For decade upon decade, secrets of alleged sexual abuse have been collecting dust in the Boy Scouts of America’s headquarters in Irving, Texas, and in state and regional offices across the nation. And the Scouts are fighting hard to keep them locked away.
Former Scouts in Georgia and other states, many of them now middle-aged, allege the national organization’s refusal to make public what have become known as the “perversion files” helped fail to prevent the sexual abuse they say they suffered as boys and teens at the hands of their scoutmasters.
The accusers’ claim of a conspiracy of silence is the crux of a lawsuit filed last week against a former Athens scoutmaster who allegedly molested a dozen or more Scouts and other boys between the 1950s and 1970s. It’s the latest in a series of such lawsuits filed against former Georgia scoutmasters.
“(I)nstead of making information publicly available or reporting it to the appropriate authorities, defendants kept silent while actively soliciting new Scouts when they knew without doubt that many Scout Leaders had been credibly accused of pedophilic/ephebophilic tendencies,” states the lawsuit against Athens businessman Ernest Boland, who died in 2013.
In 2012, a Portland judge ordered the release of the so-called perversion files collected nationwide from 1965 to 1985 that detailed the expulsion of 1,247 Scout volunteers. But the Scouts have successfully fought against releasing files from before or after that period, and, in some cases, even those compiled during the timeframe outlined by the judge.
The Scouts organization argues that confidentiality must be maintained to protect the victims. The alleged cases of molestation, it says, also happened more than 40 years ago in some cases and that comprehensive policies and procedures that serve as “barriers to abuse” have since been put in place.
But accusers insist the Scouts should publicly release internal documents chronicling the predatory behavior of volunteers dating back at least as far as 1947.
By withholding those files, they argue, the Boy Scouts are contradicting their stated mission to “prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes” and, perhaps, their legal responsibility to protect the children they sought to mold.
“By doing this,” the lawsuit against Boland contends, “defendants knowingly put the youth communities of Athens-Clarke County, the state of Georgia and others across the United States, at risk of sexual molestation.”
A public nuisance?
It’s a conspiracy that persists, says attorney Darren Penn, co-counsel for the two men in the Boland case, whose names The Atlanta Journal-Constitution are not releasing because they are alleged victims of sexual abuse.
Their lawsuit challenges the Scouts’ status as a private organization, a position affirmed by the Supreme Court during the fight over prohibiting “open or avowed” homosexuals from serving in leadership positions. That ban was lifted in 2014.
The suit, in which the Boy Scouts of America and its Northeast Georgia Council are among the defendants, argues that because they often use public property for their activities, and target the public at large in their recruiting efforts, the Scouts’ secretive behavior about known or likely predators in their midst constitutes a public nuisance.
“That continues today — hiding information, concealing information, keeping it confidential,” Penn said. “But the law mandates that if you learn about this type of behavior you’re supposed to report it. Instead, they continue to hide it.”
The Boy Scouts of America and the Northeast Georgia Council have declined multiple interview requests. In a statement sent to The AJC last week, Northeast Georgia Council CEO Trip Selman made reference to the allegations being more than 40 years ago in some cases, a common response also cited in a lawsuit filed last year by a Gainesville man against Fleming Weaver, a longtime scoutmaster who, incidentally, was a protege of Ernest Boland.
Selman said the Scouts have adopted a number of stringent policies and procedures to prevent abuse.
“These include a thorough screening process for adult leaders and staff, criminal background checks, requiring two or more adult leaders be present with youth at all times during Scouting activities, and the prompt mandatory reporting of any allegation or suspicion of abuse,” Selman wrote. “In recent years, the BSA conducted a thorough review to ensure all circumstances that pre-dated this policy by many years were reported to law enforcement.”
‘Protecting themselves, not the children’
The battle over the release of the so-called perversion files has been building for years.
The public disclosure ordered by the Portland judge in 2012 was prompted by a case — tried by Paul Mones, co-counsel for the men suing Boland — in which an assistant scoutmaster, who had already confessed to molesting 17 Scouts, was allowed to continue volunteering with the program and abuse even more children.
