Boy Scouts shielded sex abusers for decades

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The U.S. Postal Service released this stamp in 1985 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America. -PHOTO:Photo: Borislav Marinic

If Boy Scouts officials had not protected him in 1987 when he molested two boys, his life would have been devastated, retired Greenfield pediatrician Thomas Kowalski told the L.A. Times.

“Had that been publicized, I would have been out of business, reputation destroyed, and I don’t know how I would have faced people at church,” Kowalksi, now 75, said.

But scouting officials were too concerned about the organization’s reputation to make the incident public. They reported it to law enforcement, but when the victims declined to press charges, the officials pulled strings to keep the story out of the media.

As a result, Kowalski continued working with children for 14 more years, until he retired in 2001.

The Kowalski incident was one of thousands recorded in 14,500 pages of secret “perversion files,” confidential records of suspected child abusers from 1947 to 2005. The files were released to the public last month as the result of a successful $20 million lawsuit in Portland, Ore. 

Officials said they used the files to blacklist suspected molesters and keep them out of scouting. But the files show that again and again, an array of authorities including police chiefs, prosecutors, pastors and local Boy Scouts leaders quietly shielded scoutmasters and others accused of molesting children.

At the time, those authorities justified their actions as necessary to protect the good name and good works of scouting, a pillar of 20th century America. Like Roman Catholic Church leaders, they allowed sexual predators to go free.

Both the church and the BSA condemn homosexuality, and the BSA has a ban prohibiting gay staff, volunteers or members. Only weeks before the group released the perversion files last month, a gay teen in California was denied an Eagle Scout award that he’d earned, prompting an online petition signed by 410,000 people.

The perversion files, kept at Boy Scouts headquarters in Texas, consist of memos from local and national BSA executives, handwritten letters from victims and their parents and newspaper clippings about legal cases. The files contain allegations that stretch across the country and to military bases overseas, from a small town in the Adirondacks to downtown Los Angeles.

In Wisconsin alone, some 51 cities had troops where scouting officials quietly removed adult leaders or volunteers who committed various sex crimes against children.

Responding to the release of the files, the Wisconsin director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests renewed his group’s call for the Milwaukee Archdiocese to release its own files on clerical abusers.

“The evidence from the Boy Scouts files and the continual legal stonewalling of the Milwaukee Archdiocese are more demonstrable proof that institutions continue to put the reputation of institutional officials before the safety of children,” said John Pilmaier, SNAP Wisconsin director, in a statement to the press.

“Parents and the public need to know who these child sex predators are, where they are living, why they have not faced criminal prosecution, and what jobs and occupations they are currently engaged in,” he said. 

Troubling patterns

The BSA’s files document troubling patterns. There is little mention in the files of concern for the welfare of Scouts who were abused by their leaders. But there are numerous documents showing compassion for alleged abusers, who were often sent to psychiatrists or pastors for help.

In 1972, a local BSA executive implored national headquarters to drop the case against a suspected abuser because he was undergoing professional treatment and was personally taking steps to solve his problem.

“If it don’t stink, don’t stir it,” the local executive wrote.

Scouting’s efforts to keep abusers out were often disorganized. There’s at least one memo from a local scouting executive pleading for better guidance on how to handle abuse allegations. Sometimes the pleading went the other way, with national headquarters begging local leaders for information on suspected abusers, and the locals dragging their feet.

In numerous instances, alleged abusers were kicked out of scouting but showed up in jobs where they were once again in authority positions dealing with youths. 

The files also show scouting volunteers serving in the military overseas, molesting American children living abroad and continuing to molest after returning to the states.

But one of the most startling revelations to come from the files is the frequency with which attempts to protect Scouts from molesters collapsed at the local level, at times in collusion with community leaders.

It happened when a local district attorney declined to prosecute two confessed offenders and when law enforcement sought to protect the name of scouting and let an admitted child molester go free.

When cases against Scouts volunteers or executives went forward, locals often tried and sometimes managed to keep the organization’s name out of court documents and the media, as in Kowalski’s case.

Quiet epidemic

The cases included in the BSA’s files are probably only the tip of the iceberg. For every case that was documented, there are likely to be many more that weren’t.

Among those not included is the case of the troop leader who molested Milwaukee resident Karl Larson continually from the ages of 10 to 16 in the 1950s. This summer, Larson started the Spiritual Health Network, which offers a drop-in space for male survivors of sexual abuse in Bay View at 2923 A S. Delaware Ave. (spiritualhealthnetwork.org).

“I’ve confronted the man,” Larson said, but “I’ve not seen that he’s been approached by authorities.”

Larson said his abuser “always positioned himself to be around where boys would be active, where he could have access. He would have like a farm almost of young men. He was active with the church, and the church sponsored the Boy Scouts troop, which he helped create.”

Larson calls child sexual abuse the “quiet epidemic,” because it thrives on the silence of victims and institutions like the Boy Scouts. He said parents must be vigilant and develop relationships with their children that allow them to feel comfortable talking about such matters.

Preventing abuse “takes awareness of parents, and it takes the young men that are being molested to feel confident that it’s not their fault, so they can come out and say, ‘This has happened to me,’” Larson said.