The Boy Scouts of America prides itself on creating a safe environment for its youth. But an investigation into more than two decades of the organization’s internal records reveals that it failed to stop Scout-leader pedophiles from becoming repeat offenders or from re-entering Scouting through a revolving door.
A Scripps news team’s examination of 1,881 “ineligible volunteer” files dating from 1970 through 1991 shows that the Boy Scouts were plagued by systemic failures that left its young members at risk for decades.
Among the findings:
-- At least 101 Scout leaders accused of sexual molestation had faced previous allegations of abusing Scouts, but had not been kicked out of the organization.
-- In at least 88 cases, Scout officials failed to conduct adequate background checks and allowed men with prior criminal convictions, often for child molestation, into Scouting.
-- At least 46 men booted from Scouting because of sexual misconduct were later able to return, often by changing troops or moving to another state -- a revolving door for predators.
“It sounds like a breakdown at the high-up level,” said Victor Vieth, executive director of the Minnesota-based National Child Protection Training Center. Vieth, a former prosecutor whose center trains child abuse investigators, said organizations such as the Scouts need to be especially vigilant about pedophiles: “You have to understand the danger. That was the whole point of these files.”
In an interview with Scripps, Boy Scouts National President Wayne Perry acknowledged some “terrible failures” in the past when it came to safeguarding Scouts. “It’s a failure of judgment. It’s a failure of execution. … It’s a failure on many levels,” he said.
But Perry, a volunteer and retired Washington state businessman, noted that the confidential files kept out many predators and “protected a lot of kids.” He said that the Boy Scouts continue to keep such files as part of a “multilayered approach” to child protection, which includes mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse to authorities.
“No organization has done more to try to help understand the child-abuse situation than the Boy Scouts of America,” Perry said.
Many child-protection experts including Vieth say that during the last few decades, the Scout organization has been out front in establishing strict policies to protect children against predators, including barring adults from one-on-one activities with youths and requiring criminal background checks.
But many of those rules didn’t exist in the 1970s and 1980s. And even those policies that were in place -- such as the decades-old requirement to put the names of “ineligible volunteers” into the confidential files and cross-reference them with any adult who tried to register -- weren’t always followed.
Take the case of Indianapolis Scout leader Thomas Hacker. In 1961, the schoolteacher, then in his mid-20s, was arrested on an assault and battery charge involving Scouts at a campout. A judge dismissed the case. A local Scout executive later wrote that Hacker was removed as a scoutmaster, but that a prominent board member had called to say “that Tom was a fine young man, and asked that he not be placed on our ‘red flag’ list.” Lacking “concrete evidence ... we did not do this, for which I have had many hours of regret.”
Hacker joined two other troops before being arrested in 1970 for molesting 51 boys, most of them pupils at his school. He pleaded guilty to one count of assault and battery and was given a suspended sentence.
Hacker was barred from Scouting, and his name put in the Scouts’ confidential files. But in 1971, using a fake name, Hacker turned up as a scoutmaster in the Chicago suburbs. Later that year, he was arrested for taking indecent liberties with a child.
When the local Scout council discovered who Hacker really was, they notified the national organization, which again suspended him. “Under no circumstances do we want this man registered in Scouting,” the national registration director wrote back.
But by the mid-1980s, Hacker had become a scoutmaster of a Catholic Church-sponsored troop in the Chicago area. He resigned abruptly in October 1987, citing a work promotion and “some personal family situations.”
Five months later, Hacker was indicted for sexually abusing a dozen boys, most of them Scouts. A jury convicted him on two counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault and sentenced him to two consecutive 50-year prison terms. Now 76, he’s incarcerated at Big Muddy River Correctional Center in Ina, Ill.
Scout records show how Hacker beat the system: He claimed to have been registered in more than one troop, at a time when Scout officials didn’t check multiple registrations.
When he re-registered, they didn’t review the confidential file. And he changed his name or middle initial to avoid detection.
Burbank, Ill., Police Capt. Joe Ford, a detective at the time of Hacker’s arrest, said he and his colleagues were shocked at how he had managed to stay in Scouting all those years.
“How could that happen with the Boy Scouts?” Ford said. “You would think a national organization has a national list. Somebody dropped the ball somewhere. ... There was a failure of the system, without a doubt.”
The failure to police their own was a common theme that ran through the Scouts’ confidential files. Some were filled with letters or handwritten notes describing how leaders who molested children had slipped through the cracks.
“What happened to the checks and balances? With the new registration, this wasn’t supposed to happen,” a Scout official scribbled in a handwritten note attached to a 1990 newspaper story about a Pennsylvania Scout leader arrested for molesting a teenage Scout. The man had been convicted 15 years earlier in Massachusetts for sexually abusing a boy in a police Explorers troop.
Not all the files illustrate a system breakdown. Some Scout officials acted quickly once they learned a leader had been arrested for child molestation. And in more than a quarter of the cases in which a youth or parent notified Scout officials about an allegation of sexual misconduct, the Scouts contacted authorities.
But Scout files also expose serious communication failures, lack of due diligence and even intentional decisions to protect one of their own -- or give him a break -- rather than bar him from Scouting.
That’s what makes Clay Evans furious even today.
Evans was a 13-year-old Scout in Boulder, Colo., when scoutmaster Floyd David Slusher allegedly tried to molest him in 1975. Evans said Slusher, who was in his early 20s, pulled him and a younger Scout into a station wagon’s back seat during a campout. He told them he was a bisexual who would teach them about masturbation and that they would start with hugging and kissing and then “move on to other things.”
Evans said he and the other boy declined and scrambled out of the car.
