groups even when the allegations are unproved.

‘‘This information is an incredible tool that might be helpful to other organizations, but where is the legislation that allows this to be shared amongst us?’’ said Johnson. ‘‘We want kids to be safe. We don’t mean to be defensive. But it is complicated.’’

The specialist recruited to lead the forum, Dr. Michael Haney of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, said information sharing is ‘‘a very gray area legally,’’ with no easy answers.

‘‘You may have enough information to know someone violated your policy, so you don’t let him be a volunteer,’’ Haney said. ‘‘How do we deal with that so that individual can’t just walk around the corner and find another venue to have access to children?’’

The session on information-sharing will be led by Suzanna Tiapula, director of the National District Attorneys Association’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse.

She said the youth organizations need to be wary of reports that appear false or vindictive, but should be working on ways to share with other youth groups any information deemed serious enough to report to law enforcement.

‘‘That’s going to be delicate,’’ she said. ‘‘They have a lot of issues, and they’re trying to do it correctly.’’

She praised the steps taken by the Boy Scouts in recent years to improve their child-protection policies.

Some of those steps date to the 1980s, while others followed the 2010 order by an Oregon jury that the Scouts pay $19.9 million in damages to Kerry Lewis, who was abused in the 1980s by an assistant scoutmaster in Portland.

That’s the case that led to the recent release of the Scouts’ files, prompting a pledge from the Scouts to re examine the documents and identify instances when people within the organization knew about suspected abuse but failed to report it to authorities.

Within months of the Oregon judgment, the Scouts announced that all adult volunteers — now numbering 1.1 million — would be required to take child-protection training when they join the Scouts and repeat the training every two years.

Last year, the Scouts stipulated that all adult staff are mandated to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement authorities and Scout leaders, even if this would not be required by state law.

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