Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Scouting a better route

This week in Scouting, we take two steps forward and one step back. It's the new fitness program.

I like Scouting, and I miss it. Not enough to take part anymore, but enough to remain fond.

Enough to pay attention when Scouting makes the news. At least some of it is good.

Not this, though: Last week Boy Scouts of America settled a lawsuit brought by a Santa Barbara County man who had been abused at 13 by a Scout leader eight years ago.

The man had sued BSA for not protecting him from abuse.

What's bad is the settlement appears to keep sealed the files BSA has kept on abuse by adult volunteers from the mid-1980s to 2007. A 2012 abuse case in Oregon made public these so-called "perversion files" from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980, The Washington Post reported.

The plaintiff in the Santa Barbara County case had won access to the more recent files and his attorney used two of them in court proceedings before the BSA settled, news accounts said. The attorney, Tim Hale, said he's optimistic all the files will eventually be opened to the public.

Hale disputed the BSA's assertion that youth protection is critical to the Scouting program, because if that was true, he says families would have known of the more than 5,000 files that are still sealed.

One revelation of the Oregon case is that a third of the cases from the mid-1960s to the mid-'80s were never reported to law enforcement. What portion of the more recent files went unreported, if any, remains a secret.

I agree that Scouting makes youth protection important. I have no perspective on how Scouting used to be, because youth protection was part of the program when our son joined. BSA trains adults in common-sense practices, and requires Scouts and families to read and sign literature before starting the program.

Troops are encouraged to review youth protection videos and talk it at meetings. The message, I imagine, can be uneven from Troop to Troop and Den to Den, but I think ours was diligent about following guidelines.

Though I can't speak to the sealed files, I'd say it's a safe guess that some of them reveal child abuses even after the youth protection measures went into place. The Santa Barbara County abuse case certainly happened while youth protection measures were supposed to protect the Scout.

The Boy Scouts need to own this: Just open the records, let the sun in, even if it shows where protections have failed. Show where the system failed, find out how, apologize, pay the price, fix it and move on.

BSA can do it. The organization has proven more nimble lately despite its century in operation; recognizing Scouts' needs, for example, it has retooled and changed out some merit badges promoting the national STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) movement.
It has done the same with youth protection and can marshal resources to do better.

But now its terrible problems sit in a box somewhere in the dark, full of files with names and incidents of child abuse. Everybody will know it's there, but nobody will ever really know if anything has been done about them, or will ever. Why not excise this cancer?

Here's some of the good news: In California, the Supreme Court now forbids state judges from belonging to youth organizations that practice discrimination. That means Boy Scouts of America, though the high court did not name Scouts in its ban, reached unanimously.

Though BSA changed its policy and began allowing gay Scouts to join in 2013, it still prohibits gay and lesbian adults from serving as leaders. The high court decision closes an exemption made for judges who volunteer with nonprofit youth groups; judges are already prohibited from joining any other group that discriminates.

Some judges expressed outrage, one saying her right to freedom of religion had been impinged, but the high court said, nice try, but no. Discrimination is discrimination. Does membership in Scouting affect judges' rulings? I doubt it. But judges accept a pristine standard for their conduct as arbiters; at least they're expected to.

I see the ban more as a pressure point on BSA to change its policy, which is awkward at least and woefully misinformed at worst. It continues, wrongly, to conflate homosexuality and pedophilia, and reinforces this false distinction through its policy. As if homosexuality is a phase gay Scouts will outgrow.

A Boy Scout council in the Columbus, Ohio, region is making its own moves to change policy, last week announcing it would let each Scout unit in the council decide whether to allow gay and lesbian adult leaders. A report by The Columbus Dispatch indicates some other councils — which are large regional Scouting jurisdictions — in the country have already adopted a similar option.

Of course, the BSA's policy has caused turmoil and split ranks, compelling some Scout volunteers to leave the organization and blast it for abandoning values. How many? It's hard to tell. Scouting reported that membership dropped 6 percent after allowing gay Scouts to join, but said other demographic shifts could also be in play.

But Scouting's values have nothing to do with sexual orientation, nor even religion, despite the requirement that each member accept a higher power.

Ideally, Scouts learn self reliance, learn from failure, learn to love and steward the outdoors, learn a promising career path or two, learn social politics, learn leadership, learn teamwork.
I like to think Scouting played a part in helping our son set goals for his life and resolve to chase them. (And our daughter, though Girl Scouts operates differently and girls seem to lose interest by junior high.)

Ideally, Scouting's distinctive and most powerful value is one that you won't see in the marketing materials: Creating a safe laboratory for boys to fail.

From failure, Scouts learn to admit their mistakes, pick themselves up, review the videotape, and move on, better than before. It's also the most difficult quality for adult leaders to let happen, unfortunately, given our culture for doing all we can to protect children from failure.

Boy Scouts of America can stand to practice what it provides for the nation's young people.

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