A 12-year-old boy sat in a San Fernando courtroom a month ago as his "Big Brother," an accountant who volunteered to be his special friend, pleaded guilty to molesting him and four other boys.
In a Van Nuys courtroom two weeks ago, another Big Brother, a noted UCLA psychology professor, pleaded no contest to similar charges. And a third Big Brother faces a preliminary hearing this week in San Fernando on allegations that he had sexual contact with his teen-age charge.
The molesters had taken advantage of an organization devoted to helping boys from broken homes by matching them with adult males who volunteer to serve as role models. Big Brothers can be especially attractive to potential molesters because it encourages volunteers to develop close, private relationships with boys.
Across the country, at least 22 Big Brothers were convicted of sex crimes from 1982 to 1987 after taking sexual liberties with their charges, according to Big Brothers of America records. Records kept by Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles show that, since 1982, at least five of its volunteers have been convicted. A sixth case is pending.
In interviews last week, Big Brothers officials conceded that child molesters occasionally infiltrate their ranks. It is no surprise to them, given the nature of the program.
They say the organization goes to extraordinary lengths to screen out molesters and is tightening the net each year with more rigorous requirements, including fingerprinting and highly personal interviews. Insurance companies that cover Big Brothers, however, are demanding further precautions. They want psychological testing of potential Big Brothers.
Task Force of Child Sexual Abuse
"Everyone here is extremely concerned" about child abuse, said Terry Correlio, director of program development and research for the Philadelphia-based Big Brothers of America, which placed more than 60,000 Big Brothers nationwide this year. Even though molestation by Big Brothers is infrequent, it was enough for the organization to form a task force on child sexual abuse last February.
Sexual molestation was not a concern when Big Brothers of America formed in 1903 when a Cincinnati businessman took a fatherless boy under his wing and encouraged his friends to do the same. In 1955, Walt Disney helped found Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles.
The aim wasn't to provide parental substitutes, but rather a special friend in whom the boy could confide, a male figure for the boy to emulate. The relationship would bolster the youths' self-image and confidence, founders believed.
But some Big Brothers took advantage of the relationship. No one really knows when it started. Public awareness of sexual abuse peaked during the early 1980s, about the time the McMartin preschool child-abuse case surfaced, officials say.
Today, Big Brothers is operating with screening methods its officials believe may be so tight that suitable men are discouraged from applying.
"It's not easy to become a Big Brother," said Nancy Rose, director of public relations for Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles, which has 420 Big Brothers and another 300 boys on a waiting list.
Big Brothers is doing about as much as anyone can to keep out child molesters, according to George Salazar, a Los Angeles Police Department detective in Van Nuys who investigates child-abuse cases. He praised the group for dropping volunteers at the first sign of improper conduct.
"A child molester is very sophisticated in his approach to molesting kids," Salazar said. "It's so difficult to interview someone and figure out if that person is a child molester. A full investigation is too costly--talking to neighbors, all the kids on his baseball team. And then, maybe he didn't do anything to a kid this season."
Since 1982, Big Brothers applicants have been fingerprinted at their own expense to disclose any criminal record or motor-vehicle violations. References, including the applicant's employer, are checked.
The most critical phase, said Rose, is the applicant's three-hour interview with a staff social worker. The man must disclose his complete sexual history--his first sexual experience, dating patterns, marital relationship and any abuse as a child.
A screening committee that includes a mental-health expert and a member of the Los Angeles Police Department's sexual exploitation division reviews questionable or unacceptable applicants and another 10% of applicants as a quality-control measure.
Social workers are trained to look for "red flags"--aspects of a man's personality that suggest a child molester, said Mark Wild, director of services for Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles.
If he is single, does he date women? Is he shy, withdrawn? Does he have friends, or is he a loner? Is he interested in sports?