NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. After a two-year battle in court, lawyers in Portland, Oregon, said - last hour - that they'd release hundreds of confidential files kept by the Boy Scouts of America, on men they suspected of sexual abuse. The files went public online, within the last few minutes.
The Boy Scouts began keeping what they called "perversion files" more than a hundred years ago, designed to keep track of men who'd been kicked out so that they couldn't just join another troop. A series of reports by the Los Angeles Times on an overlapping, but separate, set of files shows that too often, it didn't work out that way; that some serial abusers slipped through the cracks, that others were given a second chance, that some crimes are covered up and others, never reported to the police.
A statement from the Boy Scouts of America reads, in part, "In certain cases, our response to these incidents, and our efforts to protect youth, were plainly insufficient, inappropriate or wrong." The statement offered an apology and stated that today, "scouting is relentlessly focused on prevention of child abuse."
We want to hear from scouts and leaders. How has the situation changed - 800-989-8255; email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, former White House Iran aide Gary Sick reviews the new hostage-crisis movie, "Argo." But first, the perversion files. Jason Felch is an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He's been following this story for a year now, and joins us from a studio at the newspaper. Good of you to be with us today.
JASON FELCH: Hi, Neal.
CONAN: And these perversion files - if somebody goes online and looks at these that are now available, what's he going to see; what do they look like?
FELCH: Well, they are often, detailed accounts - and often, incomplete accounts - of allegations of sexual abuse that emerged over a long span of time; in the case of the files being released today, many years ago. What's inside of the files varies considerably. But you see, often, handwritten accounts by young men, describing their sexual abuse by troop leaders. You see, sometimes, court records or police reports substantiating those allegations. And you see a lot of back-and-forth between local scouting officials and the scouting officials at the national headquarters, about what to do about these allegations.
CONAN: And obviously, that information varies in every case. Again, you have a separate, but overlapping, set of files going back - how far back?
FELCH: Our files go from 1970 to 1991; and include about half of the files that are being released today, in Oregon.
CONAN: And the files being released today, in Oregon, are from - what, 1965 to 1984.
FELCH: That's correct.
CONAN: So as - well, tell us about a story that you focused on. Your first piece centered on the case of a man named Richard Turley(ph).
FELCH: Yeah, Richard Turley was involved in the scouting organization in Canada, and he came down to Southern California in the early 1970s. He kidnapped a young boy in San Diego; was committed to a mental hospital, and was released about 18 months later. And it's then that he got involved in two scout camps here, in Southern California. While at the second scout camp, he allegedly molested three young scouts one night. Boy Scout officials were immediately notified. And they told Turley to leave town and created a perversion file on him. They documented the abuse; they had a statement from one of the fathers of the victims, describing what had happened.
But these allegations were not reported to police. As a consequence, they never knew that Turley had recently been committed, as a pedophile, to a mental hospital; and they let him leave town. Richard Turley went back to Canada and continued to abuse boys until he was eventually convicted, in the mid-1990s.
CONAN: And there are, sadly, too many of these stories. But put it in perspective. Some experts - hired by the Boy Scouts, to go through these files - said there were more than a million volunteers and troop leaders. This involves just a small fraction of that.
FELCH: Well, that's certainly true, and I think we don't really know the full scope of sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts of America. What's clear, from these files, is that these are the cases in which allegations - in which - sexual abuse was brought to the attention of Boy Scout officials, and these allegations made their way up to the national office. What we really don't know - and nobody knows - is, how often was sexual abuse not reported? From other experts, we know that one in six boys, in America, is sexually abused before he turns age 16, and so - the amount of reporting, however, is far, far smaller than that.
Sexual abuse - in particular, of boys - is one of the most often - one of the least-reported crimes that experts know about because of the amount of shame usually involved; and because of the practices of the molesters, in seducing - or grooming - their victims before the abuse occurs. So these 5,000 files that we have, in our L.A. Times database, represent a tip of an iceberg whose true size we just don't know.
CONAN: And again, if people want to examine that database, they can go to your website and take a look at it.
FELCH: That's right, latimes.com/boyscouts has both our coverage and our database. Anybody who's been involved in scouting over the years, can go and look up - to see if allegations were ever raised about their troop.
CONAN: And this involves - there's a link to that site at our website - npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION. This involves every state in the union.
FELCH: That's correct, every state in the union. We did some statistical analysis of the cases that we were able to review; some 5,000 cases that we had information on. And it's not a complete portrait, but what we could tell was that about a third of the men who were expelled from scouting, on allegations of sexual abuse, were married. That number could be higher; there were a number of cases where it wasn't clear, their marital status.
