By Patrick Boyle
© The Wahsington Times
May 20, 1991
First of five parts
For parents, the local Boy Scout troop is a safe place to send the kids. For child molesters, it's an ideal place to meet them.
The result: On an average of more than once a week for the past two decades, a Cub Scout, Boy Scout or Explorer has reported being sexually abused by a Scout leader.
An investigation by The Washington Times shows that at least 1,151 Scouts have reported being abused by their leaders over the past 19 years, making sex abuse more common in Scouting than accidental deaths and serious injuries combined.
In that time, at least 416 men have been arrested or banned from Scouting for molesting the boys in their care - and experts say the real number of abusers and victims is probably several times higher.
Those are among the findings of an investigation that turned up abuse by Scout leaders in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
"I was naive to think the Boy Scouts was such a safe place," said the mother of a Maryland boy abused by his Scoutmaster. "I thought the Boy Scouts was a sanctuary."
In fact, the examination of sex abuse in Scouting reveals a long-standing paradox for the nation's most revered youth group: For 80 years the Boy Scouts of America have given boys some of the best experiences of their lives, but for 80 years some men have used the Boy Scouts of America to have sexual relations with those boys.
"That's been an issue since the Boy Scouts began," said James Tarr, the nation's chief Scout executive from 1979 through 1984.
The Scouts say the number of abuse cases is low considering all their volunteers. They have also taken steps to fight the problem.
The Washington Times examined the problem by reviewing internal Scout records and tens of thousands of pages of court records from around the country, including confessions of molesters and testimony from children; by interviewing molesters, families of victims, Scout leaders, sex abuse experts and lawyers; and by analyzing the cases on a computer database. Among the findings:
"I would guess that the number of actual cases is even far greater than that," said Anne Cohn, director of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse.
"The attitude was more one of sweeping it under the rug and hoping it goes away," said Edward Allinson, a Scout leader in Prince George's County.
"They've got a real problem on their hands," said Dr. Gene Abel, an Atlanta psychiatrist who has extensively studied child molesters. "The Scout leader is not the only position that a sex offender can take, but it is an ideal one for a pedophile."
In many ways, the problem of child sex abuse in Scouting reflects the problem of sex abuse in America, especially in volunteer groups that serve children.
"All volunteer organizations are troubled . . . by this same issue," Dr. Abel said. "The volunteer organizations are just perfect for pedophiles, in the sense that they are just the ideal situation if they can get to a large number of kids, to kind of check out which ones might be the easiest victims."
The molesters in Scouting come from all walks of life: They're priests and policemen, teachers and truck drivers, laborers and lawyers. Rather than being the dangerous strangers that parents warn their children about, they are usually upstanding members of their communities and well-liked by children and parents. Rather than setting out to hurt boys, many profess to love them and describe the sexual relationships as natural outgrowths of their affection.
"I felt I could pull myself down to their level to talk to them," said John Fitzgerald, a former Scout leader now in a New Jersey prison serving time for molesting Scouts. "I could almost understand what they would feel, what they would think."
Dozens of lawsuits in the past several years, filed by the families of boys who were molested by Scout leaders, claim Scout officials knew such men were drawn to Scouting but did little to educate boys about sex abuse or check volunteers' backgrounds.
The Scouts say sex abuse has not been a statistically significant problem in their organization, considering they have more than 1 million adult volunteers and more than 4 million Scouts.
But more than half the volunteers do not deal directly with Scouts. Most of them play a sort of administrative role, such as working on the committees and councils that oversee troops. About 60 percent of the volunteers are women.
The vast majority of abuse in Scouting, on the other hand, is committed by a narrow group of volunteers: male Scoutmasters and assistant Scoutmasters, who number about 147,000.
The victims also are usually from one group: Boy Scouts, who range in age from 11 to 17 and numbered 959,000 at the end of last year.
Dr. Walter Menninger, former chairman of the Scouts' health and safety committee, tried to put the problem in perspective in a 1987 deposition involving a lawsuit by a Florida boy molested by his Scoutmaster. "There is a greater threat to Scouts of drowning and loss of life from accidents than there is from sexual abuse by a Scoutmaster," he said.
Scout statistics show the opposite. While an average of 60 Scouts have reported being sexually abused each year for the past 19 years, in the same span an average of 13 Scouts died each year during Scout activities. The Scouts also report that each year about 30 Scouts suffer "serious injuries," defined as life-threatening or requiring a 24-hour hospital stay.
Child abuse experts say it is impossible to determine whether the rate of abuse in Scouting is higher than in the rest of the country because reporting of sex abuse is so haphazard and unreliable.
Over the past several years the Scouts have created an extensive program to teach Scout staffers, volunteers, parents and children about sex abuse. With help from some of the top sex abuse experts in the country, the Scouts have put out articles, pamphlets and videocassettes that tell children how to resist abuse, tell parents how to protect their children and tell Scout leaders how to handle abuse allegations in a troop. The Scouts also have changed or reinforced rules to reduce opportunities for molesters and to catch them quickly.
But that has brought its own troubles. Some groups that sponsor troops say the changes unfairly put more responsibility on them to check the backgrounds of volunteers and leave them more vulnerable to liability suits. The national PTA said last month it can neither "encourage nor prohibit sponsorship of Scout units by local PTAs" because of disagreements with the Scouts over leadership selection and insurance coverage for lawsuits. The PTA in Montana has stopped sponsoring troops because of tho se issues.
The Scouts say their liability insurance covers troop sponsors. Whatever the Scouts do, experts say, they cannot completely stop abuse, because troops will always draw pedophiles. Former Scoutmaster Carlton Bittenbender, serving 30 years in a Virginia prison for molesting boys in his Reston troop, was asked how parents can protect their children from men like him.
In a letter to The Washington Times, Bittenbender wrote, "My message to parents is to care, truly care by being involved in all aspects of their children's lives and people with my problem will never have an opportunity to abuse their children."