Late last week news broke of some 14,500 pages of files kept by The Boy Scouts of America filled with allegations of sexual abuse. The files, released on a website by an Oregon attorney, include graphic accounts of abuse with more than 1200 names of victims — spanning the entire country — in abuses that took place between 1959 and 1985.
One wonders if this is only the first shoe.
Dubbed the “Perversion Files” by the organization’s insiders, the documents also include lists of scout leaders under suspicion of being gay. The Boy Scouts have had a bigoted stance against the LGBT community and a history of intolerance toward those who are atheist or agnostic. (Although, curiously, as this episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit explains, the Scouts were not always so closed-minded until they became very closely aligned with the Mormon church.)
But this latest news about the nation’s largest, private, youth organization is by far the most damning.
As a survivor of sexual abuse, news like this always shakes me and angers me to my core. As grizzly as the cover-up at Penn State was, the very scope of Scoutgate is in another league entirely. This is Catholic Church territory. So here we are — again. Another venerable organization is exposed for its conspiracy to cover up heinous crimes against its own members, most of them children at the time.
As this quote from the New York Times explains:
An effort to look back could be long and tortuous, if the files themselves are a measure. In their often chaotic babble of memos, lists and smudgy, photocopied newspaper clippings, often as not there is a lack of clarity about whether an accused scout leader was exonerated, convicted or neither.
Consider, for example, a letter sent in August 1981 by a father of three scouts in western Colorado and placed in one of the “perversion files,” as they were called, or “ineligible volunteer” folders, as they were officially known. The man wrote in despair to scouting supervisors: a local scout leader, referred to in the letter as Joe, had sexually abused boys in his troop, including the writer’s own sons, and yet was still being allowed to have contact with other scouts.
Joe had been spotted at a big scout gathering called a jamboree, the letter said, wearing a leather name tag like all other scoutmasters. “Your assurances that Joe was out of scouting and would have no further contact with scouting have just become meaningless,” he wrote. “Do you care about my distress over watching Joe insidiously get back?”
Since coming out as a survivor of sexual abuse, I often talk with and get emails from other survivors as well as people who know and love survivors. One of the first things people always want to talk about is, essentially the secrecy. How do you find the courage to come forward? How do you find the strength to speak your truth out loud? What do you do when people don’t believe you? And, one of the worst questions: What do you do when you tell someone and they do nothing?
Unfortunately, it is an all too frequent experience of survivors that when they finally get the courage to tell someone they are met with enormous resistance and sometimes downright cruelty. In fact, it is common that people will not believe you. They will challenge the veracity of your claims. (Some tips on how not to do that.) Like the insulting recriminations hurled at rape survivors, sexual abuse survivors must often endure the question of “but did you do something to encourage it?” or “What did you do to try and stop it?” As if the experience of being molested is simply a factor of being in the wrong place at the wrong time while also wearing the wrong thing/doing something to bring it on yourself.
Victim-blaming is more de rigueur for a survivor of any form of sexual violence.
And so it is no wonder that as survivors struggle in those early moments to remember how to breathe, how to put one foot in front of the other, and which direction is up that they fear the truth. We fear it for ourselves. We fear telling others. We fear the hatred, the retaliation. We fear that no one will believe us.
And that is why as news breaks about another organization engaging in a cover-up of this nature I am equally horrified and unfazed. Indeed, what Scoutgate and Penn State and the Catholic Church show us is how pervasive the desire to cover-up sexual abuse goes in our society. It taints our religious institutions. It taints our youth groups. It taints our sports entertainment. As a culture, we have so turned our back on survivors of sexual abuse that we cannot even bear to hear their stories, see their faces, or even read their names. We are a culture who hate the victims even as we say that we want to find them justice from the true villains.
But with each new chapter in our country’s book on sexual abuse crimes, my Pollyanna spirit remains strong. As gruesome as the Scout scandal is, I believe it offers us an opportunity to face the truth about sexual violence. As people are sickened by not just the crimes but also the conspiracy to keep it quiet, I pray that empathy moves us forward. These organizations who keep things quiet to protect themselves are actually harboring criminals. And when they hush victims, it is the same as the perpetrator who puts a hand over a victim’s mouth to stifle the screams. A perpetrator often forces a victim to swear to secrecy and then when organizations like The Boy Scouts cover-up such crimes, they make a victim have to swear to yet another oath to protect someone else. And in all these secrets, it is the perpetrator who wins. Because while the act of sexual violence is disgusting, carrying around the secret of it is equally devastating to a survivor.
I can only hope that a burden is being lifted from so many survivors. As hard as it is to have your personal horror story exposed to the world, there is a liberation in being freed from the bonds of keeping that secret. And I pray for swift and example-making justice for the survivors. The conviction of Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky was validating for those survivors. The Scout survivors deserve the same.
Originally posted (by me) on Fem2.0.