CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll take a look at the big winners from last night's Emmy Awards, but first, we want to turn to a much more serious topic and this would be a good time to say this conversation may not be appropriate for some listeners.
The Boy Scouts of America organization has been struggling with the issue of child sex abuse for decades. That's according to a recent report from the L.A. Times. The paper claims, in the past, the group took part in a systematic cover-up of child sex abusers in its ranks. The reporting team spent more than a year going through a trove of 1,600 confidential files from 1970 to 1991.
Jason Felch was part of the Los Angeles Times investigative team that combed through those documents and he sat down to talk earlier with Michel Martin.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
JASON FELCH: Thank you.
MARTIN: Before we get into the substance of it, do you mind if I ask - how did you and your team get interested in this story? How did you get onto this?
FELCH: Yeah. About a year ago, we teamed up with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to work on a story about a scout master who had abused three children in a Los Angeles Boy Scout camp back in the 1970s. When Boy Scout officials found out about that abuse, they covered it up. They didn't tell the police and allowed the man to leave town and misled camp staff about the circumstances of the abuse.
While reporting on that story, we learned that the Boy Scouts had been keeping confidential files on men accused of sexual abuse for nearly a century, really, since the early 1900s when the Boy Scouts was founded and that many of those files had begun to come out in civil litigation, usually under seal, but over the next several weeks of reporting, we were able to get our hands on a large swath of these documents covering 1970 to 1991.
And that's when we began to analyze them with the goal of saying this one case that we had written about involving a man named Richard Turley - was that an exception or was that a common occurrence in the Boy Scouts?
MARTIN: Well, tell me more about that. These files, as they're called, the Boy Scouts of America Ineligible Volunteer Files. Is that right?
FELCH: That's right. Although the Boy Scouts of America themselves have called these files over the years the Perversion Files because they all relate to allegations of sexual abuse.
MARTIN: And how were these files used?
FELCH: This was essentially a blacklist used by the organization to keep out men who they had caught molesting kids in scouting.
MARTIN: Are you asserting that these are, in fact, credible allegations of abuse? These aren't just allegations, but that these were investigated and documented. Is that what you're saying?
FELCH: There's a large amount of variety in the files. Some are very long and voluminous and contain very detailed allegations. Many of them include chilling first-hand accounts from the victims themselves, often handwritten by 10-year-old boys not long after they had been abused. Others are not as complete and so there's a variety in terms of what's in there.
What's clear is that the Boy Scouts had a relatively high bar for expelling a member. They would not do it merely on rumor. They would not do it merely on unsubstantiated allegations and so the vast majority of these cases involve allegations where there was some amount of backup and evidence provided to support the claims.
MARTIN: But the issue here is that nothing happened beyond that. People who against whom there were credible complaints were expelled from the Boy Scouts, but there was no effort to bring them to justice. There was no effort to demand, say, criminal accountability. Is that the issue?
FELCH: We looked at these 1,600 files. In many, many of them, the Boy Scouts only learned about abuse after it had been brought to them by the police. We looked more closely at 500 files where the Boy Scouts of America were the first to learn about abuse. We found that, in 80 percent of those cases, there was no indication that they went to law enforcement. In about 100 of those cases, there were overt references to attempts to hide the abuse from parents, authorities and from the public. In many cases, we saw misleading statements made to the media. The men who had been accused of sexually abusing kids were allowed to resign from their troops under false pretenses. This is something that happened time and time again during this time period.
And, notably, all of these files went to the Boy Scouts national office and were reviewed by a senior Boy Scout administrator, the general counsel of the Boy Scouts of America and the chief of administration for the Boy Scouts of America.
MARTIN: You say in the piece that the Times review has found that scouting officials frequently urged admitted offenders to quietly resign and helped many cover their tracks. And that's a very damning allegation, but what's the evidence that they actually helped them cover it up? And, of course, you know I want to know. What do you think they did that?
FELCH: Yeah. When you look into those files, what you'll see is clear evidence that, in many cases, the Boy Scouts did help cover that tracks for men suspected of child abuse. In one case, a man named Art Humphries in Chesapeake, Virginia was found to have molested some scouts. This was in 1978. The Boy Scouts did nothing about that allegation and, in 1984, Humphries was arrested and ultimately pled guilty to sodomizing 20 boys, many of whom were Boy Scouts.
At the time, the media came to the Boy Scouts and said, boy, did you know about this guy's background? And the Boy Scouts said, we had no idea. Well, the same Boy Scout executive who told the press that he had no idea had actually been the one that investigated the 1978 claims and knew very well about the allegations.
JASON FELCH, LOS ANGELES TIMES: What is Scout executive had done was help cover them up and give Mr. Humphries a glowing job recommendation so he could continue to work in scouting.
