There were two disturbing pieces of news that broke last week that, if you’re a scouter, have to alarm you.
The first is that membership for both Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts has declined radically since 2019.
The second is that the organization settled a class-action suit involving more than 84,000 people, dating back to the 1960s, alleging abuse for $850 million. Boy Scouts of America had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year as it sought to figure out the legal costs of defending itself against these allegations.
I’m well aware that opinions on these two issues are pretty much all over the board. Some, with justification, will simply say — in both cases — “Good enough for them.” And that’s fine. One sexually-abused kid, let alone 84,000 of them, is too many. Organizations whose aims are to provide healthy and wholesome environments for kids cannot be too vigilant about weeding out predators who infiltrate their inner core of leadership. Others may be more inclined to show sympathy to an organization that tries to do good things and yet ends up victimized by these predators.
I’ve been there in many different groups. Because of sexual predators — not just in Scouts but in other youth groups — anyone who volunteers now needs not only to be CORI’d (Criminal Offender Record Information), but they need to take classes and seminars on how to prevent these types of occurrences. I’ve had to fill out CORI forms just to be a merit-badge counselor in scouts, a Little League official, an umpire and a religious education instructor. As a catechist for St. Pius, I had to take a “Protecting God’s Children” seminar (talk about irony!)
It’s easy, I guess, for people who haven’t had the experience to fold their arms, scowl and say “yeah? It wasn’t enough. You should have done more.” My question is “such as …?” It’s not as if people ask to join your organization and list “predator” as one of their qualifications.
Since this is strictly a column about scouts, and not the church or Little League, or some other youth group that might attract predators, we’ll stay with them. My son’s an Eagle Scout, the commissioner of a troop in Lynn and on several boards committees in the regional district which includes the city. My wife has been a volunteer for 30 years as well. Andrew ran a day camp in Topsfield, with my wife as the business agent. Two of our closest friends were right there next to us. Yes, us, because I worked at the camp canteen.
There’s no denying that the scouts are culpable for anything that happens under their banner and on their watch. That’s the risk you take when you assume responsibility for children, even if it’s only for a couple of hours a week. But I think it’s also true that — at least 60 years ago — a lot of these scout leaders may have been well-intentioned and naive. I wonder if it ever occurred to any of them that people would be so twisted as to work for the Boy Scouts so they could get near enough to kids to molest them.
I hope that’s what it was, because to acknowledge that there is systematic sexual abuse in your organization and then have it happen right under your nose is close to being criminal.
These days, we know better. Or, at least, we should. There have been so many high-profile instances of sexual abuse within these groups that it would be impossible not to know better. The situation 20 years ago with Chris Reardon, a camp counselor and religious education teacher who was found to be a serial predator, had to be the ultimate eye-opener for even the most naive of people. Some of the things that came out of his trial were sickening.
Where this all goes, I don’t think anybody knows. But it’s heartbreaking to people who have the best intentions for working in scouting, because it taints them too. That is patently unfair. But you can’t deny it.
I don’t know if the decline in membership is solely due to the sexual abuse situation, but I’m sure that’s a big part of it. Organizations like Boy Scouts aren’t for everybody. Anybody’s open to join, but there are rules and there are activities that just don’t interest kids as much as other, less-structured, things might.
I can only go by my own childhood 60 years ago. I joined Cub Scouts when I was 8, and lasted two years. I had other things to do, and didn’t have the inclination to be that structured after a day in school. There are a lot of kids who just fall by the wayside because they feel scouts aren’t the coolest things to be. That’s certainly what I thought.
But still, a 43 percent dip in members from 2019 to 2020, COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding, is severe. And according to the Associated Press, the organization has lost 762,000 more members since those original figures were obtained. Similarly, the Girl Scouts have lost 30 percent of their membership. I’d guess that the same reasons apply to them.
Even on the North Shore, membership has decreased and entire troops have dried up or consolidated with others.
The sad thing is that even though these organizations (in their purest form) aren’t for everybody, they really help the ones who take to them. And they teach valuable lessons, and give kids who often lack confidence a better sense of themselves by providing plenty of goals and the tools to accomplish them.