The Boy Scouts of America was founded in 1910, and almost from the beginning it has had a sexual abuse problem. Since at least the 1940s, it kept a list of red flag cases — known, grotesquely, as the “perversion files” — which were supposed to block abusers from further participation in Scouts. But the list didn’t do its job, nor did it save the organization from a steady drip of lawsuits.
Until recently, most of those cases were settled quietly out of court, so it’s hard to say how many there were, or how much the Boy Scouts paid the plaintiffs. But in 2010, a court in Portland, Ore., ordered the Boy Scouts to pay $1.4 million to a man who was abused by a scout leader, Timur Dykes, in the 1980s. During that trial about 1,000 red-flag files were introduced as evidence, though only the jury and lawyers were allowed to see them. The Boy Scouts at the time denied allegations of negligence but in 2012, it was forced to make public thousands of pages of documents from those files.
In an echo of the scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, the files show that the national organization often allowed scout leaders accused of abuse, including Mr. Dykes, to continue working with boys. The files also indicate that complaints about abusive adults were shot down by officials more interested in protecting the organization’s image than rooting out injustice.
The Portland case unleashed hell on the Boy Scouts. Along with a cascade of lawsuits over individual abuse claims, several former scouts are suing the organization for access to all the perversion files, which they say contain the names of 7,819 men who abused boys under their charge, along with 12,254 victims. Last year, to raise money, the Boy Scouts mortgaged Philmont, the crown jewel of the scouting kingdom.
It’s hard to square all this with the scouting I remember. My troop, in Nashville, was sponsored by a local congregation of the Disciples of Christ, a liberal, mainline denomination with just a bit more Jesus than the Unitarian Universalists. Our adult leaders were good men — funny, kind, wise, gruff — and the boys came from all around: white, black, brown, well off, working class. We hiked, we goofed off, we got away from our parents and we became like brothers.