Things are never looking good for an organization when a court orders it to release internal documents known as its “perversion files.”
That’s what the Boy Scouts of America was compelled to do in October in the aftermath of a judgment that awarded $19.9 million in damages to a plaintiff who was sexually molested by a Portland, Ore., scout leader in the 1980s.
The perversion or “ineligible volunteer” files point to a conundrum facing organizations that bring young people into close contact with adult leaders. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put it, “The same dynamics that create a nurturing environment, and may ultimately protect against child sexual abuse, can also open the doors to sexually abusive behaviors.”
Any organization, whether a church or civic group or business, has an obligation to protect the public from staff members who may have malign intent, but it must also protect the rights of those same staff members to privacy and the presumption of innocence until proof of guilt.
The files Boy Scouting released are from 1959 to 1985 and cover about 1,200 alleged pedophiles. The organization argued against releasing the files on the grounds that doing so would discourage reporting. The names of possible victims and the people who had accused abusers were redacted.
A more likely explanation of the Boy Scouts of America’s reluctance is that releasing the files would allow the public to see how the organization handled allegations through the years. Indeed, the problems are there in the files to see, with people dismissing red-flag behavior that later resulted in convictions. In other cases, even men convicted of child molestation, who had been named in the perversion files, found ways to sign up again as scout leaders.
As we have seen in recent cases, sometimes high-level executives and prelates will sacrifice the welfare of young victims to preserve the good name of the institution. Last Thursday, former Penn State President Graham B. Spanier was charged with perjury, obstruction, endangering the welfare of children, failure to report suspected abuse and conspiracy in relation to former coach Jerry Sandusky’s acts of pedophilia committed in university facilities.
The charging prosecutor left no wiggle room for the excuse-making that often follows when higher-ups face such accusations. Spanier didn’t simply make a mistake. He didn’t use bad judgment. “This was a conspiracy of silence by top officials to actively conceal the truth,” said state Attorney General Linda Kelly.
The same day those charges were announced, the Boy Scouts of America convened a “groundbreaking” meeting on child-abuse prevention for the nation’s leading youth-serving organizations, including the YMCA, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. They discussed policies and reporting procedures, along with the newer idea of sharing information about suspected pedophiles.
You can bet the news about Spanier resonated throughout the Atlanta meeting.
After the Portland pedophilia case in 2010, Boy Scouting adopted new procedures on mandatory reporting and training for volunteers were put in place. Both are solid changes.
Five years ago, the CDC issued a document that many organizations use as a basis for their child-abuse policies. Among its recommendations were: better screening of applicants in interviews; checking for boundary issues such as fascination with a particular age or gender; and asking how they would react in particular scenarios.
New rules and policies will inevitably run up against attitudes and behavior ingrained by an institution’s culture. All it takes is one person within a chain of command — be it a scoutmaster or a church official — to stymie an investigation or keep information from being passed on. Procedures can be broken, especially when adults start rationalizing.
External review boards to take and investigate complaints would accomplish better transparency, as would public reports summarizing their activity.
People hesitate to soil another’s reputation. They fear they need more evidence to be credible. They worry about a lawsuit and the resulting publicity.
Civil cases against priests, other clergy and youth leaders, repeatedly offer examples. Spanier is accused of keeping relevant information from university trustees.
Moreover, experts point out that even background checks only accomplish so much. Most pedophiles, before they are convicted, have no prior criminal histories.
Changing laws can help, too. In most states, failure to report abuse is a misdeameanor; only a handful of states raise it to a felony for serious child injuries or repeated failures to report abuse.
There will always be pedophiles seeking access to children. Many are calculating, manipulative people, able to circumvent new policies and protections. Organizations that serve children need to be a step ahead.