May 23, 2010
BY LES ZAITZ and NICOLE DUNGCA
The Boy Scouts‘ effort to protect their young members from sexual abuse had large gaps from the start and has significantly fallen behind modern practices.
Videos intended to alert youth about potential abuse don’t warn that Scout leaders could be molesters, despite an 80-year record of just such scenarios.
Few of the 1.2 million adults volunteering in Scouts have been required to take training that the Boy Scouts offer.
Checking those volunteers for past criminal conduct wasn’t started until 2003, and each person is checked only once. Thousands who started before then weren’t included. Finally, in 2008, the Scouts required checks on everyone renewing their annual registration as a Scout volunteer.
The Scouts ignored their own experts’ advice to study and learn from thousands of confidential files on abusers.
A Portland jury with unprecedented access to those files sent a message last month that the Boy Scouts of America must do a better job of protecting the nearly three million kids in their programs. In a civil trial, jurors found the Scouts liable for allowing a former assistant Scoutmaster, Timur Dykes, to continue working with – and abusing – a Boy Scout after Dykes pleaded guilty to attempted sexual abuse of young boys.
"They never said once that ‘We have a problem,’" said Margaret Ormsbee, one of the jurors. "It felt to jurors that maybe they weren’t taking this seriously."
The jurors slammed the Scouts with the largest verdict in the group’s 100-year history. They awarded $18.5 million for abuse by Dykes, who admitted molesting 17 boys just as the youth protection program was being developed.
National Scout executives declined interviews or to respond in detail to two letters offering them factual statements to verify.
"There are many inaccuracies," the Boy Scouts said in a statement last Thursday. They said they didn’t have time to adequately address the statements and felt responses on many subjects would be inappropriate because of pending litigation.
The Scouts, who serve 41,000 youth in Oregon, face another 10 lawsuits in the state over child abuse.
The Scouts defend their efforts.
"The Boy Scouts of America has been a pioneer in building multiple layers of safeguards into its programs so that local Scout troop can be as safe a place as possible," the Scouts said in a statement to The Oregonian.
But Scout documents and sworn testimony by Scout executives show precious little of it mandated, and none of it audited.
Local Scout leaders are free to use the "youth protection program" as they see fit.
That was stunning to Portland jurors, who listened to weeks of testimony in a case pitting the national Scouts against a man molested by Dykes.
The biggest thing is that even in 2010, things were not mandatory," said Ormsbee. "Even after 60, 70, 80 years of kids being abused, it’s still not strictly mandatory."
She said the Scouts have good written material and should require its use.
"This should be mandatory training for every volunteer and not just registered volunteers," Ormsbee said. "There are far more unregistered volunteers. This should be required for any adult who’s going to be around Scouts."
On Thursday, the Scouts said in a statement to The Oregonian that as of June 1, "youth protection training will be mandatory for every adult volunteer and it must be taken every two years."
The Scouts developed youth protection material in the face of civil cases and increasing publicity about abuse within Scouting.
"When we began in 1987, we didn’t know anything about child sex abuse," said Larry Potts, a former top Scout executive in a sworn deposition.
The Scouts recruited prominent experts in child abuse to help, but they weren’t asked to design a program to protect Scouts. Instead, according to depositions, their job was to review brochures, articles and videos put together by the Scouts.
Paul Mones, a Portland attorney in the recent Scout case and has represented abuse victims for 30 years, reviewed the two videos used in the program. "None of them – not one of them – ever mentioned a Boy Scout, showed a Boy Scout or had a Boy Scout scenario," Mones said.
A Boy Scout flier for parents on how to talk to their child about abuse advised, "Tell your children that an adult whom they know and trust, perhaps someone in a position of authority (like a babysitter, an uncle, a teacher, or even a policeman) might try to do something like this."
The youth protection effort did provoke new rules in Scouting to minimize the chances a Scout would be abused.
Beginning in 1987, the Scouts required two adults attend every Scout event. In 1991, the Scouts mandated that no adult could be alone with a Scout. The national organization doesn’t audit whether those rules are obeyed.
The Scouts also say they warded off potential offenders by starting criminal background checks, beginning with employees in 1994 and expanded to new volunteers in 2003.
