Since my work for children who were sexually abused involves frequent cases against the Boy Scouts of America, recently, I was interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as well as the Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper regarding the highly charged story of Richard Turley, the pedophile Boy Scout leader who sexually abused boys for decades in both the US and in Canada. The crux of the story is that Turley was able to go from the US to Canada, and to have a second career of sexual abuse of Scouts there, despite that the American Scouts had repeated warnings of his sexual dangerousness to boys. The CBC story and related news articles rightfully expressed outrage at these circumstances, and openly wondered how these things could happen. In this blog, I will draw parallels between the Canadian and American experience with the sexual abuse of Boy Scouts. In a follow up to this blog, I will note the similarities between Boy Scout sexual abuse and abuse in other “institutions of trust” such as the Catholic Church and Mormon Church sexual abuse cases.
First, about the Canadian story. That a Scout leader would be able, after he was caught abusing boys, to go from troop to troop, whether in the US or in Canada, may be stunning, but, given what we know about sexual abuse in Scouting, should really not be surprising. (For a comprehensive look at the problem, albeit from 20 years ago, see Patrick Boyle’s Scouts Honor, click here.) Last year, I was lead trial counsel in a major Boy Scout abuse trial in Portland—which resulted in a $20 million verdict against BSA—in which the perpetrator had admitted to abusing 17 boys within one Scout troop, and yet was not permanently removed as a Scout leader, such that he had access to and abused more boys, including the one we represented at trial. (For my past blogs on the general topic of abuse in Scouting, including the Portland trial, click here.) Likewise, in other cases, we have seen similar warnings about Scout leaders go unheeded. So, really, the Canadian experience with Turley, while stunning, is not unique in Scouting. How can this be? Well, to answer that question, it is necessary to talk about the Scouts so-called “Perversion Files.”
For decades, up until around 1990, the Scouts main “system” for protecting boys against the risk of sexual abuse was these “Perversion Files” or “Confidential Files,” also sometimes called the “IV (ineligible volunteer) Files.” The purpose of this system, according to the Boy Scouts, was to prevent a leader accused of misconduct from re-registering as a leader anywhere in Scouting. The problem, as we proved in Portland, is that the system didn’t work. In Portland, for the first time ever in any courtroom, a jury saw in evidence an entire block of the Perversion Files—all files from 1965-1985—some 20,000 pages of records, representing over 1,200 documented instances of sexual abuse of Scouts. What those documents showed were thousands of stories of abuse in Scouting, by trusted leaders against trusting boys and their families. The Portland jury heard stories of Cub Scouts being forced to view pornography with their nude Cubmaster, of Scoutmasters who befriended, groomed, seduced, and then molested, sodomized or raped boys of all ages, from Cub Scouts, aged 7-10, to Boy Scouts aged 11-17. The files showed stories of devastated boys and outraged families and parents. Too often, incredibly, some of these abusers were on “probation”—meaning there had been some complaint previously about their conduct, but BSA executives decided to leave the leader in positions of trust. The Cubmaster who showed pornography to Cub Scouts was such an example. As I said, the system often simply failed to keep out dangerous Scout leaders or to prevent the sexual abuse of Scouts.
The Portland trial also showed that the numbers are nearly beyond comprehension. Given that the average pedophile has somewhere between 5-25 victims, one could reasonably conclude from the 1200 files from 1965-85 that at least 6,000-30,000 boys were abused in Scouting during those two decades. If you then consider that only a fraction of all abuse is ever reported—perhaps 5-10%, according to experts—the likely numbers of boys abused in Scouting becomes staggering. Add to that the fact that BSA admitted that these files had been kept for decades before the 1965-85 timeframe, and we can begin to see the outlines of the tragedy that played out under the auspices of the Boy Scouts. (For more stories and articles about these Perversion Files, click here).
Now, in the Canadian story of Richard Turley, the question the reporters wanted to know was whether the Canadian Boy Scouts had a similar system as did the US Scouts. I do not know the answer to that question: but I did have for the reporters two questions in reply: If they did not have such a system, then what system did they have for screening potential leaders? And, second, if they did have a system of IV/Perversion Files, how do the Scouts explain the ease with which Turley was able to go from troop to troop, region to region, nation to nation, abusing boys, despite the knowledge within the Scouting hierarchy that he had abused boys?
These questions about the Canadian experience also highlight what I believe to be the main lesson from the Portland trial about the sexual abuse of boys in Scouting: that for decades, despite knowledge of the rate at which Scoutmasters and other Scout leaders were abusing boys, despite knowing how it was happening—for example, lots of one on one time, time spent with the Scoutmaster outside of official Scout activities, sleepovers at a Scout leader’s home, etc—the BSA did not fundamentally alter their program to put more effective safeguards in place, they did not train leaders and parents in child abuse prevention, and they did not warn Scouts, parents or local Scout leaders about the documented and clear danger of sexual abuse by Scout leaders of Scouts. That failure to act was, we argued to the Portland jury, the reason that so many boys were sexually abused in Scouting. And that failure, as the CBC story showed, was one of international proportions.