Boy Scouts child abuse files: Can the organization withstand their release?

In recent years, the Boy Scouts of America has implemented many new guidelines to protect against new abuse. Even though morale inside the BSA remains high, some experts say the group is fighting a losing battle.

AP Photo/The Oregonian, Jamie Francis
In this file photo, Kerry Lewis, left, leans into his lawyer, Paul Mones, in a Portland, Ore., courtroom after a jury found the Boy Scouts of America negligent for repeated sexual abuse by an assistant Scoutmaster in the 1980s. Files released Thursday reveal that local Boy Scout leaders and town officials helped hush up numerous child sex abuse allegations.

As a result of a decision by the Oregon Supreme Court, attorneys for plaintiffs in cases against the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) on Thursday released more of what have been dubbed the “perversion files.” The current pages – some 20,000 – involve allegations of child sexual abuse from 1965 to 1985.

Portions of the massive confidential files maintained by the BSA, which cover nearly a century, have been steadily emerging. They include thousands of incidents of both alleged and confessed sexual abuse. Thursday’s file release was sanctioned by the top Oregon court after the attorneys won an $18.25 million suit against the BSA in 2010.

In recent years, the youth organization has implemented many new guidelines to protect against new abuse, but this may not protect the iconic group from negative fallout as new light is shed on old cases, say many legal and social observers.

“The BSA is an American institution,” says criminal law expert Dan Filler, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “This is a blowout that will have ripple effects in many directions,” from fundraising to membership and sponsoring organizations. He adds, “The information could also have substantial financial impact if the BSA has to get involved in settlement after settlement over old cases.”

The BSA has vigorously defended its record, stating in an e-mail release Thursday, “Nothing is more important than the safety of our Scouts. There have been instances where people misused their positions in Scouting to abuse children, and in certain cases, our response to these incidents and our efforts to protect youth were plainly insufficient, inappropriate, or wrong.”

The release goes on to say that when those involved in Scouting failed to protect, “or worse, inflicted harm on children, we extend our deepest and sincere apologies to victims and their families.”

The BSA maintains that it has “always cooperated fully with any requests from law enforcement.” Next month in Atlanta, the release additionally notes, the BSA is hosting a National Youth Protection Symposium in cooperation with other youth-serving organizations “where nationally-recognized, third-party experts will discuss and share best practices.”

But the BSA is fighting a losing battle, says attorney Tim Kosnoff, who has won abuse cases against the BSA. That’s due to the sheer number of cases coming from what the BSA calls its ineligible volunteer list.

For perspective, Mr. Kosnoff points to the recent child abuse cases at another venerable American institution, the Penn State football program.

“At Penn State,” he notes, “you had only a single individual, and the institution’s response was to bring in the former head of the FBI, Louis Freeh, to investigate and clean house.” Mr. Freeh interviewed hundreds of witnesses and brought every bit of evidence to light, he says. That decisive and transparent action – while painful – has sent a clear message.

“The Boy Scouts have not done anything like this to send a clear message to parents,” he says, adding, “They are still in denial, and this is eroding their credibility.”

The allegations of abuse could very well be the downfall for the BSA, says Steve Siebold, author of “Sex Politics Religion: How Delusional Thinking Is Destroying America.” “It’s bad enough that this alleged abuse went on in the first place, but the fact that the Boy Scouts organization tried to sweep it under the table for so many years is equally as troubling,” he says via e-mail. “This from a group that claims to be one of the nation’s most prominent values-based organizations. What values does this teach our kids, or anyone else for that matter?”

This is “going to stay with them for a very long time to come,” Mr. Siebold says. “Scout executives took way too long in showing any remorse, regret, or action.... These events are not going to be forgotten or excused anytime soon by the public.”

Morale inside the organization remains high, however. The existence of these files has been widely known for some time now, points out Michael Reinemer, a Cub Scout leader in Annandale, Va. “BSA has a strong, required training program for adult leaders designed to prevent child abuse and bullying. And there is a lot of information for Scouts and their parents designed to prevent child abuse and bullying,” he says via e-mail.

While he has his own critique of BSA policies, such as its discrimination against gays and lesbians, “Boy Scouts is an enduring American institution that will teach leadership, skills, and love of the outdoors to many more generations,” he says.

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