In the last post, I commented upon the recent investigative report from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the LA Times about confessed child molester Richard Turley, a Boy Scout leader who abused boys for decades in both Canada and the US. That story showcased how one pedophile was able to go from troop to troop, despite knowledge of the Boy Scouts organization and their so-called “Perversion Files”—their supposed system for keeping track of child molesters.
Some readers will recall that, last year, I, along with lawyers from my firm, as well as my co-counsel attorney Paul Mones, won a jury verdict in Portland against the Boy Scouts on a sex abuse case, the total award being nearly $20 million– $1.4 million in general damages and $18.5 million in punitive damages—the largest single child abuse verdict in American history. In that trial, Paul and I were able—for the first time ever in any courtroom—to get introduced into evidence the entire BSA Perversion Files system, some 20,000 pages of records, reflecting over 1000 instances of child abuse within Scouting from 1965-85. For articles on this trial and on the Perversion Files, click here. For previous posts of mine about the trial and the files, click here.
What the IV/Perversion Files showed was a remarkable similarity to what we have seen in other contexts. As a child sex abuse attorney who has represented over 300 victims now, of abuse in the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church, the Boy Scouts, and other youth organizations, I can see the way that the abuse dynamic has played out in all of these contexts. Here, then, are some of the similarities in abuse cases in those three settings:
1. The abuse was shrouded in secrecy. Child abuse thrives in secret, and abusers know this. So they almost always threaten or coerce their victims into silence and secrecy. This is one of the most damaging aspects of abuse for children, that they feel trapped and unable to do anything or say anything. At the same time, the institutions involved, whether the Catholics, the Mormons or the Boy Scouts, also shrouded their abuse problem in secrecy: the Catholics with their “secret archives” in which reports of abuse were hidden (for stories about the Catholic problem of secrecy, click here); the Boy Scouts and their Perversion Files, and even the Mormon Church’s still-secret internal system for tracking abuse and keeping it hidden from members (for stories about Mormon abuse, click here)
2. The abuse arose out of relationships of trust. Almost always in these three contexts, children were abused because they trusted their priests, Scout leaders or LDS leaders implicitly. And always, the organizations had taught these children and their families that they should trust such men: the Catholic Church with its emphasis on the power of the Church and the supposed holiness of priests, the Mormon Church and its theology that every person assigned to a specific calling was placed there by God, and the Boy Scouts, with their oaths, emphasis on duty and honor, and the high esteem with which Scouting was held by society. And so, for a victim of abuse, up until the time the abuse began, the trusted adult was doing the exact kinds of things that a child would expect a trusted adult to do: building a relationship with the child, spending time with him or her, teaching, mentoring, playing the role model. The fact is, most molesters are nothing less than geniuses when it comes to understanding children and winning their trust. And so, naturally, when these relationships progressed to the point of absolute trust, abuse was possible. The fact is, that the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church and the Boy Scouts all received tremendous benefit from these trust relationships—families were loyal members and supported the organization generation after generation. And so their protest these days that they should not be liable for abuse arising out of these relationships of trust rings hollow.
3. When abuse became public, the organizations opted to protect themselves and not the children. One of the main lessons that came out of the Portland trial last year was that juries are outraged when they believe that a child-trust organization responds to an abuse problem with cover-up, denial, minimization and blaming the victim. All of these responses are ones that the Portland jury saw from the Boy Scouts in child abuse cases, and are consistent as well with what we know about the response to child abuse from the Catholic Church and the Mormon Church, the only difference between these latter two organizations being that the Catholic Church child abuse problem has been in the process of being cracked open now for almost ten years, while the LDS/Mormon Church has managed to escape the kind of public scrutiny brought to bear on the Catholics. But all three organizations—Boy Scouts, Catholic Church, and Mormon Church—have responded to child sexual abuse problems in their midst by keeping secrets, tolerating abusers in their organization, and avoiding reporting allegations of abuse to law enforcement, almost always in an effort to avoid bad publicity for the organizations.
The public, parents and law enforcement are rightly indignant when they learn the extent to which these three organizations, which still enjoy great social prestige and status, to this day do not require mandatory reporting of child abuse allegations to law enforcement without exception. Likewise, when stories like the Richard Turley story, mentioned above, break, the public is stunned to see the way an organization like the Boy Scouts of American operates in the face of a clear danger to children.
As a child sex abuse attorney who has been representing victims of abuse for well over a decade, against dozens of institutions of trust in dozens of states all over the US, I would like to believe that the work that has been done by child abuse survivors over the last decade has made these organizations safer for children than they were twenty or thirty years ago. And while I still think this is true, I also know how far we have to go. But I am not yet an old man, and while it is true that I am sometimes tired, sometimes discouraged, and sometimes angry, yet it is also true that I am not going away anytime soon. Nor are the hundreds of other fine attorneys around the country who do this work going away, nor the thousands of prosecutors working to put pedophiles away. Nor, finally, are the adult survivors of childhood abuse—some of the most courageous and resilient people I have ever met—going away.