On Sunday the Los Angeles Times published an article exposing the Boy Scouts of America for not reporting to the police hundreds of volunteers and employees suspected of sexually abusing children. Their findings, based on the review of 1600 confidential documents between 1970-1991, even found that, in many cases, the Boy Scouts helped cover up these situations. This news was upsetting to just about everyone, but it hit especially close to home for me because, toward the end of the period The Times looked at (1988-1989), the leader of my troop sexually abused a number of my fellow scouts including my best friend.
I forget whose idea it was initially, but in the sixth grade a bunch of my buddies, including my best friend, “Doug,” decided to join the Boy Scouts. I’d been a Cub Scout previously, so I was down with the idea, especially since my Dad had been a Boy Scout back in the fifties and enjoyed it.
Our first weekly meeting was in the recreation room of a church in town, and that’s where Doug and I first met our Troop Leader. “Leader” was a nerdy, bespectacled man in his twenties who seemed to live for the Boy Scouts. He’d achieved the highest rank attainable for a Boy Scout, Eagle Scout, and told us that we could, too, if we worked hard.
On the way out of that first meeting Leader put his hand on my shoulder and complimented my Boy Scout Handbook, which was the same one my Dad used when he was a scout and miraculously still in good shape despite being nearly forty years old.
“With a handbook like that I bet you’ll be a great scout,” Leader said.
I was not, however, a great scout. I wasn’t very outdoorsy (I’m still not), and preferred goofing around to doing the things necessary to earn badges. As a result my uniform never had more than a few badges on it, something my buddies teased me about mercilessly. As if that wasn’t bad enough, one night I couldn’t find my uniform anywhere, so I instead wore my old Cub Scouts shirt to our meeting. I was prepared to be teased over this big time, but what I’d forgotten was that our Congressman was visiting the troop that night and we were supposed to look perfect. Oops.
My best friend Doug, on the other hand, was a great Boy Scout. He could tie a whole bunch of knots, start a fire, you name it. He also had a whole bunch of merit badges, and was always working to earn another.
I eventually dropped out of the Boy Scouts, but Doug kept at it, and one night a year or so later he invited me to his eagle scout ceremony. The ceremony was terrific, with Leader making a moving speech about how proud he was of Doug, and even though I was just a dumb teenager I felt like I was witnessing a beautiful moment – both a tribute to personal achievement on Doug’s part, and a testament to the wonderful mentorship Boy Scout leaders provide.
But it was all a sham. A few years ago my dad called me with shocking news. He’d stumbled across an article in the newspaper about the arrest of Leader on child molestation charges. Even more shocking than that? My childhood best friend, Doug, was the victim who went to police after keeping the abuse to himself for nearly two decades. More victims soon came forward, including a couple other boys who were in the troop with us.
After hearing this news I wracked my mind to try and remember anything that might have hinted at this abuse. I was Doug’s best friend, after all. If anyone was to know what was up, it was me. But after meditating on it a long time I came up with… nothing. All I could remember was reciting lines from “The Naked Gun,” debating just how big a megamouth shark was, and other silly kid stuff.
I had an even harder time remembering anything askew about Leader. Though I hadn’t really clicked with the guy, I never thought he was anything but on the up and up. I fully bought into the notion he was just a former Boy Scout who loved the Scouts so much that he would do anything to stay part of the organization.
It had been many years since I last saw Doug by the time he came forward, but I felt terrible nonetheless. My strongest emotion was sadness for all the pain he had to endure. It was difficult to imagine my sweet, innocent friend, and then to imagine the horrible things Leader was eventually convicted of having done to him.
My second strongest emotion, though, was guilt. What good was I as Doug’s best friend if I couldn’t help him? I wondered if there were signs that I was just too obtuse to recognize. I fretted over the idea that, if I had been a little less caught up in my own little world, he might have confided in me. Even though I knew I was just a kid then and this was all incredibly heavy stuff, I still felt like I had failed Doug in some way; like I had been a bad friend.
I carried this weight with me for a while until it dawned on me that Doug’s parents, evidently, were just as in the dark as I was, and they weren’t bad parents. They were very involved in Doug’s life and loved him very much. The problem, I finally realized, wasn’t with me or his parents or anyone else close to him. The problem was with the nature of child abuse, and how in so many instances, it’s invisible – even to those closest to the victim. Victims often guard their secret closely, and abusers are masterminds at hiding their depravity, as this disturbing article on Jerry Sandusky explains.
This is why the news of the cover up by the Boy Scouts is so infuriating. Bringing down a child abuser is damn hard, and in the rare event that an abuser makes a mistake and reveals himself, we must do everything we can to bring them to justice (something the Boy Scouts could have done, but instead looked away). I don’t care if you’re a big shot football coach, the directors of a powerful nationwide organization like the Boy Scouts, or even the Pope. There is no excuse for letting a pedophile go free… because far too many already are, and all too often none of us – not even the closest friends and family of their victims – have the faintest clue.