By Patrick Boyle
© The Washington Times
May 22, 1991
Fourth of five parts
In the spring of 1982, a disturbing letter made its way to Irving, Texas, and landed on the desk of Paul Ernst, director of registration for the Boy Scouts of America.
The letter said a South Carolina Scout leader was arrested for taking pictures of naked children.
But there was good news: "So far, we have received no bad publicity from this," wrote Chubby Earnest, the local Scout executive who oversaw the troop. "We'll keep our fingers crossed."
"I hope the media maintains its silence relating to his involvement with Scouting," Mr. Ernst wrote back. "This will certainly help us, not only in your area but across the country."
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That's how sex abuse remained one of the best-kept secrets in the Boy Scouts of America.
Nearly once every two weeks for the past 19 years, a Scout leader or camp worker has been banned for sexual misconduct with children. Except for a few people at national headquarters, no one - either in the public or in Scouting itself - knew how many Scouts said they were abused.
But Scout officials knew that if the public heard about leaders having sexual relations with boys, parents would be afraid to let their children join.
"Like anybody, we were not interested in broadcasting it," said Joseph Anglim, director of administration for the Boy Scouts. "For years and years it was one of America's greatest secrets."
So the Boy Scouts of America - which is, after all, a corporation chartered by Congress - acted like a corporation.
"The attitude was more of sweeping it under the rug and hoping it goes away," said Edward Allinson, a Scout leader in Prince George's County.
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In 1983 the leaders of a troop in Coconut Grove, Fla., put a Scoutmaster on probation after learning he brought Scouts to his bedroom and fondled them. The conditions of probation: no private meetings with boys and "no touching of any area of the body, genital, anal and/or chest that is generally accepted as private," according to a memo from the pastor of the Episcopal church that sponsored the troop. Parents weren't told about the probation.
The next year Scout officials got more evidence of sex abuse and forced the man to resign. Parents were not told why. Troop officials didn't tell police, either. Two of the Scouts eventually did, and the man was convicted of sex abuse.
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In many ways, child abuse experts say, the Boy Scouts were a mirror of American society. Embarrassed by sex abuse and not sure what to do about it, Americans have tended to turn their heads. "I would say up until the '70s, if an incident occurred in a school, a club, a Scouting program, it was pigeonholed," said Mickey McAllister, a retired professional Scouter who worked on the Scouts' new sex abuse education program.
To keep it quiet, local Scout officials often made deals with molesters: They wouldn't call the police if the accused man would resign, and maybe move away. "That's America's way of handling this - get away from my neighborhood," Mr. Anglim said.
"I think they were aware they'd be in the public limelight and their kid would be embarrassed," said George Traquair, a retired Scout executive who oversaw troops in Massachusetts. Mr. Traquair said he handled about six abuse cases during his several decades in Scouting, and the men usually left the troops quietly with no charges filed.
In 1978, a volunteer in a Massachusetts troop admitted "that he engaged in sexual acts with one of our Scouts," Mr. Traquair wrote to Mr. Ernst. The man agreed to resign, and the parents "fortunately have decided not to prosecute."
"Most people, when they're presented with the option, they decide not to press charges," Mr. Traquair said. "I preferred not to have that kind of publicity."
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Scout officials now admit this practice was a mistake because it let molesters move on to other troops and other children. Many states require child care workers to report suspected child abuse to police or social service agencies. In at least one case - in Pennsylvania in 1984 - police charged a local Scout official with violating state law by not reporting suspected abuse by a Scout leader.
Other times, however, police cooperated in the secrecy, quietly dropping charges or helping keep abuse reports out of the press. When a Scout leader was arrested for molesting boys in a Pennsylvania troop in 1981, the local Scout executive visited the police chief, then wrote to Mr. Ernst: "He told me that he would do everything he could to keep this account out of the newspaper to protect the name of the Boy Scouts."
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The local Scout leaders didn't know how many other sex abuse reports were coming from other troops to national headquarters. And at national headquarters, it wasn't discussed much.
"It was such a rarity that nobody here talked a lot about it," Mr. Anglim said. All confidential files on adults banned from Scouting passed through Mr. Anglim, Mr. Ernst and Scouts lawyer David Park.
In 1984 - the last year for which all the files on sex abuse in the Boy Scouts are available - the organization banned 36 men for sexual misconduct. In some years, about one of every four men banned from Scouting are banned for that reason.
Mr. Ernst and Mr. Anglim said they never counted the cases and never discussed whether sex abuse was a significant problem.
Mr. Ernst said the number of cases didn't seem high, since the Scouts had more than 1 million adult volunteers.
So the cases were not reported to the Scouts' health and safety committee, which got reports about injuries and safety hazards in troops and helped create programs to protect boys.
Through the 1970s and 1980s the committee created programs to promote water safety and seat belt use. It even studied the safety of the gunpowder that troops used in muskets for America's Bicentennial celebration.
In a 1987 deposition, committee chairman Dr. Walter Menniger said Scout officials never gave the committee any reports about sex abuse, although they routinely gave the committee tallies for other injuries. He was sure that if sex abuse was a problem in Scouting he would be told about it, he said.
He said Scout officials didn't mention the problem "until the recent spate of lawsuits," when they asked him to testify as an expert witness to defend the corporation.
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Besides wanting to protect the corporation, something else contributed to the silence over abuse: The men running the Boy Scouts had trouble believing some men join troops to have sex with boys.
"Here we are, an organization chartered by Congress for the best program of Americanism and country and God. We did not feel originally that this could infiltrate our organization," Mr. McAllister said. "It took a long time to be alert to the fact that child molesters are everywhere."
There were warnings. A New Jersey social worker investigated abuse by a Scoutmaster in 1980 and wrote a report urging the Scouts to develop better screening of volunteers. "It is recommended that Scouts be educated regarding abuse and abusive situations," the social worker wrote. The report is in the Scoutmaster's confidential file at national headquarters.
Also around 1980, leaders of Big Brothers talked to the Boy Scouts about working together to fight sex abuse. The Boy Scouts said they could not share their confidential files and saw no room for any joint efforts.
"I went to the Boy Scouts and sought some help from them, thinking we could come out of the sand and get our heads together," said Donald Wolff, then a legal consultant to Big Brothers. "We met a brick wall. . . . The Boy Scouts were pretending there was no problem. We knew the Boy Scouts had as big a problem if not bigger than we had."
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Parents have expressed similar frustration. After Scoutmaster Carlton Bittenbender was arrested in 1985 for molesting boys in his Reston troop, some parents formed a committee to urge the Scouts to create a better system for screening volunteers. Bittenbender had joined the Reston troop while on probation for molesting Scouts in Rhode Island.
National Scout officials met with the parents but said there was little they could do, recalled Judy Etheredge, whose son was in the troop but was not molested.
"The whole time we were trying to talk with them, they stonewalled," Mrs. Etheredge said. "They refused to acknowledge that they had to take a leadership role in this. We really felt that they had to, that the Boy Scouts of America had to come out and say this is going on, we will not allow it.
"I really couldn't believe that they would prefer to pretend it didn't happen."