“Dave came to me later and said in a panic, ‘I want to hypnotize you right now so you’ll forget what happened,’ ” Evans recalled in an interview. “That scared me even more.”
Later that summer, Evans told his father, and they reported the incident to troop committee members. But he said they suggested he might have misunderstood or exaggerated. They took no action. Nobody contacted the police.
Another Scout made a similar allegation against Slusher, also in 1975; troop officials confronted the scoutmaster, but felt there was insufficient evidence. Slusher was arrested in 1977 for molesting several Scouts. He was convicted of sexual assault on a minor and sentenced to “one day to life.” Paroled in 1984, he was arrested again in 1989 and charged with three counts of sexual exploitation of children. He was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
The files reveal Slusher had been dismissed as a Scout camp staffer in Germany in 1972 for sexually abusing a youth. U.S. Scouting officials put him on probation and let him continue in Scouting.
Evans, now a 50-year-old marketing manager and writer in Niwot, Colo., said he’s still angry that Scout officials ignored his complaint.
“It was a double violation of a kid’s trust,” Evans said. “A person in a position of authority violates a kid’s trust. Then the kid turns around and goes to the people who were supposed to protect him and they do nothing. When I later found out that I was not the only one who tried to do the right thing and was dismissed, that just blew my mind.”
And it wasn’t just Scout victims whose lives were affected. Sometimes, whole families were devastated.
Veronica Akins, of Bishop Hills, Texas, said that’s what happened when her 13-year-old son was molested by Scout leader Melvin Christopher Estes in the late 1980s. Estes tried to fondle him in the bathroom of the church where the troop met, according to the victim’s deposition. Another time, Estes invited him into his bedroom to look at pornographic magazines. He started massaging the boy and tried to take off his pants.
Estes was convicted in 1989 of three counts of aggravated sexual assault and one count of indecency with a child.
One of the four victims was Akins’ son, Chance Curtis. Estes was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Akins sued the Boy Scouts of America and the local council, claiming they were negligent in allowing Estes to remain a Scout leader. She alleged that they knew he’d been accused of molestation previously, but ignored it and gave him his own troop.
The Boy Scouts argued that Estes was quickly suspended after local officials learned of molestation allegations.
The Scouts maintained that while they chartered community-based organizations that sponsored troops, they didn’t supervise them or choose
The mother of four appealed her case all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. It ruled in 1996 that the national organization could not be held responsible, but that the local council -- which recommended Estes for the scoutmaster’s job -- could. Akins later agreed to an undisclosed settlement.
Akins said her son, now 37, has never been the same.
“He’s been in and out of trouble ever since this mess went on. We took him to several child psychologists,” she said. “… He’d always been such a good boy.”
Chance Curtis eventually dropped out of high school and became an alcoholic, drug addict and criminal, his mother said. He’s serving time in federal prison for a firearms charge.
Akins, 53, who works in the kitchen of a Christian academy and serves as a local alderman, said her son’s molestation and her battle with the Scouts led her to “trust basically no one anymore” and scarred her family.
“It tore our family up,” she said. “The kids could feel the stress and tension between my husband and I. You feel this anger, but you don’t know who to be angry at. It’s very destructive to families.”
Many of the confidential files share similar threads about how Scout leaders took advantage of their prey: plying boys with liquor, showing them pornography, performing “massages,” sharing tents or sleeping bags on camping trips.
Jerry Lee Parrish’s first run-in with the Scouts was in 1976, when a boy came home after spending time with the North Carolina scoutmaster, and his mother noticed something oily in his hair. The boy told his father that Parrish had taken nude photos of him, put oil on him and touched him, according to the files. The father put a loaded shotgun in his car and tried to find Parrish. A former district executive wrote that the mother of another Scout disclosed she had once caught Parrish touching her son inappropriately.
Local Scout officials “filed some forms” about Parrish that fall with the national office, the district executive recollected about 15 years later. “We received a reply that we could not ‘black flag’ Jerry’s name at the registration office for reasons that I can’t recall today,” he wrote.
Parrish moved elsewhere. In the early 1980s, he joined a troop in Pittsboro, N.C. In 1990, Parrish, then a 43-year-old systems analyst at North Carolina State University, was arrested for molesting two Scouts. He allegedly told his victims that he was going to hypnotize them -- then he would perform oral sex on them.
He pleaded guilty to four counts of taking indecent liberties with a child and was sentenced to 20 years, with all but six months suspended.
In 1998, Parrish was arrested again, this time in Florida, after flying there for what he hoped would be a sexual tryst with a 12-year-old boy he met on an Internet chat site. The “boy” turned out to be an undercover cop. Parrish faced federal charges because of his interstate travel and Internet use; he was convicted of sexual exploitation and enticement of a minor. He was sentenced to 18 years.
The Parrish case exposes how the rules meant to protect Scouts were sometimes ignored or violated. Local Scout leaders would notify national staffers of a problem, but the alleged molester wouldn’t be barred from Scouting. In other cases, local Scout officials would fail to report a leader accused of misconduct or would take months – or even years – to alert the national office.
Anna Salter, a psychologist in Madison, Wis., who has authored several books about sex offenders, cautions that even today, strict child protection rules aren’t enough.
“Even when you have the best policies, you have individuals who don’t follow those policies,” said Salter, a consultant to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Sex offenders are good at fooling people, and organizations such as the Boy Scouts or their church-related sponsors sometimes would rather keep quiet than risk a scandal, she added.
“While policies get steadily better, we still have kids being abused because the dynamics haven’t changed.”
(Contact Jenni Bergal at firstname.lastname@example.org.)