For almost a century the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has enjoyed a reputation as an upstanding youth organization. For generations, millions of American parents have entrusted their children to the protection of the organization’s volunteers and leaders: who wouldn’t want their son to participate in a group whose mission is to “build character, train [members] in the responsibilities of participating in citizenship and develop personal fitness”? The organization was thought to nurture esteemed leaders; it was considered as American as apple pie. The most recent fact sheet on the BSA website from 2011, declares that over 2.7 million youths call themselves members and over a million adults volunteer across the nation. Huge companies such as UPS, Intel and Verizon donate millions of dollars each year to support the work of the Scouts.
Sadly, sentiments about the Boy Scouts of America are no longer brimming with national pride. As discovered this year, the organization had been hiding a host of grim truths within a file marked ‘secret’. In October 2012 Oregon’s Supreme Court ordered the Scouts to release 20 years of “Perversion Files” – more than 15,000 pages of documented sexual abuse allegations against Scout leaders and volunteers from 1965 to 1985. The released documents are only a small fraction of the incriminating documents the organization has been concealing. The earliest date as far back as the early 1910s, when the organization was incorporated.
These documents are proof that BSA knew it had a sex abuse problem – and was actively hiding it. The files, formally called “Ineligible Volunteer Files,” were intended to keep alleged pedophiles out of the organization by documenting their offenses. According to the Associated Press there were many cases in which the files prevented sexual predators from returning to BSA. All too many times, though, they failed. Regardless of the success rate, Boy Scouts of America hid information that put children in danger. Police were never informed in over one third of the sexual abuse incidents; offenders were quietly dismissed and tucked away in the files.
The release of the files has been a cathartic experience for some of the abused Scouts. A few victims are coming forward on television shows to tell their stories. “We were pieces of paper. Filed away,” John Buckland, a man who has been silent about the sexual abuse he endured from a Scout leader for nearly 30 years, told Anderson Cooper 360. Buckland adds that he hopes the release of the perversion files will start necessary dialogue about sexual predators, so that other children won’t have to suffer like he and the other thousands of Boy Scouts victims have: “We finally have a voice,” he said. “We’re people now.”
Buckland recalls the summer night in 1984 when his family’s dinner was interrupted by a knock at the door. It was the police. They were armed with folders of lewd photographs of a fourteen-year-old Buckland – and other boys. The photos had been confiscated from Buckland’s 24-year-old Scout leader, Curtis Knarich.
Soon after that traumatizing night, Knarich pled guilty to molesting Buckland and 12 other boys. He was sent to California’s Fort Leavenworth federal prison where he would spend 12 years behind bars. The Scouts added Knarich to their files. But they never contacted the Buckland family.
Despite being placed in the Ineligible Volunteer Files, Knarich was repeatedly asked to volunteer at summer camps by local Scouting officials after he was released from prison. Ultimately, it was Knarich who had to beg the Scouts to stop asking him to volunteer.
Sorry, No Gays
April 10 2012, Bridgeport, Ohio: Jennifer Tyrell, a 32-year-old mother-of-four, stands dejected outside the Tiger Cubs den hall. She has just been banned from her post as den leader to a group of young boys – including her own seven-year-old son Cruz. Tyrell is openly gay. A local Cubmaster had told her that, despite a national Scouting policy barring avowed homosexuals from leadership roles, there wouldn’t be a problem in Bridgeport. He was wrong. She tells reporters through gritted teeth that she has been robbed of the best time of her life. A petition she started to reverse the decision has been signed by 170,000 people. By November 2012 that figure will double. Despite Tyrell’s ire, and that of her 1/3 million signatories, the BSA remains staunchly behind its 102-year-old policy.
In a world that is growing increasingly inclusive, banning any group based on sexual orientation, race, or religion is morally reprehensible, and hardly probing for prosperity. Add to this a glut of sexual abuse files, and it becomes clear that the Boy Scouts of America thinks homosexuality begets sexual abuse – a dubious, if not repugnant, stance in any 21st century society.
Business and Communication Strategy
The Boy Scouts of America was keeping mum about the Perversion Files because they wanted to preserve the name and reputation of Scouts. It appears the BSA thought that beefing up its regulations to protecting youths would be enough to keep scrutiny at bay. The Los Angeles Times reports that in 2010 BSA required “mandatory reporting” to law enforcement by any person who suspects or witnesses abuse of a Scout. All new volunteers are now required to submit to criminal background checks. And the Scouts have adopted a “two deep” policy, requiring at least two adults to be present at any Scouting event.