MICHEL MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with LA Times investigative reporter for Jason Felch. He is part of an investigative team that has looked into confidential files kept by the Boy Scouts of America. And the team did a review of 1,600 confidential files, dating from 1970 to 1991. And the team says that during that period there is substantial evidence that the Boy Scouts of America covered up child abusers within their ranks.
As you would imagine, Jason, we reached out to the Boy Scouts. They declined to join us for this conversation. We did ask. But they provided us with this statement, quote, "The Boy Scouts of America believes that one instance of abuse is far too many. We regret that there have been times when despite the BSA's best efforts protect children, scouts were abused and for that we are very sorry and extend our deepest sympathies to victims."
And further, the director of public relations said that, you know, looking at this issue from the lens of today, scouting handles these cases very differently. If you suspect a local volunteer, the policy mandates that the person observing the behavior or raising the allegation calls the authorities, the organization calls the authorities. And the director says that you see an organization that throughout the decades has evolved in its youth protection policies and they also cite, you know, other experts. For example, a former prosecutor who heads the National Child Protection Training Center in Minnesota, told the AP that quote, "the Boy Scouts have the most advanced policies and training." And what do you say to that? That people can say, well, this was a long time ago, things have changed?
TIMES: It's absolutely true. The files we looked at are a long time ago and the Boy Scouts have adopted a very thorough practices very recently aimed at preventing this type of abuse. The question that we have and that were not able to answer is to what extent are those policy changes effective at preventing sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts of America? This is a very serious problem that this organization has. And some experts that we talked to you suggest that it's not merely a matter of changing policies. It's really about the culture of the organization. And...
MARTIN: But the files go up to 1991, which is still, you know, quite sometime ago. And is it really fair to look at, you know, in 2012 and say that they haven't done the work? Can you say that? I mean...
TIMES: No. What I'm saying is we don't know whether the work that they have done is effective in preventing sexual abuse, that Boy Scouts of America continues to keep perversion files and they are fighting in court across the country to prevent those files from being made public or being shared with others. And so it's those files that would really give us an insight to whether the various policy changes that Boy Scouts have implemented at a national level are being effectively carried out on the ground all across the country. We don't know the answer. The truth is the Boy Scouts of America doesn't know the answer.
MARTIN: There has not always been an understanding - particularly of the seriousness of the potential for child sexual abuse of boys. You know, we've often thought of this as a girl problem but not as something that affects boys, right?
TIMES: To be sure.
MARTIN: So then the question becomes does the reporting indicate anything about kind of the philosophy of people in the organization at that time? Do you see my question?
TIMES: Yeah. I - yeah.
MARTIN: Do you have any sense of what the thinking was?
TIMES: Yeah. You get a sense for that in the files themselves which contain detailed back-and-forth between local officials and national officials. You do pick up on that and you see several different themes. One is a concern about not maligning the reputation of men who had been accused of sexual abuse before all the facts were in. The problem is that those facts are usually ascertained by law-enforcement during a criminal investigation. But by not bringing charges or allegations of police many of these facts were never investigated.
The other thing that you see - and this is in particular when you look at the policy documents from the Boy Scouts in the '70s and '80s and '90s, secrecy was embedded in this organization in a deep way. On one of the documents that they used these allegations of sexual abuse to the national office, one of the check boxes said: only scouts know. This was a check box under, how was this case of sexual abuse resolved?
In another document we see that the boilerplate cover letter that the national office gave to all of the nation's local affiliate of the Boy Scouts when advising them how to handle sexual abuse, included a line that said: these allegations will remain confidential with us and will not be shared with anyone. And so rest assured that your reputation will be intact and you can go out into the community and not fear that this will hurt your reputation in any way. This is what the Boy Scouts for years was promising men accused of sexual abuse. And so through those documents and policies and procedures, you see that there is a real instinct to protect the men.
Now, this isn't unique to the Boy Scouts of America. We've seen very similar instincts on display at Penn State and in the Catholic Church and other places where sexual abuse comes up. I think it's helpful to keep in mind the organizational structure of the Boy Scouts of America. The Boy Scouts has a very small paid staff and a huge base of volunteers. And the leadership of those Boy Scouts troops in every community is made up of parents and other prominent members of the community. And so when an allegation of sexual abuse arises about a scoutmaster, that scoutmaster is often times close personal friends with the very people who are in charge of supervising him and reporting him to the authorities and to the Boy Scouts of America's national office.
It's not surprising that in many cases what we would think of today as what should've been done was not done.
MARTIN: Jason Felch is an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He's part of an investigative team that looked at confidential files related to the Boy Scout's handling of complaints or allegations of child sexual abuse. And he was kind enough to join us from member station KPCC in Pasadena, California.
Jason Felch, thank you for speaking with us.
TIMES: Thanks for having me on.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.