June 8, 2023
By Cara Kelly
Cara Kelly is an editor at the Investigative Reporting Workshop and adjunct professor of journalism at American University.
Last month, the attorney general of Illinois released the results of a years-long investigation into child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, revealing 348 more abusers in the state than the church had previously disclosed — and nearly 2,000 child victims.
This was the latest of more than 20 similar reports that began with a 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury statement on more than 300 abusive priests and 1,000 child victims. In April, Maryland’s investigation detailed abuse by 150 clergy members against more than 600 victims.
Alarming as they are on their own, these reports also point to another child sexual abuse case that is even bigger — and ongoing — and yet has never been as thoroughly examined.
This one involves the Boy Scouts of America, and it is the largest instance of child sexual abuse in a single organization in U.S. history. More than 82,000 abuse claims were made in the Scouts’ recent bankruptcy.
The Scouts scandal and those of the Catholic Church overlap in part because, in the 1980s, the Boy Scouts shifted the burden of screening its volunteers to the religious and civic groups that sponsor individual troops and packs. And these charter organizations include the Catholic Church.
Yet child sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts has routinely been ignored by law enforcement and politicians. Only one state attorney general, Dana Nessel of Michigan, is investigating.
Congress has authority over the Boy Scouts; the organization was congressionally chartered in 1916. But Congress has never investigated. Even after Michael Johnson, the Scouts’ former head of youth protection, wrote a letter in 2021detailing how the institution remains unsafe for children and begging lawmakers to act, they remained quiet.
This was not the first time Congress avoided the issue. In 2018, House members wrote to the Boy Scouts asking why the organization was lobbying against child sexual abuse laws. In response, Michael Surbaugh, then the Scouts chief executive,said, “at no time in our history have we ever knowingly allowed a sexual predator to work with youth.”
This statement was false, easily disproved and quickly retracted. But after following up just once more in a letter requesting additional information on the group’s lobbying practices, House members let the matter drop, never pursuing the initial request — nor the falsehoods received in return.
Lawmakers might have been hesitant to act because of the Scouts’ century-old reputation — its legacy of good works and its history of mentoring future leaders. Boy Scouts have gone on to become presidents, Supreme Court justices, astronauts and cultural icons. And scouting has given millions of American children a chance to learn new skills, camp and explore the great outdoors.
Since at least 1919, the Boy Scouts have kept track of abuse allegations through internal records known as the “Ineligible Volunteer Files.” Portions of these were released in 2012 as evidence in a landmark civil case on child sexual abuse that resulted in a nearly $20 million verdict against the Scouts. But the public has yet to see most of the Scouts’ records of abuse from the past 104 years.
One shield for the organization has been bankruptcy, which the Scouts exited this past April. Abuse claims are what landed the Scouts in bankruptcy court, but most discussion of the cases involved took place behind closed doors. Depositions were taken in private. The files were deemed confidential.
At one point, abuse survivors grew so frustrated by the Scouts’ failure to acknowledge the damage inflicted on them, they wrote hundreds of letters to the judge, describing suicide attempts, drug and alcohol abuse, difficulty holding jobs, trouble maintaining relationships, distrust in authority, and years spent in therapy.
Many said they hoped that by sharing their experiences they might prevent future abuse. Yet the clerk of court redacted the letters. Entire paragraphs describing abuse were obscured, along with names and locations. The word “rape” was blacked out.
Survivors are left to wonder whether their assailants are still working with kids.
In his letter to Congress in 2021, Johnson said insufficient reference checks and decades-long inadequate criminal background checks leave all children in Scouts programs — now including girls and boys as young as 5 — in danger. Because charters such as the Catholic Church are unaccountable, and because Scouts and the public lack access to all charters’ internal lists of identified abusers, known offenders are still volunteering for the Scouts, Johnson said.
The Archdiocese of Chicago said that all abuse allegations against clergy are reported to civil authorities, and substantiated allegations are posted to their website. Archdiocese leaders said they had no reason to believe that information on abusive priests has ever been withheld from the Boy Scouts.
More than 500 abuse claims filed in the bankruptcy court happened in Catholic troops and packs, a record second only to that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Half of claimants didn’t report their charter.)
Two priests who were deemed credibly accused by the Illinois investigators were also Scout leaders. In Pennsylvania there were four such priests. And in Maryland there were 12. Among these was Father Anthony Joseph Maskell, a priest and Scouts volunteer who had been transferred from parish to parish over “troubling behavior with children, including a fascination with the sexual fantasies and behavior of Boy Scouts,,” according to the Maryland report.
Maskell’s name doesn’t appear in the Scouts’ publicly released Ineligible Volunteer Files. None of the priests named in the three state reports do. Were they added later? Did Catholic officials never tell the Scouts? Or were Scouts part of a coverup?
The Boy Scouts declined to comment.
These are only a few of the questions the public lacks answers to, in part because the Scouts, governed by a board of high-profile people (former defense secretary Robert M. Gates was president from 2014 to 2016), have failed to come clean. And because no elected officials, save Nessel, have taken the trouble to ask.
As part of their bankruptcy settlement, the Boy Scouts agreed to enhanced child protection procedures, including the formation of a Youth Protection committee (whose members include abuse survivors) and a comprehensive review of its youth protection training. It also agreed to work with the committee on a protocol to make public the names of confirmed past and future child abusers. In April, the Scouts appointed a new youth protection executive.
Yet in May, a Boy Scout camp employee was indicted on federal charges for possessing and distributing child pornography that was created with a hidden camera in a camp bathroom.
With their investigations into the church complete, state attorneys general should turn their sights on the Boy Scouts. Congress, for its part, should heed Johnson’s call to investigate, demand the release of the Ineligible Volunteer Files, and ensure that the Scouts’ bankruptcy commitments to enhanced protections and public accountability are enforced.