Most of the Boy Scouts I know are incredibly honorable people. They are horrified by the reports of thousands of men who abused kids between 1947 and 2005 through relationships developed from their role as Boy Scout leaders and volunteers – and by the fact that failure of the Boy Scouts of America to report these pedophiles has put other kids at risk.
So far, the Boy Scouts of America has partially addressed the issue by removing these people from their organization and recently enacting extensive child protection procedure and programs. But, as one looks back at how long they were aware that some of their volunteers were abusing kids, the steps taken so far seem to be much too late and still too little. For many years, the Boy Scouts failed to protect kids in their care because they tried to handle the problem internally and didn’t report most of the cases. They confused the issue when they tried to combat child abuse by requiring gay men and boys to leave their organization, even though there is no evidence that sexual orientation makes anyone more or less likely to sexually abuse kids. They have continued to fail by refusing to make their records public until forced to do so by a court order.
These failures from an organization where being an Eagle Scout represents tremendous integrity and competence raise troubling questions such as:
How could this have happened?
Could it happen again?
Are the procedures and programs enacted so far enough to prevent future abuse?
First of all, how could this have happened? Sometimes good organizations doing important work make extremely harmful mistakes and then fail to address these mistakes effectively because they are afraid of damage to their public image or are trying to protect their leaders from being blamed.
Times have changed. Public understanding of what child abuse looks like, the damage it causes, the prevalence of child abuse, and how pedophiles operate has increased tremendously in recent years. I believe that it is unfair to blame people today for the Boy Scouts of America’s past lack of understanding and past failures of leadership. However, it is important that this organization take full responsibility for what happened.
The honorable way to cope with past mistakes is to acknowledge what went wrong, learn everything you can to prevent this from happening again, and make amends to repair the harm done. Unfortunately, according to news reports about this case, the Boy Scouts of America continues to put guarding their reputation ahead of child safety. By refusing to open their records sooner and even destroying some records, they have lost valuable information that could potentially prevent other children from being abused.
These leadership failures undermine the Boy Scouts of America’s credibility about their commitment to child protection. They need to change their mindset from protecting the Boy Scouts organization to demonstrating the character that they teach their boys.
Could this happen in the Boy Scouts again today? Unfortunately, I believe that the answer is “yes” because abuse can happen anytime anywhere. Also, any inconsistencies in terms of commitment to child safety in an organization’s culture can undermine steps taken to protect kids.
Right now screening, greater awareness, better procedures, and increased training makes abuse less likely to happen in the Boy Scouts. However, as time goes by, people tend to forget and lower their guard. People want to trust reputable organizations and charismatic leaders, but we must not trust blindly. Worthy of Trust describes what gets in the way of protecting kids from harm and decisions each of us must make in order to uphold the Kidpower Principle to: Put Safety First, ahead of embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense.
Constant vigilance by the Boy Scout organization and by parents will be necessary for their policies and training to be effective. Sexual predators seek opportunities to develop relationships and connections in places where there are children. They are often very charming people who win trust and gratitude by taking many positive actions. They are talented at manipulating adults as well as children.
Pedophiles use a variety of tactics including seeking out children who are vulnerable to emotional coercion, lowering a child’s boundaries by providing affection and favors, test a child’s willingness to keep secrets with inappropriate behavior before doing anything overtly sexual, and seduce a child into participating in the sexual behavior so that the child feels at fault.
Are the current child protection measures that have been enacted by the Boy Scouts enough to prevent future abuse? The Boy Scouts have taken some important steps that, if consistently and effectively implemented, can help keep kids safe most of the time. Their child protection activities include:
Screening is important but we need to stay aware that most pedophiles have not yet been reported and are operating under the radar of adults.
In Kidpower’s over two decades of teaching child protection and personal safety skills, we have found that adults and kids alike need to be truly prepared to take action immediately to recognize and stop an unsafe situation. Just as chair needs at least 3 legs to be stable, so does change in human behavior. The three legs for Child Protection are: Awareness, Understanding, and Skills. We need Awareness of potential threats to safety; Understanding of what needs to happen in order to prevent those threats, and Skills for what to say and do in the moment to act on ones awareness and understanding. Adults need skills to intervene to stop an unsafe situation. Kids need skills to take charge of their emotional and physical safety.
The Boy Scout’s “Recognize, Resist, Report” program raises awareness and understanding. To increase the success of their program, adults and kids need to rehearse skills in age-appropriate contexts that are relevant to their lives so that these skills become habits that they are prepared to use in the moment when a problem starts to develop.
To protect young people from bullying, abuse, and other violence, schools, youth organizations, and religious institutions must have:
Sadly, what the Boy Scouts of America has been done so far came much too late and is still not enough. However, they are taking steps in the right direction. This is an important institution, and they have an opportunity to become a model for other organizations in protecting kids and in showing integrity in how they deal with the child abuse cases that happened under their watch.
Kidpower Child Abuse Prevention Resources
Article: Worthy of Trust: What Organizations Need to Do to Protect Children From Harm
Article: Four Strategies for Protecting Kids From Sexual Predators
This article is cross-posted from Kidpower.org
For more information about the release of the Boy Scout “perversion files” we recommend the in-depth reporting by the Los Angleles Times and the radio interview with Los Angeles Times reporter Jason Felch on the October 18th episode of the NPR program, Talk of the Nation hosted by Neal Conan.
Kidpower Executive Director and Founder Irene van der Zande has been featured as a child safety expert by USA Today, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, The Kidpower Book For Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Kidpower Safety Comic Series. Kidpower is a non-profit leader in child protection and personal safety education. To interview Irene van der Zande or invite her to speak at your event, please contact her at 1-800-467-6997 Ext. 6# or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org