These precautions were not enough to prevent a crisis. The Arthur Page Center for Integrity in Public Communications recommends, above all, that organizations tell the truth for business to run smoothly. BSA failed to do this and it was found out. The consequences were major. Two huge sponsors, Intel and UPS, have withdrawn their sponsorship of the organization. Apparently, some companies are worried about contributing to an organization that promotes discrimination and protects pedophiles.
The effects of this financial loss will be significant. Intel was BSA’s largest sponsor, donating over $700,000 in 2010. UPS donated $167,000 that same year. Both companies have anti-discriminatory policies within their own cultures and supporting an organization that acts in a conflicting way is hypocritical. With the direction standards are moving, it is likely that other sponsors will follow suit.
A Scout’s Dishonor: Communication Failures
The Boy Scouts of America claims to instill boys with leadership experience and values that will make them into better men. However, their long-standing discriminatory policies banning openly homosexual and atheist scouts and leaders reinforce values of prejudice in American adolescents. This is neither trustworthy, loyal nor kind – a triumvirate of Scout Law values. Nor is it consistent with the well- recognized Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared.” BSA was not ready at all for the damage its actions would cause. In fact, its actions make a travesty of the Scout pledge to remain “mentally awake and morally straight.”
Today’s environment requires inclusion. If Boy Scouts are to represent the best of America, they may want to start with the United States Declaration of Independence’s statement that “all men are created equal.” Even if the crimes happened in the past when social standards were different, the BSA could have used that as part of its explanation if it had come forward with the files itself as should have been done.
Not only did BSA hide thousands of pages of information that endangered children, they lost even more trust by deleting criticism received on their Facebook page – an amateur social media mistake:
2. The Boy Scouts of America lost its chance to control the situation.
In 2010, BSA faced an $18.5 million payout to sexual abuse victims, yet it continued to hide the many skeletons in its closet. This situation could have been the magic hour for BSA to approach the Perversion Files with candor and contrition, but it remained silent and reluctantly paid off the first of many victims. According to crisis expert Louis Capozzi, an organization’s cover-up is always more reputationally damaging than the crime. This has proved to be true for BSA. The current events have left the Boy Scouts of America with a scar that will take significant time and care to heal. If it heals at all.
The Boy Scouts of America did not apologize to John Buckland. Even after his abuser was sent to federal prison. His experience is one of thousands of victims who have gone without acknowledgement from the BSA. It was not until the release was ordered by the Oregon Supreme Court that the Perversion Files were released
The Scouts showed indifference to protecting youths while it held thousands of files on suspected child molesters among its troop leaders. Despite creating these Perversion Files, the Boy Scouts repeatedly failed to warn parents or tell law enforcement about suspected or confessed pedophiles. It is reasonable to believe that victims were attacked directly because of this action. The Scouts had an ability to make a difference and they chose not to take it.
4. Denying the Severity of the Problem
BSA President Wayne Perry issued the following apology that only minimally expresses wrongdoing:
“There have been instances where people misused their positions in Scouting to abuse children, and in certain cases, our response to these incidents and our efforts to protect youth were plainly insufficient, inappropriate, or wrong. Where those involved in Scouting failed to protect, or worse, inflicted harm on children, we extend our deepest and sincere apologies to victims and their families.”
Perry goes on to say: “Experts have found that the BSA’s system of ineligible volunteer files functions well to help protect Scouts by denying entry to potentially dangerous individuals, and Scouting believes they play an important role in our comprehensive Youth Protection system.” It’s just hard to believe him, however, when there are so many documented instances of known pedophiles being readmitted to Scouts.
Perry’s ersatz apology merely acknowledges the group’s failings – far less prostrate itself in the face of terrible and widespread abuse, which would have at least allayed existing Scouts’ parents about repeat offences. Why would one enroll his or her son in the BSA, if the man expected to deal with such atrocities won’t even fully admit that they exist?
Scouting for Buoys
The Boy Scouts of America committed cardinal sins of crisis management. According to The Scout Law, written by Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell in 1908, Scouts should be trustworthy above all else. The organization has shown alarming antipathy towards this ethos. The organization America trusted to walk east and talk east turned west – and didn’t bother to tell anyone.
