The Boy Scouts' Learning Curve

Since the Sandusky horror story first broke, we’ve seen a lot of articles exposing horrific behavior from the 1970s and 1980s. Serial abuse at the Horace Mann School. Philadelphia sprtswriter Bill Conlin's long history of molesting children. Surely, there are more to come.

This week's news comes from The Los Angeles Times, which has published an explosive, in-depth account of how the Boy Scouts of America have responded over the decades to child sexual abuse: by keeping a central file of volunteers banned for molesting Scouts, with detailed information about the relevant allegations and investigations. The headline, subhead, and introduction (the “nut graf,” in the lingo) suggest that the system failed:

Boy Scout files reveal repeat child abuse by sexual predators

Los Angeles Times review of Boy Scout documents shows that a blacklist meant to protect boys from sexual predators too often failed in its mission.

A Los Angeles Times review of more than 1,200 files dating from 1970 to 1991 found more than 125 cases across the country in which men allegedly continued to molest Scouts after the organization was first presented with detailed allegations of abusive behavior.

Predators slipped back into the program by falsifying personal information or skirting the registration process. Others were able to jump from troop to troop around the country thanks to clerical errors, computer glitches or the Scouts' failure to check the blacklist.

In some cases, officials failed to document reports of abuse in the first place, letting offenders stay in the organization until new allegations surfaced. In others, officials documented abuse but merely suspended the accused leader or allowed him to continue working with boys while on "probation."

In at least 50 cases, the Boy Scouts expelled suspected abusers, only to discover later that they had reentered the program and were accused of molesting again.

But I find something else as I read the article in detail: a history of how American culture has progressively learned to respond to child abuse.

The Los Angeles Times article details a series of horrifying stories in which a molester abused a child, word went up to BSA's headquarters, and the offender was expelled—only to find his way back in again. These incidents all took place in the 1970s and early 1980s. Back then, we hadn't yet been barraged by a decade of news stories like these, which helped change cultural attitudes and informed us all about sexual abuse's prevalence and effects. Who knew, yet, that child molesters tended to be serial predators? Who knew, yet, how damaging such abuse was? The women's and children's rights' movements hadn't yet taught us that the victims were blameless and that the shame belonged to the abuser, not the abused, or that sexual violation was a public issue, a genuine crime that deserved and required prosecution. While each case of abuse is distressing, the BSA didn't ignore them, at least as far as these files reveal: They were just as clueless about what to do as were most institutions at the time. The Boy Scouts appear to have handled the allegations the way things were handled back then—privately. Yes, it appears that they may have hidden some things in part to protect their reputation, but they did ban the abuser, however haplessly.  

Some victims are suing the BSA for the organization's failure to protect them back in the bad old days. And if their allegations are true, those victims should win. But the good news in the Los Angeles Times's article is that, as the culture learned about child abuse—as advocates sounded the alarms, as legislators began mandating reporting, and as the Centers for Disease Control released protocols on how to prevent child sex abuse in “youth-serving organizations”—the Boy Scouts appear to have changed their policies. Here’s an excerpt from the BSA’s response to the Los Angeles Times:

In the more than 30 years since these released files were created, we have continuously enhanced our multitiered policies and procedures, which now include background checks, comprehensive training programs, and safety policies. We have always cooperated fully with any request from law enforcement and today require our members to report even suspicion of abuse directly to their local authorities.

The Boy Scouts' story is nothing like the Catholic Church's, where the hierarchy knowingly moved serial molesters from one post to another, ignoring the well-being of children. The BSA appears, instead, to have failed to understand the scope of the problem, but kept trying to do the right thing as understood at the time—getting better as time went on and cultural understanding improved. And, as I reported recently in Newsweek, that increased cultural understanding has led to a steady drop in reports of child sexual abuse. 

But here’s the question that remains with me: Have the Scouts learned, yet, that sexual predator ≠ gay, and vice versa? Of course those two can intersect, just as child molestation and heterosexuality can intersect (see: Jerry Sandusky, heterosexually married). What any youth organization has to watch out for is not whether adults are drawn to male or female adult partners, but how the adults treat children.

Just as allowing lesbians and gay men to serve openly in the military did not open the doors to mass dorm rapes, allowing lesbians and gay men to participate in Scouts will not take the BSA back to the bad old days when we didn’t know how to protect children from predators. Seriously, could anyone think Jennifer Tyrell, the lesbian den mother ejected by BSA for being gay, was going to molest those kids? 

The LA Times article is an important addition to the public literature on child sexual abuse, particularly of boys; it increases our understanding of how easy it is not to see. Here’s what I’ve written before:

We think of reality as fixed: that anyone could or should have been able to see and respond to something so horribly and obviously wrong. But seeing—or should I say, perceiving—is a social act, shaped by cultural climate. Once upon a time, everyone knew it was wrong to be gay, and that of course the federal government should drive lesbians and gay men out of the civil service, even at the risk of prompting their suicides. Once upon a time, everyone smoked on planes and while pregnant. Once upon a time, everyone knew that the king was appointed by God. You know the quote: The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. That, surely, is part of what's so riveting about Mad Men: watching people live by truths that today we consider appalling falsehoods.

We may hold some truths to be self-evident, but it takes a society to decide which truths those might be. It takes stubborn, bullheaded people, crusaders and visionaries, to change what we perceive. They're often very difficult people; they don't play well with others. Once the change has started, it takes a host of others to carry that change out into the world: reporters, academic researchers, advocates and activists, lawyers, doctors, lawmakers, victims who save their own lives by transforming their violation into a crusade. And one day, ordinary people watch the news and rethink what they know, shocked at what they've let pass before. They come forward to tell the stories they've never even seen as important before, inscribing that change even more deeply into the culture in which they live. That's how we learn to see what's been right in front of our eyes all along.

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