LOS ANGELES – For nearly a century, the Boy Scouts of America has relied on a confidential blacklist known as the “perversion files” as a crucial line of defense against sexual predators.
Scouting officials say they’ve used the files to prevent hundreds of men who had been expelled for alleged sexual abuse from returning to the ranks. They’ve fought hard in court to keep the records from public view, saying confidentiality was needed to protect victims, witnesses and anyone falsely accused.
“It is a fact that Scouts are safer because the barrier created by these files is real,” Scouts Chief Executive Robert Mazzuca said in video posted on the organization’s website in June.
That barrier, however, has been breached repeatedly.
A Los Angeles Times review of more than 1,200 files dating from 1970 to 1991 found more than 125 cases across the country in which men allegedly continued to molest Scouts after the organization was first presented with detailed allegations of abusive behavior.
Predators slipped back into the program by falsifying personal information or skirting the registration process. Others were able to jump from troop to troop around the country thanks to clerical errors, computer glitches or the Scouts’ failure to check the blacklist.
In some cases, officials failed to document reports of abuse in the first place, letting offenders stay in the organization until new allegations surfaced. In others, officials documented abuse but merely suspended the accused leader or allowed him to continue working with boys while on “probation.”
In at least 50 cases, the Boy Scouts expelled suspected abusers, only to discover later that they had re-entered the program and were accused of molesting again.
“Basically, there were no controls,” said Bill Dworin, a retired Los Angeles police expert on child sexual abuse who reviewed hundreds of the files as a witness for an Oregon man abused by his troop leader in the 1980s.
In response to the Times’ findings, the Scouts issued a statement that said in part:
“The Boy Scouts of America believes even a single instance of abuse is unacceptable, and we regret there have been times when the BSA’s best efforts to protect children were insufficient. For that we are very sorry and extend our deepest sympathies to victims. … We are committed to the ongoing enhancement of our program, in line with evolving best practices for protecting youth.”
The Scouts have maintained “ineligible volunteer” files in one form or another since at least 1919 to keep track of men who failed to meet Scouting’s moral standards. Files that involved allegations of child sexual abuse were dubbed “perversion files.” A master list of those banned from Scouting has been computerized since 1975 and is used to vet applicants for volunteer and paid positions.
Only a select few in Scouting have access to the files, which are kept in 15 locked cabinets at Scout headquarters in Irving, Texas. But over the years, hundreds of the files have been admitted as evidence, usually under seal, in lawsuits by former Scouts alleging a pattern of abuse in the organization.
Many of the files will soon be made public as a result of an Oregon Supreme Court decision. The court, in response to a petition by the Oregonian, the Associated Press, the New York Times and other media organizations, ordered the release of 1,247 files from 1965 to 1984 that had been admitted as evidence, under seal, in the 2010 lawsuit.
In anticipation of the release, attorneys for the Boy Scouts conducted an informal review of 829 of the files, saying they sought to put the contents in perspective. The Scouts said the review found 175 instances in which the files prevented men who’d been banned for alleged abuse from reentering the program.
The Times analyzed an overlapping, though broader and more recent, set of files, which were submitted in a California court case in 1992. Their contents vary but often include biographical information on the accused, witness statements, police reports, parent complaints, news clippings, and correspondence between local Boy Scout officials and national headquarters.
The accounts that emerge are often incomplete. But the Scouts ultimately deemed the allegations sufficiently credible to expel the suspected abusers.
Today, the Boy Scouts of America says it continues to use the confidential files as part of its efforts to prevent child abuse. In recent decades, it has added other protective measures. In 1988, for instance, Scouting did away with probation; its policy now is to expel anyone suspected in “good faith” of abuse. In 2008, criminal background checks were required on all volunteers, and in 2010 the organization required all suspected abuse to be reported to law enforcement.
The extent to which these measures have succeeded is impossible to gauge: The Scouts continue to fight in court against the release of more recent files.