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Can We Learn from the Boy Scouts’ Perversion Files?

Can We Learn from the Boy Scouts Perversion Files?Last week the Boy Scouts of America released their records detailing the history of sex abuse in the group.  They titled these files the “perversion files.”  The purpose of the files, kept since at least 1919, was to keep a record of pedophiles to ensure they did not re-enter the organization.

However, they show that some abusers slipped through the cracks, others were given a second chance and include evidence of some failures to take proper steps to report suspected abuse to authorities.

The Boy Scouts have issued an acknowledgement that in some incidents their response was “insufficient, inappropriate and wrong” and have apologized for their mishandling of certain situations.

And let’s not forget that generations of boys have had healthy, positive, life-affirming experiences with the Boy Scouts.  This current report, which involves a small fraction of the millions of volunteers over the years, should not discount the positive aspects of the organization, the skills it has taught and positive values it has instilled in many boys

At the same time, are there lessons to be learned from the report?

It’s not possible to compare incidence and handling of sex abuse in the Boy Scouts to other, similar, organizations, because so few keep detailed records.  But these records give us an opportunity to review and, hopefully, apply lessons learned.

According to Jason Felch, an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, in an interview by Neil Cohen on NPR, the files include handwritten notes from young men. The notes discuss abuse by troop leaders, provide detailed, although sometimes incomplete, accounts of allegations that have emerged over time, and contain some police reports about the allegations as well as discussions among Scouts officials regarding how best to handle allegations.

Awareness of  “acquaintance molestation,” which is what most frequently occurred in the Boy Scouts, crystallized with experts and the general population in the 1980s.  This data, dating from well before that, might help to better understand how these predators operate and is vital to preventing this type of abuse, which may account for as much as two-thirds of sexual abuse.

One aspect of sexual abuse revealed in these files is grooming behavior.  That is, innocent-appearing behaviors often set the stage for abuse.  Felch describes grooming behaviors as often involving predators allowing boys to break rules, then progressing to driving cars, drinking alcohol and watching pornography together.  They escalate to skinny dipping and sharing tents and then culminate in abuse.

Grooming behaviors make it less likely that a victim will report the abuse, because they feel culpable.

Although it’s unlikely that the Boy Scouts will be held criminally responsible for their handling (and in some cases, mishandling) of allegations of abuse, it is likely that many young men who experienced abuse will be triggered by the release of these documents.  It is common, in cases of sexual abuse, that victims face the abuse only years after it has occurred.

This type of abuse often has a lifelong impact on the victims, particularly if victims don’t receive support.  It can alter the course of a young person’s life, lead to other life problems such as various types of addiction, and can cause victims to participate in abuse themselves when they reach adulthood.

What can we learn from the Boy Scouts about stopping this sort of abuse? Kelly Clark, a lawyer who sought for these files to be open, says that child abuse thrives in secrecy.  Opening the files brings the abuse to light and hopefully allows other organizations to learn from it.  For example, in the files, Clark points out cases that were insufficiently investigated or those in which one boy came forward and a leader was removed, but no one questioned whether the abuse went further than that one boy.

The following is a link to the National Sexual Abuse Hotline, a confidential hotline offering counseling and information on rape and sexual abuse.

Although there is no sure fire way to prevent sexual assault, the hotline offers tips to help protect your children here.

Can We Learn from the Boy Scouts’ Perversion Files?

Christy Matta, MA

Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of "The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free You from Needless Anxiety, Worry, Anger, and Other Symptoms of Stress."

Christy has worked in mental health since 1994, is intensively trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy(DBT) and has extensive training in Mindfulness. She is an experienced group leader and trainer in both Mindfulness and DBT Skills Groups. Christy blogs regularly for Psych Central at Dialectical Behavior Therapy Understood.

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APA Reference
Matta, C. (2018). Can We Learn from the Boy Scouts’ Perversion Files?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 21 Oct 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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