As John Doorley and Helio Fred Garcia say in their book Reputation Management, “sometimes organizations and their leaders are presented with situations where all possible outcomes are bad.” After its many, many failings, that may well be the case for BSA. But it can at least pick a strategy to cause it the least amount of damage. Through hypocritical decisions, attempting to minimize problems and failing to act when the crisis first reared its head, the Boy Scouts of America has created a wound far deeper than it would have been, had they stopped the scalpel when it first slipped.
How will the Boy Scouts of America win back its nation? The first steps will be difficult, laborious and could alienate some of the hierarchy who presided over its previous failures. However, the following steps are essential to ensure that the public’s faith in the BSA will be restored. Firstly the source of much of the ire, Wayne Perry – whose crocodile tears have instilled a generation of mistrust – must be removed. Once Perry is dismissed, the way will be paved for the most important, and most radical, brick to be laid in this road to redemption: amend the Scouting Code. An additional clause, championing equality and demonizing prejudice, will be added.
Once the code has been amended, the scouts who had been wrongfully denied of their Eagle Scout rank because of prejudice against their sexual orientation should be awarded the medal.
Finally, the BSA should utilize some of the more prominent figures who have risen through the Scouting ranks on their paths to success. Steven Spielberg, one of the world’s most celebrated film directors, was on the BSA board until 2001 when he resigned over the organization’s homosexuality policy. Once the aforementioned changes have been made, the BSA should extend an invitation for Spielberg to rejoin the board. Similarly, just as President Obama openly criticized the BSA for its previous discriminatory policy, one would expect his re-endorsement once the code is amended.
The BSA should also volunteer help with prominent LGBTQ organizations and charities, and shed as far as possible the ‘us and them’ culture of the past. This is the 21st century: the ‘them’ is now ‘us’.
Shedding the Past
The sexual abuse scandals of the past, and the subsequent policy of secrecy that the BSA pursued, will lead to the organization’s demise unless the following steps are taken immediately. The most urgent is to make available to the police every single ‘Perversion File’ the BSA has ever kept. Once these files are fully in the hands of the authorities, no opposition should be made to their efficacy: any legal action must be at the behest of a court of law, not the speculative rhetoric of the BSA or its affiliates – past or present. The BSA must rid itself of the responsibility of these terrible documents as soon as possible. Every day that passes without their disclosure is another stab to the hearts of those abused by BSA leaders.
To cement these values the BSA should make official apologies to each and every person who has, or has claimed to have, fallen prey to sexually predatory BSA leaders. The financial risks of legal culpability will be outweighed by the long-term survival of the organization. It will also be beneficial to partner with prominent anti-abuse charities and nonprofits, such as Child Help and Joyful Heart. Fostering longstanding relationships with these organizations, via event sponsorship and even affiliate badge programs, will eventually establish BSA as a group that fights abuse, instead of standing by and concealing it.
The Boy Scouts of America has made some terrible mistakes – some out of stupidity, some out of clandestine subterfuge – that could well lead to its demise as a paragon of American pride. But, as outlined here, the tragic failures of a few does not necessarily mean the end of a century of Scouting. There are several key lessons to be learned from this longwinded downfall, beginning with the BSA’s original and heinous decision to cover up its shameful flaws. Any organization – not least one that entrusts its survival to the faith of parents that their children will be well-looked-after – must be transparent at all times. The very existence of ‘Perversion Files’ suggests that the BSA kept tabs on its practitioners that would be hidden from public scrutiny. In the future there must be no such files. Any incidences of abuse will be immediately turned over to the police, as previously recommended. Child abuse is not a matter for the BSA. It is, and always must be, a matter to be instantly externalized, published, resolved and vanquished in the full eye of the public.
On a similar note, swiftness of action is something that has been lacking in the BSA, and must also be resolved post-haste. For a national organization counting some 2.7m members, for the BSA to hush-up files of abuse for up to 90 years is deplorable, let alone standard practice for a children’s organization. Likewise its inability to grow with the times and allow gay people to become members shows that it favored the views of those on its outdated board above contemporary societal norms. An enhanced annual general meeting program must ensure that board members are scrutinized and stand the chance of being kicked off, annually. This way no more Wayne Perrys can hold the group back for years.
Ultimately, the Boy Scouts of America is an American institution. It is steeped in history and tradition. Sadly that ‘tradition’ was exploited to depressing lengths. In the future there is no reason why a traditional BSA cannot be reconciled with an up-to-date, dynamic organization that embraces its times while giving young men basic tools to survive the world. Robert Baden-Powell declared that all Scouts must have a duty to themselves – but also other people. It’s time the BSA heeded those wise words.