The Scouts said in 2008 they expanded criminal background checks to include "all volunteers" but wouldn’t explain if that included volunteers already participating and volunteers not formally registered with the Scouts.
Scout officials also wouldn’t answer whether volunteers are checked more than once.
Experts say once isn’t enough.
One of the most prominent leaders in Portland area Scouting logged 39 years of respectable service in Oregon and elsewhere before he was caught in the Department of Homeland Security’s "Operation Predator" program in 2005.
At the time of his arrest, Douglas Sovereign Smith, former executive director of the Columbia Pacific Council, had been in charge of the Boy Scouts’ national program to protect children from sexual abuse. He pleaded guilty to receiving and distributing child pornography and was sentenced to eight years in federal prison.
The case produced no evidence that Smith victimized Scouts but showed what child-protection advocates already know – the importance of vigilance.
Kristen Anderson of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said her organization recommends annual record checks. Congress created the center as a pilot project to give youth organizations one place to turn for centralized checks. Many of the country’s largest youth organizations signed on. The Boy Scouts didn’t.
Anderson said regular checks at the national level can turn up conduct that occurs after a volunteer has signed up. She also said molesters are sophisticated about evading detection.
"There are percentages of individuals who will use false names, who will apply to volunteer in states that are different than where their criminal history occurs," Anderson said.
In California, the Salvation Army checks the records of both employees and volunteers every two years. Anne Calvo, child safety consultant with Salvation Army’s Western operations, testified such care deters molesters.
"I like to believe that they know that we have these safeguards in place and so they stay away," she testified in a deposition two years ago. "They do chat amongst themselves and they share the organizations that are easy to have access to children without much screening."
The Scouts insist they have rigorous screening of volunteers, but as with much in Scouting, the process has been voluntary.
Some experts say the Scouts did not take advantage of a significant source of information for protecting Scouts – their own "ineligible volunteer files." They have collected such records since about 1920, documenting the name and conduct of Scout leaders banned for child abuse, including 98 in Oregon from 1971 to 2005.
The files are kept locked away. The Scouts said in a statement to The Oregonian that said disclosing the files "could have a very negative impact on efforts to protect our youth from those who should not be involved in youth activities."
Nonetheless, some experts say that unparalleled record would be valuable for evaluating the Scout protection program and for identifying patterns suggesting a molester was at work. They say the files also should have been more scrupulously mined to catch abusers returning to Scouting ranks.
One of those who saw the research promise of those secret files was David Finkelhor, a New Hampshire professor specializing in child abuse research. The founder of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, he served 20 years on the national Scout expert panel on child abuse.
"I suggested that there might be some utility in having somebody review those files as a way of trying to ascertain the effects their youth protection program was having," Finkelhor testified last year.
Other experts on the panel made the same suggestion. Finkelhor said he was frustrated that the Scouts wouldn’t crack open the files.
He’s not alone.
"What struck everyone was that the Scouts simply weren’t using their information," said Orsmbee, the Portland juror. "It was really disturbing."
She said the Scouts could use their files to profile Scout abusers. "Are they single? Are they married? How do they groom their victims? Are they younger? Older?" Orsmbee said.
Dr. Eli Newberger, a Massachusetts pediatrician and national leader in standards for youth organizations, also analyzed the Scouts’ practices and reviewed their internal records, acting on behalf of Scout victims.
"That sense was not made of these data to better serve children raises serious questions about the intentions of national BSA leadership," said Newberger.
Shortly before the recent Portland trial, the Scouts hired a University of Virginia researcher to examine the confidential files. She testified the files held little research potential.
But Newberger said the files also reveal instances when the Scouts inexplicably allowed an abuser to continue working in Scouts.
"The record is replete with violations of ethical principles and standards of care for children that led to tragic consequences for children and their families," Newberger wrote in assessing the confidential records.
Ormsbee said jurors were disturbed by episodes when the Scouts discovered but didn’t reject a suspected or proven abuser. In several instances, abusers were put on probation instead of being banned.
"We saw a lot of cases from the ’60s and ’70s where they were reported as abusers. In the 1990s, they’re still there," Ormsbee said. "We’re wondering why they were not kicked out."
— Les Zaitz