Maintaining silence

Boy Scouts keeping sex-abuse cases secret

BY CHRISTIAN BOONE
THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION / TNS

For decades, 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.

The ‘Boy Scout’ statue stands in front of the Boy Scouts of America headquarters in Philadelphia.
(MICHAEL PEREZ/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/TNS)

Former Scouts in Georgia and other states, many of them now middle-age, say the national organization’s refusal to make public the files helped facilitate sexual abuse inflicted by their scoutmasters.

Now in court
The accusers’ claim of a conspiracy of silence is the crux of a lawsuit filed last week against a former Athens, Ga., scoutmaster who allegedly molested a dozen or more Scouts and other boys in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. It’s the latest in a series of such lawsuits filed against former Georgia scoutmasters.

“Instead 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,” says the lawsuit against Athens businessman Ernest Boland, who died in 2013.

Release ordered
In 2012, a Portland judge ordered the release of 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 in the time 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 are “barriers to abuse” have since been put in place.

Not ‘morally straight’
But accusers insist that the Scouts should publicly release internal documents chronicling the predatory behavior of volunteers dating back at least as far as 1947.

By withholding the 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.”

It’s a conspiracy that persists, says attorney Darren Penn, co-counsel for the two men in the Boland case.

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 leadership positions. That ban was lifted in 2014.

‘Public nuisance’
The lawsuit, in which the Boy Scouts of America and its Northeast Georgia Council are among the defendants, argues that because the Scouts often use public property for their activities, and target the public at large in their recruiting, the Scouts’ secretive behavior about known or likely predators 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 declined interview requests. In a statement last week, Northeast Georgia Council CEO Trip Selman referred 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 was a protégé of Ernest Boland.

New policies
Selman said the Scouts have adopted 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.”

Long battle
The battle over the release of the files has been building for years.

The public disclosure ordered by the 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 thus abuse 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 most 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.

Church kept secret
The lawsuit by Robb Lawson of Gainesville alleges that 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 Scout 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 that their interest is in protecting the victims. Disclosure would discourage people from reporting other abuse because the Scouts could not guarantee confidentiality.

‘Protecting themselves’
“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.”

The Boy Scouts, like several other youth organizations, have experienced a membership decline in recent decades. Current youth participation is down more than 4 million from peak years, according to the BSA.

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