Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsNosplit

Boy Scouts' opposition to background checks let pedophiles in

Boy Scouts of America fought the trend of adopting criminal background checks for volunteers and staff, unknowingly allowing convicted child sex offenders to join.

December 02, 2012|By Jason Felch and Kim Christensen, Los Angeles Times
  • Edgardo Ortiz, left, Norman Leach, center, and Michael Pitz all had criminal records before working with the Boy Scouts.
Edgardo Ortiz, left, Norman Leach, center, and Michael Pitz all had criminal…

Amid reports of widespread sexual abuse of children in the late 1980s, several leading youth organizations began conducting criminal background checks of volunteers and staff members.

Big Brothers Big Sisters ordered the checks for all volunteers starting in 1986. Boys and Girls Clubs of America recommended their use the same year.

One of the nation's oldest and largest youth groups, however, was opposed — the Boy Scouts of America.

DATABASE: Search the "perversion" files 

Scouting officials argued that background checks would cost too much, scare away volunteers and provide a false sense of security. They successfully lobbied to kill state legislation that would have mandated FBI fingerprint screening.

While touting their efforts to protect children, the Scouts for years resisted one of the most basic tools for preventing abuse. The result: The organization let in hundreds of men with criminal histories of child molestation, many of whom went on to abuse more children, according to a Times analysis of the Scouts' confidential abuse files.

Scouting did not require criminal background checks for all volunteers until 2008 — despite calls from parents and staff who said its vetting system didn't work.

In 1989, a Scout committee chairman in St. Paul, Minn., decried the organization's "half-hearted" screening in a letter to headquarters.

"BSA is only creating an illusion of performing what they claim," K. Russell Sias wrote to Scout Chief Executive Ben Love. "It becomes quite clear that BSA is more concerned in 'passing the buck' than in accepting responsibility for those who are its adult leaders."

That same year, a Las Vegas scoutmaster with a criminal history of exposing himself to boys was arrested for sexually abusing a 12-year-old Scout. One parent said casinos did a better job of screening workers.

"The black eye which scouting has suffered in this … could easily have been avoided if the council had taken the simple expedient of doing a background investigation," the parent wrote to Scouting officials.

From the time national background checks became widely available in 1985 until 1991 — when the detailed files obtained by The Times end — the Boy Scouts admitted more than 230 men with previous arrests or convictions for sex crimes against children, the analysis found.

The men were accused of molesting nearly 400 boys while in Scouting. They accounted for one in six of those expelled for alleged abuse during those years.

Scouting officials declined to be interviewed but said in a prepared statement that they have enhanced their policies over the years and tried "to ensure we are in line with and, where possible, ahead of society's knowledge of abuse and best practices for prevention."

"Numerous independent experts have recognized that our programs for protecting Scouts from abuse are among the best in the youth-serving community," it said.

The Scouts' past handling of child sexual abuse has come under increased scrutiny since October, after the court-ordered release of hundreds of confidential files dating back decades. The Times earlier obtained and analyzed a larger and more recent set of files — about 1,900 dossiers opened from 1970 to 1991.

The records, dubbed the "perversion files" by Scouting officials, have been a key tool for nearly a century, intended to keep out men expelled for alleged abuse.

The files also offer a detailed record of the system's failures. The Times reported in August that from 1970 to 1991 dozens of men previously expelled had slipped back into the program, only to be accused of molesting again. The Times later reported that Scouting officials failed to report hundreds of alleged abusers to police and often hid the allegations from parents and the public.

The organization has fought in court to prevent the release of more recent files, making it impossible to determine how many men with criminal histories were caught in the organization after 1991.

Court records and news accounts, however, show that convicted molesters continued to find new victims in Scouting.

Edgardo Luis Ortiz became an assistant scoutmaster in Providence, R.I., in the fall of 1997 — less than two years after completing a prison term for sex crimes.

Within months, he was accused of sexually abusing two boys on a camping trip. The Providence Journal asked the local Scouts council why it hadn't done a background check.

"We just don't," a top official said. "I don't know why. It's just the procedure of the Boy Scouts of America."

::

Scouting is a vast, decentralized organization — with 2.7 million youths and 1 million volunteers under the watch of about 3,800 paid supervisors.

It is up to chartering organizations that operate Scouting units — church groups, community centers and schools — to select and screen volunteers. Historically, they have received only general guidance from headquarters.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|