About half of them did not have children in the scouting organization, which would raise questions about why they were involved in scouts. Most people think that the leaders of scout troops are usually parents of kids in the program. And we also found that in more than 40 percent of the cases, the men who were accused of molesting scouts, were accused of molesting multiple boys. In other words, the 5,000 cases represent many, many more actual victims in those cases.
CONAN: And "accused" is another important word. These are allegations. In some cases, yes, these men were tried and convicted. In many others, they were not.
FELCH: That's true, and it's one of the consequences of not reporting these crimes to the police. We took a close look at 500 cases in which the Boy Scouts were the first to learn about sexual abuse; where they received reports of abuse directly from a child, or from a child's parent, and were faced with the decision about what to do about it. In those 500 cases, 80 percent of them were not reported to authorities. And in about 100 of them, there were explicit signs of scouting officials being involved in cover-ups - so misleading parents about the reasons why a man was leaving the troop; overt efforts to help that man cover his tracks. As a result, many of these cases have never been reported to police and certainly, never been heard in court. And one of the noteworthy things about the release today, in Oregon, is about 1,200 men alleged but not ever convicted, are about to be named publicly.
CONAN: And that's among the reasons the Boy Scouts give for being so reluctant to release these files. As you pointed out in your reporting, other experts have said, if we'd had access to this material - this is a treasure trove of allegations of sexual abuse - we could have discovered patterns, we could have figured things out long before we did; this is something that would have been incredibly useful.
FELCH: Yeah, the experts we spoke to said that really, awareness about this type of molestation - which they refer to as "acquaintance molestation" - really came together in the expert community, and in the general public, in the 1980s. The Boy Scouts have been keeping these files since the 1900s - the early 1900s. And so some believe that had this - these files been made available publicly to experts, that they might have understood the way these predators operate - better.
When we analyzed the files, we found very clear evidence of grooming behavior - throughout the files. Grooming behavior is the kind of seduction process that child molesters use while recruiting, if you will, their young victims. They allow them to break the rules; they allow them to drive their cars, to drink alcohol, to watch pornography together. This escalates into - you know, skinny-dipping and sharing tents together, and that kind of contact; and ultimately, cumulates in abuse. What the grooming process does, experts say, is make sure that when abuse does occur, the boys have been compromised, in a way; and have basically been recruited, and made to feel like accomplices. And that really increases the likelihood that they will not report abuse, when it happens. That's one of the reasons why this is such an under-reported crime.
CONAN: We want to hear from former scouts and former scout leaders. How has the institution changed - 800-989-8255; email us, email@example.com. We'll start with Logan(ph), Logan with us from Salt Lake City.
LOGAN: Hey, hi. How are you? Love the show.
CONAN: Good, thank you.
LOGAN: Good. Well, yeah, I just wanted to call in because, you know, I had an amazing scoutmaster, growing up. And - you know, he had this bus that he painted camouflage colors because we went camping all the time. And he took us once a month, from the time that I was 12 years old until I was 18; went with my brother, and all of our friends. And he was just such an amazing guy that - it's so hard when you hear stories like this because I think of how it was such a positive influence in my life, and I really think helped model me. And so it's disappointing to hear about, you know, all these cases that, I think, really kind of dilute people's idea about what scouts can mean, and what the Boy Scout program is; when it seems especially like, you know, it's such a case-by-case scenario. My scoutmaster, you know, was an incredible guy and had such a positive influence on my life. I feel like it's a real tragedy, to hear about how opposite other people's experiences can be.
CONAN: And I don't know if you have a son, Logan. But if you did, would you think twice, if he wanted to join the Scouts?
LOGAN: You know, it's - I don't have one yet, but it's something that my - I mean, my wife and I have talked about everything from sleepovers to Boy Scouts. And I think it's definitely something that we're going to have to look at seriously because it's just so different than it was when I was growing up.
CONAN: Logan, thanks very much for the call; appreciate it.
LOGAN: Yeah. Thank you.
CONAN: And Jason Felch, I think a lot of people are having second thoughts because - well, this is truly disturbing material. This is such a trusted organization.
FELCH: The stories in the files are awful, in many ways. And you're right - the Boy Scouts of America is a very trusted institution. And I think that adds to some of the pain of these revelations. In a way, the Boy Scouts were proactive in, you know - really, going back to the 1900s, the early 1900s, in creating these files as a way to try to keep these men out. And because other organizations haven't been keeping such files - and those files haven't been made public - we don't know how abuse rates compare, in the Boy Scouts, to other organizations. We do know that there are unique opportunities that the Boy Scouts offers and - to access children. And because of that, they have a unique responsibility to protect children.
