A boy scout for years, I remember well the Scout Law, those twelve traits we were taught to cultivate as we approached manhood. Presumably, BSA’s national executives should embody them. But two recent revelations (decades of substandard attempts to protect boys from predators and the denial of an Eagle rank to a gay scout), suggest that, at the leadership level, two other traits should be added to those venerable twelve: One would be introspection. The other, a sense of shame.
Introspection- the willingness and ability to take cold and honest inventory of their own values, responsibilities and limitations- might have helped BSA stanch the emotional (and in some cases physical) bleeding of untold numbers of boys abused by trusted and empowered leaders over the years. We now know that the feeble, naive and ultimately self-serving efforts by the national organization to prevent predatory access to children were largely feckless. “Perversion files” secretly kept in order to prevent predators from reentering scouting were at best incomplete and improperly cross-checked, allowing known abusers to rejoin troops in other communities and continue to offend. A lack of clear standards from above, coupled with an execrable desire to protect the reputations of abusers even in compelling cases meant that oftentimes a file wouldn’t be created at all.
Scouting’s leaders, much like religious leaders who failed repeatedly to protect anything other than their institutions, can be forgiven for not fully comprehending what research has, relatively speaking, only recently revealed: That active child molesters, usually heterosexual, in most cases abuse dozens to hundreds of children over the lifespan; that promises by the abusers to get treatment or simply stop are almost always worthless; that “evidence” of rehabilitation and pledges of being “healed” are often either ruses played by skilled and unrepentant predators, or sincere but ultimately ineffective barriers to a grave compulsion.
So, too, we can forgive the common but misguided belief that criminal background checks (instituted in 2008) would do much to prevent molesters from joining scouting. Most molesters have no criminal history of any kind and remain undetected because rates of reporting are so low, especially with boys. Requiring suspected abuse to be reported to authorities (as medical professionals have been required to do for years) is a better step, albeit one that should have been instituted far sooner than 2010.
Far more disturbing than missteps and delays, though, is the familiar sense that BSA, at least in part, protected itself over the desperate needs of its scouts as the cases invariably arose. It’s easy to claim the need for a secretive process allowing little to no public knowledge in the name of “protecting victims, witnesses, and the falsely accused.” It’s also largely unnecessary as victims can often be de-identified and false allegations are extremely rare. What secrecy does instead is to conceal a shameful but addressable problem, and in a way that only temporarily protects the institution and exposes ever greater numbers of children to life-altering damage. Worse, it perversely attracts even more predators who understand innately that what’s valued within is not the boys but the brand.
Introspection would assist with correcting both the well-intentioned missteps and arresting the more cynical urges to protect the institution over the very children it seeks to nurture. Introspection would allow for more transparency, the invitation of outside experts (to be fair BSA is doing this now) and cross-checking within the leadership to assure that priorities are in line.
What might a sense of shame create? Maybe a hesitance, after such dismal failure on a much more important front, to deny the rightful honor of an Eagle badge to a young gay man. BSA spokesman Deron Smith himself used the term “sexual orientation” (rather than “preference” or “lifestyle choice”) to describe exactly what Ryan Andresen’s sexual identity is: A natural and unchangeable characteristic.
Regardless of its regrettable insistence that homosexuality is a legitimate bar to scouting, perhaps less self-righteousness and a more penetrable institutional conscience would inspire honoring anyway this remarkable and brave young man’s accomplishments. Rather than judging and rejecting Ryan Andresen, better the Boy Scouts of America remember the largely heterosexual monsters it failed to bar over the painful decades instead.