Details of decades of sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts of America, and what child welfare experts say was a corrosive culture of secrecy that compounded the damage, were cast into full public view for the first time on Thursday with the release of thousands of pages of documents describing abuse accusations across the country.
“The secrets are out,” said Kelly Clark, a lawyer whose firm obtained the files as evidence in an $18.5 million civil judgment against the Scouts in 2010, then prevailed all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court in seeking to have them made public. Mr. Clark said in a news conference that the database would be sortable by state, year and name.
Officials with the Boy Scouts fought in the courts for years to prevent the release of the documents — more than 15,000 pages detailing accusations of sexual abuse against 1,247 scout leaders between 1965 and 1985, with thousands of victims involved, perhaps many thousands — contending that fear of breached confidentiality could inhibit victims from reporting other instances of abuse.
But even as the court fight proceeded, scouting officials were also restructuring the organization’s system of reporting abuse and promised to look back through other old files not released publicly. If evidence is found of past criminal wrongdoing by scout leaders, they say, it will be presented to law enforcement agencies. Thursday’s release followed several stories in The Los Angeles Times involving a separate cache of files that also revealed failures to protect scouts.
“We definitely fell short; for that we just have to apologize to the victims and the parents and say that we’re profoundly sorry,” Wayne Perry, the president of the Boy Scouts of America, said this week in a telephone interview. “We are sorry for any kid who suffered.”
Child protection experts say that the efforts in recent years by the Boy Scouts to better track, report and train youth leaders, and its humility in admitting failure, are all laudable steps, but that much more is needed by an organization that built its name and reputation on trust.
“It steps in the right direction,” said Christopher Anderson, the executive director of Male Survivor, a nonprofit organization for victims of sexual abuse. “The next step is that the Boy Scouts should provide support and help for all those victims and survivors who have been harmed.”
An effort to look back could be long and tortuous, if the files themselves are a measure. In their often chaotic babble of memos, lists and smudgy, photocopied newspaper clippings, often as not there is a lack of clarity about whether an accused scout leader was exonerated, convicted or neither.
Consider, for example, a letter sent in August 1981 by a father of three scouts in western Colorado and placed in one of the “perversion files,” as they were called, or “ineligible volunteer” folders, as they were officially known. The man wrote in despair to scouting supervisors: a local scout leader, referred to in the letter as Joe, had sexually abused boys in his troop, including the writer’s own sons, and yet was still being allowed to have contact with other scouts.
Joe had been spotted at a big scout gathering called a jamboree, the letter said, wearing a leather name tag like all other scoutmasters. “Your assurances that Joe was out of scouting and would have no further contact with scouting have just become meaningless,” he wrote. “Do you care about my distress over watching Joe insidiously get back?”
Other file entries suggest a guarded, institutional caution from scout leaders who seemed to be protecting the organization or were suffused with the belief — others might call it naïveté — that a man who had admitted wrongdoing with young boys should be given a second chance.
“He recognizes that he has had a problem, and he is personally taking steps to resolve this situation,” a scout executive wrote in a memo in August 1972 about a leader who, a week earlier, had acknowledged “acts of perversion with several troop members.”
“I would like to let this case drop,” the executive continued. “My personal opinion in this particular case is, ‘If it don’t stink, don’t stir it.’ ”
Identifying a sexual offender in advance, before any damage is done, has never been easy. There is no set profile for serial molesters except for their willingness to use positions of trust and power to manipulate their victims, said a professor of psychiatry who examined the group’s internal files in a report last month for the Boy Scouts of America.
But human nature — in a mostly volunteer institution that millions of Americans have revered — also led again and again to dire results, senior scout officials now say. The file system was started in the 1920s in an effort to keep out inappropriate leaders.
“That was a different time,” said Mr. Perry, the president. “That was a time when people thought — the medical community thought — there was a potential for rehabilitation.”
The files do not suggest that scouting was — or is now — riddled with sexual stalkers. Some internal memos discuss the struggles to be fair when proof was hard to come by or when the accusers would not talk to the authorities or press charges. Mr. Clark, the defense lawyer, said that some innocent men, wrongly accused, could have ended up in a file as well.
Other sections are horrific, like the description of the scoutmaster who, according to a 10-year-old boy’s account given to the police, talked about the virtues of the scouting life even as he slid his hand down the boy’s pants.
Sometimes incriminating information flowed into the file system — then apparently got lost or ignored.