Boy Scouts of America Struck With Wave of Sex-Abuse Allegations

Catholic leaders reflect on Church’s progress in light of organization’s allegations.

The Boy Scouts of America — its national headquarters is shown in Irving, Texas — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Delaware on Feb. 18. More allegations of abuse are now being reported.
The Boy Scouts of America — its national headquarters is shown in Irving, Texas — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Delaware on Feb. 18. More allegations of abuse are now being reported. (photo: Bruce Andersen/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons)

The nearly 90,000 sexual-abuse allegations filed against the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) before a Nov. 16 bankruptcy deadline provide the latest evidence of the extent of the scourge on society. 

For the Catholic Church in the United States it’s a problem on which it has worked for decades to develop solutions for greater transparency, appropriate redress of victims and protection of young people.

The Boy Scouts of America filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February after a wave of new sex-abuse lawsuits were filed as a result of states including California, New York and New Jersey giving childhood victims expanded legal options to sue, according to the Los Angeles Times. Through an outreach campaign this fall, BSAencouraged victims to seek compensation from a trust fundit plans to establish from its more than $1 billion in assets.

According to the bankruptcy filing, the property holdings and assets of BSA’s 261 local councils are separate legal entities and shouldn’t be included as debtors in the case, The Associated Press reported.

Hundreds of lawsuits against BSA were put on hold because of the bankruptcy to allow negotiation of a possible global settlement. The bankruptcy also requires any new abuse-claims cases to be handled there instead of in state courts, according to the Los Angeles Times

The number of victims could change as the legal cases progress, according to the New York Post

Bishop James Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, said he was “profoundly sad” to read about former Boy Scouts who had experienced abuse.

“I was a Boy Scout (Eagle), and it had a profoundly positive impact on my life, as our troop was blessed by good men as leaders and so many of the fathers of the Scouts,” Bishop Johnston, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, told the Register in a statement.

The Church has learned much about the “terrible reality of child sexual abuse,” he said. “It is something that can occur within any organization. We have learned much from the victim/survivors and their stories, as well as the impact this trauma has had on their lives.”  

“We are still working to help them on the journey of healing,” said the bishop, even as Catholics continue to learn from the Nov. 10 release of the McCarrick Report, a document that details four decades of corruption and abuse perpetrated by disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.  


Widespread Problem

Allegations against the Boy Scouts bring perspective to the Church’s clergy sex-abuse problem and the involvement shared by other institutions in society. While recognizing the problem, U.S. Church leaders reflected on the positive effect of policies and procedures developed to correct it by the U.S. bishops and broader Church — policies that continue to be updated. 

Founded in 1910, the Boy Scouts of America’s national service center is located in Irving, Texas. The organization has fewer than 2 million members, down from about 4 million in the 1970s. 

Not all the Boy Scout allegations have yet been substantiated, but most involve alleged incidents in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The organization kept files on abusers but neglected to follow up.

“Any organization where there are children there’s a potential for offenders, perpetrators wanting to take advantage of the fact that there are children or young people, those who are considered vulnerable,” said Deacon Bernard Nojacera, executive director of the U.S. Bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection.

The number of allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors in the U.S. Church that were reported in 2002 or earlier is 6,122, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The number reported after 2004 is 6,942. 

The allegations against the Boy Scouts highlight that widespread nature of sexual abuse. An estimated one-third to one-half of perpetrators of sexual abuse against girls and 10% to 20% against boys are family members, according to a report by University of New Hampshire professor David Finkelhor. 

An overwhelming percentage of sexual abuse (90%) is committed by men and by persons known to the child (70%-90%), the report stated.

A 2002 Christian Science Monitor article stated that most U.S. churches receiving child sexual-abuse allegations are Protestant, and allegations in Jewish communities are comparable to those charged against Protestant clergy. 

Also, a 2004 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education indicated that nearly 10% of U.S. public-school students had received unwanted sexual attention by school employees.


The Church’s Experience

Nearly 20 years ago, the U.S. bishops developed the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People: Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing With Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons.” 

Known as the Dallas Charter, it has been updated several times, provides dioceses with a road map of principles and procedures that dioceses can tailor to their needs and can integrate into Church life, Deacon Nojacera said. 

The Church realized since the 1980s and even earlier that there was a problem and that action needed to take place, he said. The bishops agree to abide by the articles of the charter, he said.

They recognize the importance of broad awareness and training for everyone in an organization “to make it difficult for abusers to have access to children and to make it easy to report suspicions of abuse,” Bishop Johnston told the Register.  

“The Church holds the safety of children as a core value,” he said, “and commits to provide a culture of safety in our parishes and schools. We have stronger structures in place to ensure accountability in reporting and consequences for abusers and those who fail in their responsibility to deal with child sexual abuse.” 

In the last year, Bishop Johnston said, “more great strides have been made with the publication of Pope Francis’ apostolic letter Vos Estis Lux Mundi; the document from the Holy See known as the vademecum, which clarifies the steps for responding to clergy sexual abuse; and, finally, the recently released report on former Cardinal McCarrick, a document that sets a new standard for uncovering the culture of silence and shines light on past failures within the Church. This focused work will continue to make us all better. It is a work that is never done.” 

The USCCB’s Dallas Charter emphasizes reaching out to victims and accompanying them, Deacon Nojacera said. According to a 2013 study, men frequently wait 20 to 30 years before making an abuse allegation. 

“I firmly believe that the path for healing for our Church is [that it’s] going to be required that we have a relationship with the survivor-victim,” he said. “They are going to be the ones to help us journey, if anything, even though we’re accompanying them.”

A cooperative collaboration with community entities, including educational institutions, other organizations, faith communities and denominations, called for in the charter is happening, Deacon Nojacera said. “The very fact that folks are able to talk about this, that was not the case before.” 

The Church has been able to share best practices on child protection, including with the Boy Scouts, which operates troops in Catholic churches in many dioceses, he said. 


Shared Responsibility

In 20 years with the charter, the cultural change has been evolutionary, Deacon Nojacera said.

“The issue of child sexual abuse and clergy or Church employees or ministers, this is something now that is out in the open,” he said. At safe-environment trainings, Catholics are encouraged to speak up and learn to make reports. 

Ultimately, he said, protecting children from sexual abuse is the responsibility of all Catholics.

“The onus of making sure our young people are safe and those who are vulnerable are protected does not lie on just the shoulders of the folks in the office for protection, but on all of God’s people,” Deacon Nojacera said. “It’s the whole community that steps up to make sure that those who need protection are protected.”