On Thursday, the Boy Scouts hosted a closed-door symposium with nine other youth organizations to discuss ways to prevent sex abuse. They can look at their own experiences for lessons — for better and worse.
The Boy Scouts fought hard to prevent the release of the organization’s secret files on 1,247 scout leaders who were accused of child molestation from the 1960s through the ’80s. When the files were finally made public last month under the order of the Oregon Supreme Court, one motive for all secrecy became painfully apparent: The so-called “perversion list” revealed a gaping flaw in how cases were handled.
In some cases, suspected abusers were quickly barred from scouting. In others, the secrecy of the files allowed pedophiles to continue in scouting or quietly move on to other youth and church organizations. In some files, the desire to avoid bringing alleged abusers to justice is evident; “the family, including the scout, fortunately have decided not to prosecute,” one file read. By the Boy Scouts’ own admission, more than a third of the allegations in the files were never reported to police. The organization must accept not just the legal consequences, but also the moral ones, of its coddling of abusers.
Yet certain aspects of the issue speak more favorably of the Boy Scouts . The fact that the Boy Scouts kept “ineligible volunteer files” for more than 80 years speaks to an admirable awareness of the need to protect youths from predators long before the issue became a subject of public debate. The knowledge that “ineligible” files were being kept gave families an incentive to report abuse promptly. The problem, of course, was that the organization too often failed to forward credible complaints to the authorities.
Today, the Boy Scouts serve 2.7 million young people and have 1 million volunteers — and there is no reason for parents to feel their children are in jeopardy when they participate. In recent years, the organization has developed detailed youth protection policies that have been internalized into the organization’s culture. Adult volunteers now go through criminal background checks. Under what is called “two-deep leadership,” no scout is ever supposed to be alone with a scout leader. All programs are open to observation by parents, and the organization provides substantive training and materials on how to recognize abuse.
There is now mandatory reporting of credible allegations of abuse to government authorities. In decades past, the Boy Scouts of America put its own needs ahead of vulnerable kids. But it is now providing a practical map for how organizations that work with young people can ensure their protection.