CONAN: We're talking about today's release of thousands of pages of documents from what the Scouts dubbed the perversion files. We want to hear from scouts and leaders. How has the institution changed - 800-989-8255; email firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about the thousands of documents made public earlier this hour, that detail decades of allegations of sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts; what the Scouts themselves call the perversion files. The Oregon Supreme Court ordered today's release, a batch of documents that covers a period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s.
The Portland lawyers who posted them held a news conference in the last hour, and pressed the Boy Scouts of America to release all files to date. Our focus today is on the lessons to be learned from these listings of allegations of abuse. We want to hear from scouts and leaders. How has the institution changed - 800-989-8255; email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is Jason Felch, an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times; who began reporting on another, overlapping group of these files, a year ago. We've posted a link to his series of investigative stories, at npr.org. And let's go next to - this is Keith(ph. And Keith, with us from Roseburg in Oregon.
KEITH: Hello there.
CONAN: Hi, you're on the air; go ahead, please.
KEITH: Oh thank you. Well, I am an Eagle Scout. I got my eagle back in 1985. Three of my brothers are Eagle Scouts, and I had a very positive scouting experience. Honestly, I...
CONAN: And? Go ahead.
KEITH: OK, I was going to say that I believe that the time has come, though, for a RICO investigation of Boy Scouts because I believe they've been complicit in criminal behavior, and their continued discrimination about - against gay and lesbians and against atheists has demonstrated that this organization is of the 20th century and not of the current era.
The Girl Scouts, comparatively, have been much more welcoming, much more inclusive.
CONAN: RICO, of course Racketeering in Corrupt Organizations, a federal statute designed to combat organized crime. Jason Felch, any indication that any criminal charges might result from the release of these files?
FELCH: Well, I think racketeering might go a bit far, frankly, but there is plenty of evidence in the file that - explicit documented allegations of sexual abuse were not reported to law enforcement. Some of those failures to report likely happened after state laws required reporting of sexual abuse. It varies considerably state by state when that happened.
So what legal experts tell us is that the age of these files - most of these files are from 20 or 30 or even 40 years ago - would probably bar any criminal action being taken. There is a small possibility of criminal action being taken against the alleged molesters. A handful of states do allow sexual abuse crimes to be reported well after the fact.
I think far more likely is civil litigation against the Boy Scouts of America. There's already been repeated waves of civil litigation over the years against the Boy Scouts because of alleged mishandling of sexual abuse. I think what's going to happen as people around the country learn about these cases, you're going to see men who perhaps did undergo sexual abuse while in the Boy Scouts be triggered by this event, by this media attention to this, and start to come to terms with something that happened to them long ago.
This has been seen time and again with victims of sexual abuse, that it's often only years later that they really face what happened to them in their childhood. And in some cases, that will lead to lawsuits.
CONAN: As Keith noted, the Boy Scouts of America discriminate against homosexuals, that's their right as a private organization. I wonder, though, in the files did they also keep track of alleged or openly gay scoutmasters? Did they sometimes conflate homosexuality with sexual abuse?
FELCH: Yeah, you see that repeatedly in the files. Men preying on young boys is often described in the files as showing homosexual tendencies. The experts tell us that there really is a distinction between pedophilia and homosexuality, obviously, and - but I think the conflation of those two by the Boy Scouts in the '60s, '70s and '80s reflected a misunderstanding in those years about the nature of these tendencies.
The Boy Scouts have excluded homosexuals for years and have included - and banned homosexuals from participating in the organization. By and large, adult homosexuals engaged in homosexuality with other adult men were not included in these so-called perversion files. For the most part, the perversion files include allegations of men abusing boys. And again, experts make a clear distinction between that and homosexuality.
CONAN: Polly Dunn is a child psychologist, the director of the Auburn University Psychological Services Center. Earlier this summer, she wrote a piece for her blog childpsychmom.com about the tough questions that parents might want to ask caregivers about sexual abuse, questions like: Are all of your employees and volunteers trained on how to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse? Do you conduct background checks on all of your employees and volunteers?
Polly Dunn joins us now from her office in Auburn, Alabama. Nice to have you with us today.
POLLY DUNN: Thank you, I'm glad to be here.
CONAN: And I understand you're a mother of four yourself. I wonder: Do you ask these questions?
DUNN: Sometimes I do. I've tried to ask them, and sometimes it's kind of uncomfortable to say these things. And so I have definitely tried to do it when I can.
CONAN: And as you say, it's sometimes uncomfortable not just for you but the person getting the questions.
