An Open Letter to Youth Organizations, Churches, and Schools.
By Kelly Clark
After six weeks of trial against the Boy Scouts of America—resulting in, as far as I know, the largest child abuse verdict in American history on behalf of one plaintiff—I am being asked repeatedly to blog about the lessons from the trial. There are of course many, and some of the most important have to do with Kerry Lewis, my client and now friend, who stood so courageously and told his story so clearly. But the lessons from the other end of the evidence—about what happens when good youth organizations forget their first principles and react to allegations of child abuse by keeping secrets—is what I want to write about first. So here is an open letter to youth organizations; here is what I hope they learn:
Dear Youth Organization:
I write this to you because you have taken on the great task of working with children. Whether you are a school, a church, an athletic league, a dance company or a day care center, whether you are a public or private entity, whether you are a new organization or have been around for decades, you are doing good work. You are helping our young people to grow up, and you are doing your best. No doubt. So I respectfully offer some of the lessons of the long trial in Portland, Oregon against the Boy Scouts. Please learn these lessons, so that kids will be safe and so that you don’t make the same mistakes that too many other youth organizations have made.
So, while it is all fresh in our minds, let’s consider the lessons from this trial against the Boy Scouts of America—once America’s most trusted youth organization– as the evidence came in to a very attentive and unusually well-educated jury:
1. You Cannot Keep Secrets About Hidden Dangers to Children.
“Youth organizations must do everything feasible to protect children, and cannot keep secrets about hidden dangers to children.” This simple theme was the foundation for our entire case. It seemed to us—my co-counsel Paul Mones and I– to be a fair and general principle to which any youth organization would agree. We had planned to go from that principle to showing that BSA had not adhered to the common sense rules. Yet numerous times during the trial we were stunned to hear witnesses for the BSA who would refuse to acknowledge this basic idea. Not refuse to acknowledge that the BSA violated this idea– we expected that. But refuse to acknowledge the basic principle itself! The message given to the jury by such quibbling was that the BSA was playing word games and putting qualifiers on the question of safety to children.
The fact is, the BSA has known for decades that it had a serious child abuse problem. They kept interior confidential files on the problem since the 1920’s, and certainly by the 1950’s and 60’s knew that the thousands of files (the evidence was that by 1985 the BSA had at least 3000- 4000 pedophile files)—representing thousands or tens of thousands of children abused– meant that their program was being targeted by pedophiles.
Yet, the BSA still refused to admit in open court the very obvious truth that it had, and has, a child abuse problem. Several key witnesses repeatedly argued about or qualified the simple phrase “problem” in response to direct questions. It was like listening to an alcoholic or addict refuse to admit that he or she “has a problem” and needs help, when everyone around sees the chaos and insanity of substance addiction. The jury saw this fierce and calculated denial of the problem, and quite apparently did not like it.
So the message is simple: youth organizations cannot keep secrets about hidden dangers to children. Parents and the community have a right to know if there is a risk to children. You would give a clear warning about food poisoning among your kids, or about a dangerous crosswalk near your building. The fact that your warning might have to be about an embarrassing problem with child abuse within your organization does not change the obligation to warn. Not even for the esteemed Boy Scouts of America. That is one of the key lessons of this trial.
2. As your knowledge increases, so does your responsibility.
Oregon law, as is true of the law in most states—as well as common sense– says that whether a person acted “reasonably” under the circumstances depends upon what the person knew about the dangers at issue. A seaside hotel owner who knows that people regularly get caught in dangerous ocean undertows right in front of the hotel has a different obligation to warn guests than that same hotel owner might have to warn about a freak and unforeseeable storm. It is just common sense. So, as the BSA over the years and decades gathered its knowledge about the pedophile problem within Scouting, it was no longer good enough simply to keep a list of the pedophiles so they could not come back into the organization. At some point, the BSA had an obligation to take and use that information to make the organization safer. If the BSA headquarters had been filled with $100 bills instead of the names of little boys, and 4000 times over a 5 decade period thieves had broken in to steal money, the BSA would not simply have kept a list of the thieves to prevent them from getting into the building. The BSA would have changed its security systems to prevent new thieves from getting in! That simple analogy perfectly describes the BSA’s response to its child abuse problem.
So the second lesson for youth organizations from the BSA trial is painfully obvious– as your knowledge increases so does your responsibility. Is it a good thing to keep data about your safety issues? Of course. Is it smart to make sure that a known pedophile cannot get back into your organization? Obviously. But that, in and of itself, is not enough to fulfill your duty to protect children. You must look at what changes are necessary to make the organization safer.