It resulted in a $19.9 million ruling against the Boy Scouts of America and a statement from the organization’s national president acknowledging that, “in certain cases, our response to these incidents and our efforts to protect youth were plainly insufficient, inappropriate, or wrong.”
Despite the ruling, however, the Scouts have continued to successfully fight against the release of files in the vast majority of such cases.
In a Georgia lawsuit filed last year against former Gainesville scoutmaster Fleming Weaver, the Boy Scouts acknowledged in court documents that they have “acquired knowledge that Weaver has been accused of sexually abusing Scouts from other troops from a time period prior to his appointment as Troop 26 Scout Leader” in 1969. But they’ve yet to consent to turning over Weaver’s file.
The lawsuit by Robb Lawson, now 47, alleges he was sexually abused by Weaver almost four years after the scoutmaster admitted to the pastor of First Baptist Church, which sponsored the troop Weaver led, that he had molested two of its Scouts. A prominent Scouts official who attended the church was told about the abuse by his pastor but they agreed not to inform the Boy Scouts, the Northeast Georgia Council or law enforcement.
“One thing we’ve found, when we look at all the Boy Scouts cases, is a constant fight against releasing any of the documents,” said Emma Hetherington, director of the University of Georgia Law School’s Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic, founded to assist the survivors of child sexual abuse.
They’ve even fought some of the files that have been released publicly from being used in court cases. In doing so, Hetherington said, the Scouts have maintained their interest is in protecting the victims. Disclosure would only discourage people from reporting other abuse because the Scouts could not guarantee confidentiality.
“No one is asking them to release the names of the victims,” Hetherington said. “They’re protecting themselves, not the children.”
“If you really want to protect more boys, you release the names of the offenders,” she said. “It’s about holding them accountable and holding the Scouts accountable. This is an organization that led the public to believe their child would be in one of the safest places they could be if they were in Boy Scouts.”
‘Far less likely to happen today’
Bryan Garner, who has a 15-year-old son active in a Boy Scouts troop in East Atlanta, said if there are concerns about the Scouts’ stonewalling in these past sex abuse cases, he hasn’t heard them.
“I think most every parent in our troop is satisfied with the guidelines in place, that are guys our really on top of things,” Garner said.
Adult leaders and staff are thoroughly screened, including criminal background checks. Two or more adult leaders must be present with youth at all times during activities. Also, according to Selman, it is now mandatory that any allegation, or even suspicion, of abuse must be reported promptly to authorities.
Garner said he hopes the Scouts take every report of abuse seriously. “Everything should be looked at, all of the parties should be informed,” he said.
“But the leader in me worries about this coming down to a ‘he said, she said’ kind of situation,” Garner said. “There are homophobic people who have their own agenda” that didn’t support the lifting of the ban against gay Scouts.
The Boy Scouts, like several other well-known youth organizations, have experienced a membership decline in recent decades. Current youth participation is down more than 4 million from peak years of the past, according to the BSA.
Pinpointing the cause for the decline is difficult, but the sex abuse scandals of the past don’t appear to be a major driver.
“If the procedures and policies that have been implemented are followed it’s far, far, far less likely for something like that to happen today,” said Robert Ross, a former Scout and the father of a 14-year-old active in Atlanta Scouts.
Though he supports providing victims with access to their alleged abuser’s files, Ross said he doesn’t think the public at large needs to have the same access.
“I don’t know if it needs to be played out on the front page of The AJC,” Ross said. “That’s not going to do anything but bring back a lot of painful memories.”
Defense lawyer Natalie Woodward, who represents Robb Lawson along with Dunwoody attorney Esther Panitch in the case against Fleming Weaver, said she thinks the Boy Scouts have made some calculations that, while morally questionable, may be strategically wise.
“The Boy Scouts have taken the same tactic in all of these cases designed to make it as long and painful a process as possible,” Woodward said. “And if you don’t have the file, you don’t have a case.”
From a public relations standpoint, they appear to have concluded transparency would hurt them more with the public than obstruction, Panitch said.
“They may be doing the smart thing, but it’s not the right thing,” she said.