DUNN: Absolutely. What I found is that if you ask - if you ask people about what their one-adult, one-child interactions are allowed with their group, then they end up being kind of OK with it, the question is not so scary as if you say what are your policies about sexual abuse. If you just ask them, can my child be left alone with an adult, they'll tell you yes or no pretty easily.
CONAN: And, you know, that's one thing, as you say, uncomfortable enough when you're dealing with an organization like the YMCA or the Boy Scouts or something like that. Babysitter?
DUNN: Oh yes, I've absolutely asked a babysitter. Of course you're going to be one adult, one child potentially if you only have one child when you hire a babysitter. But you can have the opportunity to kind of drop in on the babysitter, do a background check. You can also just ask your child questions like what did you do while you were with the babysitter, what kind of activities did you participate in.
And if they can't really answer you clearly, then there's a problem there. You want to ask them more questions about what happened during their time alone.
CONAN: And you can put up one of those cameras if you're concerned, as well, as long as it's your own home. But outside the home, that's where you want to say is there a written policy and if not why not.
DUNN: Yeah, you always want to ask. Anywhere your child is going where you're not there, you want to know what types of policies they have that keep your children safe. Background checks are really important for all employees and volunteers of youth-serving organizations.
I mean, everybody needs to be trained on how to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse so that if something does happen, they know what to do. But the more important thing is keeping people preventing child sexual abuse, and they can do that if they keep these one adult and one child interactions to a minimum.
CONAN: And it's interesting, you also pointed out in the piece this doesn't have to be an accusatory, you know, interrogation. It can open a dialogue if a place doesn't have a written policy, they might want to seriously think about writing one.
DUNN: Absolutely. I mean, I have found that when I've asked questions, sometimes people do not have a policy at all, and they haven't really even thought about it but that afterwards asked the question, parents have talked to the teachers or the caregivers, that they end up deciding to implement a policy. I mean, it's important in this day and age, especially after what has happened at Penn State, for all youth-serving organizations to have some sort of policy that they know what to do in the event of child sexual abuse.
FELCH: If I may?
CONAN: Go ahead, please, Jason Felch.
FELCH: The Boy Scouts has had such a policy since 1987, barring one-on-one contact between scout leaders and youth and discouraged that behavior long before that. What we found was that there's a big difference between having a written policy at the national office of an organization and how that policy is enforced and carried out on the ground, particularly an organization like the Boy Scouts, which is run by some million volunteers all across the country.
So I think another important question to ask it not just what is the policy but how do you know if the policy is being followed.
CONAN: And is there any way to track that, Polly Dunn?
DUNN: Absolutely. You can check in on what types of things are going on with the organizations that your child participate in. For example, if your child was at a youth group or at their daycare, you can notice. You can ask other parents if they've seen instances where there have been one-adult, one-child interactions.
And I think if you ask the questions not necessarily about what's the written policy of the national organization, but you could even ask the question that says how do you implement your national policy at the local level?
CONAN: And would you recommend, Polly Dunn, if these files are now available, and there is that database available for anybody to look at at the Los Angeles Times of the files they've had to look at, where there's information available, go look, go see if your local organization has ever been involved in something like this.
DUNN: I would. I would also do the checks that you can do for sexual offenders in your community. That's been available for a long time online. You can just check for any sexual offender in your particular community.
CONAN: Polly Dunn, thanks very much for your time today.
DUNN: Thank you.
CONAN: Polly Dunn, a child psychologist, director of the Auburn University Psychological Services Center, with us from a studio there at the university. You can find a link to her blog post "Tough Questions For Caregivers About Child Sexual Abuse" at out website. Again, that's npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Barry(ph) is on the line. Barry with us from Paw Paw, Wisconsin(ph) - Paw Paw, Michigan, excuse me.
BARRY: Yeah. Hi. How are you doing? A longtime listener, love the show.
CONAN: Thank you.
BARRY: I've been in Scouts for probably 15 years, and one of the things I'll say that's been good in Scouts is their youth protection and the training that they've done. When I first started out, you know, we didn't know anything was going on, and their youth protection is meant to help protect the adult leader, as well as the individual. You should never ever, ever have one-on-one contact. There should always be two adults and one youth or one youth or - yeah - or two youths and one adult.
I mean, it should always be that way. And the one thing that I've noticed outside of the scouting organization is sometimes high school coaches will want - will take a kid home from school and with - through my Scout training, I'll go, man, dude, you are messing up. That's one thing I've really liked about Scouts.
CONAN: But as far as you can see, your experience, this policy of never having a one-on-one, that's adhered to, and that's how you're trained.
BARRY: That isn't - there's a written law as far as how a troupe should operate, and we have canceled campouts because we have not had two adults on a campout. I mean, that is rule number one that they teach new youth leaders and the youth because when you open the Scout book there's a manual on the rules that you should have when they're with adults.
