SARANAC LAKE - Current and former Boy Scout troop leaders in the Tri-Lakes area say the release of confidential files documenting decades of molestation accusations within the ranks of the Boy Scouts of America could hurt the organization, but they say the necessary safeguards are in place now to hopefully prevent instances of abuse in the future.
Some also defended the BSA's confidential file system as a predecessor of modern programs to keep children safe, although criminal allegations are dealt with more publicly today.
"I think it's inevitable that people will read this sort of stuff and come away with a bad taste in their mouth," said Doug Miller, a former leader of Saranac Lake-based Troop 1, "but I also think that the scouting organization has done a tremendous job of training their leaders and doing anything they can to prevent this kind of activity from occurring."
The Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday released 14,500 pages of secret "perversion files" from between 1959 and 1985. The papers show how an an array of authorities - police chiefs, prosecutors, pastors and local Boy Scout leaders among them - monitored and dismissed scoutmasters and others accused of molesting children or suspected of homosexual activity, but also how they quietly shielded their organization from negative publicity. At the time, those authorities justified the hushing-up as necessary to protect Scouting's good name and good works.
The files, kept at Boy Scouts headquarters in Texas and released as part of a 2010 Oregon civil suit that the Scouts lost, consist of memos from local and national Scout executives, letters from victims and their parents, and newspaper clippings about legal cases. The files contain details about proven molesters but also unsubstantiated allegations. Several cases are from the North Country, including Tupper Lake, Plattsburgh, Peru, Saranac and Port Henry.
Allie Pelletieri, a former Cub Scout and Boy Scout and former leader of Boy Scout Troop 1 in Saranac Lake, said he never witnessed or heard of any incidents of molestation locally within Boy Scouts. However, he said he wasn't surprised at the extent of what's now being alleged, given what's happened in recent years with people in positions of power taking advantage of children. Pelletieri referenced the priest sex abuse scandal, the Jerry Sandusky case and the recent conviction of former Saranac Lake Youth Center Director Michael Scaringe for sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl who frequented the center.
"Unfortunately, it's bad human nature and bad human behavior that these things happen," Pelletieri said. "We can do the best we can, but I don't think we can ever stop it totally. We should keep trying."
"I think any time you're trying to run an organization that's doing youth-sponsored activities, you're going to be preyed upon by individuals like that," Miller said. "In order to avoid that, you have to do the best you can. Personally, I think the Scouting program has done a tremendous job of that."
Current and former Boy Scout leaders say the organization now has rigorous policies and procedures in place to protect young scouts from being abused.
"Since this all happened or since the records were being kept that way, what's occurred is Scouting has developed what we call the youth protection policies and processes that now are the national model for youth protection in youth programs," said Bob Eckert, scoutmaster of Troop 12 in Paul Smiths. "They put a lot of good thought into how to build a system that decreases the likelihood that untoward things would happen at any level."
For example, parents and other volunteers involved with Scouting must undergo background checks and comprehensive training programs, and are required to report suspected abuse to authorities.
"There's also things like, at no point can an adult be alone with a kid anymore," Eckert said. "When I was in Scouts in the 1970s, that wasn't the case. At no point do you have a situation where kids are unsupervised by adults."
Scouts are also taught to use the buddy system, Pelletieri said, and every Boy Scout Handbook includes a separate pamphlet that helps parents speak to their children about youth protection issues.
Eckert acknowledged that some of these measures were likely implemented because the leadership of the Boy Scouts knew it had pedophiles among its ranks. But he doesn't think the incidents went unreported for so long simply because Scouting leaders were trying to protect the organization's good name.
"My read of it is they got into a habit," Eckert said. "Back when this whole thing got started, there was no such thing as child protective services. There weren't the laws that we currently have. I can imagine in an environment such as that, what was said between sensible adults was, 'Look, let's share that information with each other so we don't let these things happen to kids that are under our care.' I don't think it was necessarily motivated by hiding information as it was a system they put in place that habitually got them keeping and sharing this information."
Eckert spoke with the Enterprise by phone Friday afternoon as his scouts were about to begin a weekend paddling trip at Lows Lake. He said enrollment in his troop has been "pretty stable" at about 15 kids in recent years.
Asked if he thinks the allegations of abuse within the Boy Scouts could hurt the organization, either locally or nationally, he said, "Sure," then added that it depends on how it's being reported.
"Part of it will be how (the news media) choose to describe it and handle it," Eckert said. "Do we pillory an organization that clearly has had some problems in the past, learned from it and made some nice adjustments. How do we focus the story? A lot will depend on the quality of the reporting."
The Associated Press contributed background to this report.