Longform

The Boy Scouts' Police Problem

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In a locked, fireproof cabinet at their national headquarters in Irving, Texas, sits a carefully maintained record of the Boy Scouts' most shameful secrets. "The perversion files," as they're known within the organization, hold the names of more than 5,000 suspected child molesters dating back to the 1940s. The documents gained public notice last year, when a former scout from Oregon, suing the Boy Scouts for hushing up his troop leader's serial molestations in the 1980s, successfully fought to get six boxes of the files—containing the names of some 1,200 suspected pedophiles—entered into evidence. A coalition of news organizations have since sued to make those files public. Citing privacy concerns, the Boy Scouts have resisted. The case is now before Oregon's Supreme Court.

Whether the Boy Scouts keep similar records for the Explorer program is not a question the organization is willing to answer. Thus the same culture of secrecy and scandal-aversion that has earned unflattering comparisons to the Catholic Church appears to be at work at Learning for Life. Beyond the organization's opacity is the matter of how it deals with police departments that have proven themselves incapable of keeping their officers' hands off their Explorers. When asked if Learning for Life has expelled, suspended, or reprimanded any police department with an Explorer program for failing to uphold its rules, Thornton declined to answer directly. "[Police] departments investigate and take appropriate action to help insure the quality of the Exploring program and the safety of the youth in those programs," she responded. "If needed, city and county officials would also get involved."

Ceding oversight to the police departments and whatever local authorities they answer to may be a sound legal strategy, says Patrick Boyle, author of Scout's Honor, a book detailing cases of sex abuse within the Boy Scouts. But it is disappointingly hands-off. "In a program that pushes kids to go above and beyond," Boyle says, "the kids would be better served if their leaders went above and beyond, too."

Judith Cohen, a psychology professor at Temple University specializing in youth sex abuse, is more blunt. "Before [Learning for Life] has any more kids enroll [as Explorers], they should take a very systematic look at the problems and why they're arising," she says. "You can't just trust the police departments and hope for the best."

Maggie, the Explorer abused by former Sergeant Vince Ariaz in Texas in 2007, is a prime example of who suffers when Learning for Life cedes oversight of its program to locals, says her lawyer, Jeffrey Edwards. "Every person that was supposed to look out for her not only failed, but really turned their back on her," he says. "In this case, the authorities were notified. They just didn't do their job."

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Jonathan Kaminsky