3. You must always put the safety of children ahead of the interests of the organization.
If there is a common thread that I have seen in advocating for child abuse victims against a variety of institutions of trust—churches, schools, foster care agencies, and now the BSA—it is this: there seems to be an idea that the work of the organization is so important, its goals so noble, that there might be times when it is necessary to “keep a lid on this problem.” This, of course, is the misguided historical response that produced the ongoing scandals in the Catholic Church. But it goes way beyond that particular institution of trust. So many youth organizations have great goals and purposes. They do good work. They help children and help the community. And so, when trouble comes along, their first instinct is to protect the work. And if this means keeping a potentially embarrassing problem quiet—even at the risk of keeping secrets about child abuse—they reactively take that route. While that may be an understandable reaction, it is always disastrous, sooner or later. The old idea that “the ends justify the means” can never apply to a sluggish response to child abuse, and too many good organizations fall prey to the temptation to protect the organization. The safety of children, and whatever it takes to accomplish that—including blaring trumpet warnings if that is necessary—must always take precedence over the reputation of the organization. That is lesson 3 from the BSA trial.
4. When it goes bad, accept responsibility and apologize.
It is a timeless truth that runs through all societies at all times and places, but especially through the religions and ethical systems of Western culture: apologies heal. This truth is central to our legal system as well, even to the point that it is an expectation in the criminal justice system that someone who is found to have broken the community’s rules will apologize—in part, at least because we understand that it will be helpful for the victim. But it is not limited to the criminal justice courts: we expect apologies from those who have harmed others, and those who have knowingly failed to protect those in their care—especially institutions of trust such as churches, schools and youth organizations like the Boy Scouts.
And all this is especially true for victims of child sexual abuse, who so often believe that, somehow the abuse was their fault, that they should have done something to stop it, or they should have immediately told someone—all beliefs which the mental health professionals tell us are almost universal in child abuse victims. So when they receive an acknowledgement of responsibility and a sincere apology from those responsible for their abuse— the perpetrator of the abuse, an institution that could have prevented the abuse, or both—it is incredibly healing and empowering. Suddenly, in one moment, the survivor realizes that his or her core beliefs about this life-altering event—“it was my fault; I am fundamentally flawed because of what I did and did not do about this”—are all wrong, and that the person or institution who is factually and morally responsible for the abuse is owning up to what happened. The weight and burden of this wrong, which has been on the shoulders of the victim for so many years or even decades, is lifted off of the victim and placed where it belongs.
This is such basic common sense and human experience that it is hard to understand why institutions of trust—such as the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church, and others— are so reluctant to make this simple and profound gesture. Of course, it involves the acceptance of responsibility, and too often that acceptance is slow to come for an organization that prides itself on the nobility of its purpose. It is, after all, hard for someone who thinks he is a hero, or divinely inspired, to admit that he failed utterly in one of his prime responsibilities and is now being called to account for it. We have seen this for at least a decade in watching the Catholic Church come to grips with the magnitude of its child abuse problem—to accept that it even had a particular problem, to acknowledge that the Church badly failed in its historic response to that problem, and to make unequivocal apologies to those who were damaged by those failures.
This same dynamic of denial seems to be true for the BSA—which, apart from the specific facts of this case in Portland, continues to deny publicly that it has historically had a serious child abuse problem—different both in type and frequency from that in society at large. Not once during the decades that we have litigated against the BSA, in dozens of cases, whether settled or tried to a jury, has the BSA offered even a simple apology to any of our clients. And we know of no circumstance in which the BSA ever has issued an apology to the thousands of boys who were abused by Scout leaders.
I want to say in conclusion, again, that the Boy Scouts of America is a great organization. Our boys need good, strong role models to learn the art and habits of living an honorable life as they move into manhood. Lord knows our society needs more young men of integrity, purpose and faith. BSA is in a position as it enters its second century to play a unique role in shaping young men. It is an awesome responsibility. We can only hope that the leadership of this organization steps back, moves past the shock and shame of a jury’s stern rebuke, and takes stock of what is truly all about. If it does, then it can move to reclaim society’s trust and admiration. If it does not, if it continues to shoot the messengers—lawyers, plaintiffs, juries, the news media– then it will lose its credibility, it will become a shell of what it once was and again could be, and it will eventually slide into irrelevance.