5,000 child molesters: the US scout movement's guilty secret

Organisation tries to prevent publication of documents which reveal cover-up of cases

Los Angeles

They call them the "perversion files", and more than 5,000 alleged child molesters aren't the only ones hoping to prevent their hitherto-secret contents ever seeing the light of day.

Boy Scouts of America is at the centre of a growing legal crisis as it attempts to block publication of documents that name and shame the extraordinary number of adults expelled from the organisation amid accusations of sexual misconduct.

Lawyers are fighting efforts to force disclosure of the files, which date back to the 1920s and detail thousands of proven and unproven cases of abuse by scoutmasters and other volunteers.

Critics have compared their efforts to cover up sexual misdemeanours to those that have in recent years led to the Catholic Church paying hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to victims of abuse at the hands of priests.

The potential scale of the scandal was laid bare at the weekend by Richard Turley, a convicted paedophile and former scoutmaster who was able, over two decades, to abuse at least 15 boys in his care. At one point, he kidnapped a boy in a stolen aeroplane, and repeatedly raped him. "It was so easy," Turley said, alleging that scouting officials not only failed to stop him, but sometimes helped to cover his tracks. A call to police in 1975, when he was first found to have abused young Scouts, "probably would have put a stop to me years and years and years ago", he said.

Even after spending 18 months in a psychiatric hospital as a "mentally disordered sex offender", Turley says he was allowed to rejoin the Scouts "as a leader, and offend against the boys".

Turley's story was uncovered by the Los Angeles Times and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which found the 58-year-old working at a motel in Alberta. "The person who was Rick Turley was a monster," he admitted, claiming that he has now learned to control his sexual impulses.

Documents uncovered during the investigation suggest that the laissez-faire attitude adopted towards Turley was in keeping with official scouting policy, which appears to have been primarily designed to keep cases of child abuse out of the headlines. A confidential memo written by the organisation's leadership in 1972 said that scoutmasters accused of paedophilia ought to be quietly asked to leave, rather than being reported to the police. "Indicate [to the accused] that the BSA is not sharing this information with anyone and only wish him to stop all scouting activity," it reads.

Mr A Burford Hill, a former Orange County scoutmaster who helped hush up Turley's case, told the LA Times: "We were following exactly the national recommendations. You do not want to broadcast to the entire population that these things happen. You take care of it quietly."

Victims see things differently. In Oregon, the State Supreme Court is now considering a request by media organisations to force Boy Scouts of America to open a tranche of 1,200 documents detailing alleged incidents of sexual abuse by scoutmasters. They were disclosed at a compensation trial in Portland last year that resulted in a $20m judgement against the organisation. But a court order currently prevents their wider publication.

Boys Scouts of America said it wanted to keep the paperwork secret to protect the identities of victims and wrongly-accused scoutmasters. The so-called "perversion files" are said to hold at least 5,000 entries were opened in the 1920s.

A BSA spokesman said that official policy has been extensively updated since the 1970s. Scoutmasters were now screened for convictions and sent on training courses to help them identify paedophiles in their midst. They are never allowed to be alone with a child and must report allegations of sex abuse to the police, he said.

Timothy Kosnoff, a lawyer who represents seven men who say they were abused by scoutmasters, says the organisation's behaviour echoes that of the Catholic Church. "It's the same institutional reaction: scandal prevention," he said.

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