CONAN: Barry, thanks very much for your time.
BARRY: Yeah. Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Andy(ph). He writes: I think it's very important to note the impact that this kind of behavior has on scouting not only to the unfortunate victims of molestation but to their kids and grandkids. My father was allegedly molested in the 1950s by his Scout leader in Wichita. He has now, after 50 years, come and attributed much of his subsequent alcoholic and abusive behavior to the molestation. He's left the country, become estranged from his family and has been no part of the lives of two of his grandkids. The problem is documented, and the 5,000 cases are tragic, but it needs to be recognized that the extent of the tragedy this exposes is only skin deep.
And, Jason Felch, that's an important point. These cases reverberate through time.
FELCH: It's chilling when you speak to victims of sexual abuse, not just in the Boy Scouts but elsewhere, just how deep an impact one terrible incident on one night as a 10-year-old, how that can reverberate through a young person's life into their adulthood. One gentleman I spoke with who had gone through this and did not want to revisit it told me that he was afraid that talking about this would open a Pandora's box in his life. This is something that really has an altering - alters the course of young people's lives when it happens to them and should not be dismissed lightly.
One of the things that we see, one of the disturbing patterns that we saw in the files time and again was men who were victims of sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts who, as they grew up, became assistant Scout masters to the men who had abused them and went on to participate in abuse themselves. Victims who themselves became molesters repeating the behavior that they learned. This is not uncommon, and it's a terrible consequence, one of the many terrible consequences of sexual abuse.
CONAN: Jason Felch, an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. As we mentioned, at a news conference in the past hour, lawyers in Portland who obtained the release of these documents were speaking with reporters. Lawyer Kelly Clark argued today that far too little has changed within the Boy Scouts organization.
KELLY CLARK: One of the questions we have for the Boy Scouts is, if the programs were so good, the policies are so well-improved, then why is it still happening? We will post the links to these stories later today. As you can see for yourself, it is still happening. It is still happening.
CONAN: And, Jason Felch, obviously, you've been reporting on files from some years ago. Any indication that Kelly Clark, the lawyer there, is correct that it's still happening?
FELCH: Well, we know it's still happening both from news clips. I mean, if you follow the news on this, you'll see that with some regularity there are reports of men involved in scouting being arrested for molestation or for child pornography or related charges. Our data in our database ends at 2005, but what we saw is that in 2002, 2003, 2004, the Boy Scouts were creating about 100 new perversion files a year, expelling men who have been accused of sexual molestation. We don't know how that rate, if you will, has changed.
Since 2005, the Boy Scouts continue to open perversion files when they have reasonable suspicion of men involved in sexual abuse, but they haven't made that information public. And so one of the things that the Oregon attorneys called for today was for the Boy Scouts to be more transparent in general about their more recent handling of sexual abuse.
CONAN: And I wanted to play that cut of tape again. This is Kelly Clark, the lawyer in Portland, who said these kinds of files must all be made public even though allegations are just allegations.
CLARK: Child abuse thrives in secrecy, and organizations need to be able to see what mistakes other organizations make that I would hope, for example, that in addition to turning these files over to law enforcement that they would release them to the public. There is no reason not to. One of the things you will hear from the Scouts - I don't know if Scouts Canada says it, but Scouts America says it that we don't want these files made public because we want to be able to assure people of their confidentiality so they will continue to report into the system. And the problem with that argument is that they never told anybody about the system. They try to keep the very existence of the perversion files confidential.
CONAN: And people can say they're trying to protect the organization. They're trying to cover up some percentage, and we don't know what percentage, but some percentage of these allegations are going to be false, incorrect.
FELCH: That's true. And to be honest, many of these cases were not thoroughly investigated. So oftentimes, what you'll see is a young boy coming forward. His parents coming forward, approaching the scouts and saying, my son was molested by Mr. X. And the scouts would quickly remove Mr. X, create the perversion file, sometimes report him to police, sometimes not report him to police.
But one thing that didn't happen is there was no thorough investigation within scouting about how many other boys might have been victimized by this man. And in those cases, in the 80 percent of cases that we found where the scouts did not report it to police, law enforcement was never contacted, so, of course, there's never been a court case. Some of these men might be innocent. The Scouts did have a relatively high bar, however, before they would open a file.
CONAN: Jason Felch, thanks very much for your time.
FELCH: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And again, there's a link to Jason Felch's story in the Los Angeles Times at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Up next, Gary Sick, a White House adviser on Iran during the hostage crisis on "Argo" and history. Stay with us. TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.