The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) recently announced that, after a two-year review, they were sticking to their long-standing policy of excluding openly gay youth and adults as members and leaders. (This is in stark contrast to the Girl Scouts, who have no exclusionary membership policies around sexual preference.)
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times broke an extremely troubling story about the BSA’s failure to prevent some known and suspected sexual predators from being scout leaders or volunteers, despite an awareness of their abusive behavior.
Examining recently released files from 1970 to 1991, the Times found “more than 125 cases across the country in which men allegedly continued to molest Scouts after the organization was first presented with detailed allegations of abusive behavior.” Some of these repeat offenses were attributed to “clerical errors, computer glitches or the Scouts’ failure to check their own “perversion files,” a confidential blacklist designed to identify potential predators. But the BSA also chronically failed to report complaints of abuse to law enforcement or child protective services.
Earlier disclosures and lawsuits had forced the BSA to create its well-respected Youth Protection program in the late 1980s, which includes criminal background checks of all leaders. There is no way to know for sure how well the Youth Protection program is doing, because the BSA has fought to keep their post-1991 files secret. However, the LA Times reports that it wasn’t until 2010 the BSA required reporting of suspected abuse to authorities, a reversal of prior policies.
Is there a connection between the BSA’s vigorous discrimination against gays and their long history of insufficient efforts to prevent sexual abuse of boys? We don’t know why the BSA continues to exclude gays and lesbians, aside from vague statements about role models and consistency with scouting values. But we do know that there is a fundamental confusion that is common in our society, a confusion that mistakenly equates homosexuality with pedophilia.
The difference is completely clear: Gay men are attracted to adult men, not to boys. Pedophiles are attracted to children—some to boys and some to girls. Sexual assault—we won’t minimize it by calling it “molestation”—is a crime because of lack of consent and abuse of power. Homosexuality between adults is consenting and not an abuse of power. If the Scouts believe they are protecting boys by excluding homosexual leaders, they are sorely mistaken.
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Fortunately, attitudes about the supposed “danger” of homosexuals are changing. According to statistics compiled by the psychology department of UC-Davis, in a survey from 1970, more than 70% of respondents believed that “Homosexuals are dangerous as teachers or youth leaders because they try to get sexually involved with children.” By 1999, the belief that most gay men are likely to molest or abuse children was endorsed by only 19% of heterosexual men and 10% of heterosexual women. We suspect that this number has continued to decline, but we can’t be certain because researchers have now turned towards studying attitudes towards gay marriage—a topic unthinkable in the 1970s and even 1990s.
What we do know is that our country—thanks in large part to a younger generation that is more tolerant and less judgmental than their elders—is on the right path when it comes to ending exclusionary policies towards homosexuals. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney have opposed the BSA’s ban. If the BSA truly wants to “be prepared,” it would be wise to get with the times.