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Nation & World

Boy Scouts resisted background checks on leaders

After reports of widespread sexual abuse of children in the late 1980s, several leading youth organizations began conducting criminal background checks of volunteers and staff members.

Big Brothers Big Sisters ordered the checks for all volunteers starting in 1986. Boys and Girls Clubs of America recommended their use the same year.

One of the nation’s oldest and largest youth groups, however, was opposed — the Boy Scouts of America.

Scouting officials argued that background checks would cost too much, scare away volunteers and provide a false sense of security. They successfully lobbied to kill state legislation that would have mandated FBI fingerprint screening.

While touting their efforts to protect children, the Scouts for years resisted one of the most basic tools for preventing abuse. As a result, the organization let in hundreds of men with criminal histories of child molestation, many of whom went on to abuse more children, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of the Scouts’ confidential abuse files.

Scouting did not require criminal background checks for all volunteers until 2008 despite calls from parents and staff who said its vetting system didn’t work.

In 1989, a Scout committee chairman in St. Paul, Minn., decried the organization’s “half-hearted” screening in a letter to headquarters.

“BSA is only creating an illusion of performing what they claim,” K. Russell Sias wrote to Scout chief executive Ben Love. “It becomes quite clear that BSA is more concerned in ‘passing the buck’ than in accepting responsibility for those who are its adult leaders.”

That same year, a Las Vegas scoutmaster with a criminal history of exposing himself to boys was arrested for sexually abusing a 12-year-old Scout.

One parent said casinos did a better job of screening workers. “The black eye which Scouting has suffered in this could easily have been avoided if the council had taken the simple expedient of doing a background investigation,” the parent wrote to Scouting officials.

From 1985 to 1991 — when the detailed files obtained by The Times end — the Boy Scouts admitted more than 230 men with previous arrests or convictions for sex crimes against children, the analysis found.

The men were accused of molesting nearly 400 boys while in Scouting. They accounted for one in six of those expelled for alleged abuse during those years.

Scouting officials declined to be interviewed but said in a prepared statement that they have enhanced their policies over the years and tried “to ensure we are in line with and, where possible, ahead of society’s knowledge of abuse and best practices for prevention.”

The Scouts’ past handling of child sexual abuse has come under increased scrutiny since October, after the court-ordered release of hundreds of confidential files dating back decades. The Times earlier obtained and analyzed a larger and more recent set of files — about 1,900 dossiers opened from 1970 to 1991.

The records, called the “perversion files” by Scouting officials, have been a key tool for nearly a century, intended to keep out men expelled for alleged abuse.

The files also offer a detailed record of the system’s failures. The Times reported in August that from 1970 to 1991 dozens of men previously expelled had slipped back into the program, only to be accused of molesting again. The Times later reported that Scouting officials failed to report hundreds of alleged abusers to police and often hid the allegations from parents and the public.

The organization has fought in court to prevent the release of more recent files, making it impossible to determine how many men with criminal histories were caught in the organization after 1991.

Court records and news accounts, however, show that convicted molesters continued to find new victims in Scouting.

Edgardo Luis Ortiz became an assistant scoutmaster in Providence, R.I., in the fall of 1997 — less than two years after completing a prison term for sex crimes.

Within months, he was accused of sexually abusing two boys on a camping trip. The Providence Journal asked the local Scouts council why it hadn’t done a background check.

“We just don’t,” a top official said. “I don’t know why. It’s just the procedure of the Boy Scouts of America.”

Scouting is a vast, decentralized organization — with 2.7 million youths and 1 million volunteers under the watch of about 3,800 paid supervisors.

It is up to chartering organizations that operate Scouting units — church groups, community centers and schools — to select and screen volunteers. Historically, they have received only general guidance from headquarters.

“In my opinion, it is the responsibility of parents to know who their leaders are and to know where their kids are,” a Scouting spokesman explained after learning in 1987 that a Canyon Country Scout leader had allegedly abused 11 boys.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the Scouts’ application for volunteers asked about character references and criminal histories.

“We’ve gotten extremely tough in selecting leaders,” Louisiana Scouting official Carlos del Hierro said in 1989. “We can’t pussyfoot around on this.”

Dozens of applicants with criminal histories simply lied on the form, the files show.

In some cases, convicted abusers were identified only by chance. In 1989, Scouting officials learned that a man who had been a scoutmaster in Hercules, Calif., for four years was a registered sex offender — only because he had confided his sexual interest in Scouts to an off-duty police officer.

When he signed on as a Boy Scout leader, the man was on probation for molesting a Cub Scout in his neighborhood.

In 1993, leaders of several major youth organizations were called to testify before a congressional panel about a proposed law urging states to require employees and volunteers of nonprofits to undergo FBI fingerprint checks — the gold standard in criminal screening.

Some youth groups were supportive. Big Brothers Big Sisters already was doing background checks.

“This sometimes has met with great obstacles, but we have endured the cost and the burden of getting this done,” testified former NFL star Lynn Swann, who then was board president.

But the Boy Scouts said fingerprint screening would be an unacceptable burden. “Many worthy volunteers would simply not wish to subject themselves to being fingerprinted,” testified Lawrence Potts, then the Scouts’ head of administration.

Potts downplayed the risks of child sexual abuse in youth organizations, saying most molestations occurred among family members. As drafted, he added, the federal law would establish a standard that could result in “massive civil justice damages” against groups that did not do the checks.

The Boy Scouts were in a unique position to know how easily child molesters could slip into youth groups. Its files showed that at least 300 were caught in the Scouts from 1970 to 1991, according to the Times analysis. But the organization had never studied the files and wouldn’t do so for many years.

The National Child Protection Act passed with limits on liability and costs that the Boy Scouts had requested. The Scouts then led a coalition of youth groups, including the YMCA and the Girl Scouts, that fought against mandates for fingerprint checks in Florida, Pennsylvania and other states.

In 1994, Scouting required background checks for employees — but not volunteers. A spokesman explained that screening volunteers might cost as much as $41 million. “We don’t have close to that,” he said.

That year, Scouting had income of $486 million, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and was the second-largest recipient of private support among youth groups nationwide.

Nine years later, the Scouts switched course. In April 2003, as the child sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church was making headlines, Scouting began requiring criminal background checks for new volunteers.

In a press release, the organization said the “state of the art” screenings would complement its “nationally recognized” youth protection program.

But the new policy did not cover volunteers already in the organization.

It would be four more years before the Scouts mandated criminal checks for all volunteers.

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