The Boy Scouts of America prides itself on creating a safe environment for its youth. But an investigation into more than two decades of the organization's internal records reveals that it failed to stop Scout-leader pedophiles from becoming repeat offenders or from re-entering Scouting through a revolving door.
A Scripps news team's examination of 1,881"ineligible volunteer files" dating from 1970 through 1991 shows that the Boy Scouts were plagued by systemic failures that left its young members at risk for decades.
Among the findings:
At least 101 Scout leaders accused of sexual molestation had faced previous allegations of abusing Scouts, but had not been kicked out of the organization.
In at least 88 cases, Scout officials failed to conduct adequate background checks and allowed men with prior criminal convictions, often for child molestation, into Scouting.
- At least 46 men booted from Scouting because of sexual misconduct were later able to return, often by changing troops or moving to another state -- a revolving door for predators.
"It sounds like a breakdown at the high-up level," said Victor Vieth, executive director of the Minnesota-based National Child Protection Training Center.
Vieth, a former prosecutor whose center trains child abuse investigators, said organizations such as the Scouts need to be especially vigilant about pedophiles: "You have to understand the danger. That was the whole point of these files."
In an interview with Scripps, Boy Scouts National President Wayne Perry acknowledged some "terrible failures" in the past when it came to safeguarding Scouts. "It's a failure of judgment. It's a failure of execution. ... It's a failure on many levels," he said.
But Perry, a volunteer and retired Washington state businessman, noted that the confidential files kept out many predators and "protected a lot of kids." He said that the Boy Scouts continue to keep such files as part of a "multilayered approach" to child protection, which includes mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse to authorities.
"No organization has done more to try to help understand the child-abuse situation than the Boy Scouts of America," Perry said.
Many child-protection experts including Vieth say that during the last few decades, the Scout organization has been out front in establishing strict policies to protect children against predators, including barring adults from one-on-one activities with youths and requiring criminal background checks.
But many of those rules didn't exist in the 1970s and 1980s. And even those policies that were in place -- such as the decades-old requirement to put the names of "ineligible volunteers" into the confidential files and cross-reference them with any adult who tried to register -- weren't always followed.
Take the case of Indianapolis Scout leader Thomas Hacker. In 1961, the schoolteacher, then in his mid-20s, was arrested on an assault and battery charge involving Scouts at a campout. A judge dismissed the case. A local Scout executive later wrote that Hacker was removed as a scoutmaster, but that a prominent board member had called to say "that Tom was a fine young man, and asked that he not be placed on our 'red flag' list." Lacking "concrete evidence ... we did not do this, for which I have had many hours of regret."
Hacker joined two other troops before being arrested in 1970 for molesting 51 boys, most of them pupils at his school. He pleaded guilty to one count of assault and battery and was given a suspended sentence.
Hacker was barred from Scouting, and his name put in the Scouts' confidential files. But in 1971, using a fake name, Hacker turned up as a scoutmaster in the Chicago suburbs. Later that year, he was arrested for taking indecent liberties with a child.
When the local Scout council discovered who Hacker really was, they notified the national organization, which again suspended him. "Under no circumstances do we want this man registered in Scouting," the national registration director wrote back.
But by the mid-1980s, Hacker had become a scoutmaster of a Catholic Church-sponsored troop in the Chicago area. He resigned abruptly in October 1987, citing a work promotion and "some personal family situations."
Five months later, Hacker was indicted for sexually abusing a dozen boys, most of them Scouts. A jury convicted him on two counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault and sentenced him to two consecutive 50-year prison terms. Now 76, he's incarcerated at Big Muddy River Correctional Center in Ina, Ill.
Scout records show how Hacker beat the system: He claimed to have been registered in more than one troop, at a time when Scout officials didn't check multiple registrations. When he re-registered, they didn't review the confidential file. And he changed his name or middle initial to avoid detection.
Not all the files illustrate a system breakdown. Some Scout officials acted quickly once they learned a leader had been arrested for child molestation. And in more than a quarter of the cases in which a youth or parent notified Scout officials about an allegation of sexual misconduct, the Scouts contacted authorities.
But Scout files also expose serious communication failures, lack of due diligence and even intentional decisions to protect one of their own -- or give him a break -- rather than bar him from Scouting.
Many of the confidential files share similar threads about Scout leaders took advantage of their prey: plying boys with liquor, showing them pornography, performing "massages," sharing tents or sleeping bags on camping trips.
It wasn't just Scout victims whose lives were affected. Sometimes, whole families were devastated.
Veronica Akins, of Bishop Hills, Texas, said that's what happened when her 13-year-old son was molested by Scout leader Melvin Christopher Estes in the late 1980s. Estes tried to fondle him in the bathroom of the church where the troop met, according to the victim's deposition. Another time, Estes invited him into his bedroom to look at pornographic magazines. He started massaging the boy and tried to take off his pants.
Estes was convicted in 1989 of three counts of aggravated sexual assault and one count of indecency with a child. One of the four victims was Akins' son, Chance Curtis. Estes was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Akins sued the Boy Scouts of America and the local council, claiming they were negligent in allowing Estes to remain a Scout leader. She alleged that they knew he'd been accused of molestation previously, but ignored it and gave him his own troop.
The Boy Scouts argued that Estes was quickly suspended after local officials learned of molestation allegations. The Scouts maintained that while they chartered community-based organizations that sponsored troops, they didn't supervise them or choose Scout leaders.
The mother of four appealed her case all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. It ruled in 1996 that the national organization could not be held responsible, but that the local council -- which recommended Estes for the scoutmaster's job -- could. Akins later agreed to an undisclosed settlement.
Akins said her son, now 37, has never been the same.
"He's been in and out of trouble ever since this mess went on. We took him to several child psychologists," she said. "... He'd always been such a good boy."
Chance Curtis eventually dropped out of high school and became an alcoholic, drug addict and criminal, his mother said. He's serving time in federal prison for a firearms charge.
Akins, 53, who works in the kitchen of a Christian academy and serves as a local alderman, said her son's molestation and her battle with the Scouts led her to "trust basically no one anymore" and scarred her family.
"It tore our family up," she said. "The kids could feel the stress and tension between my husband and I. You feel this anger, but you don't know who to be angry at. It's very destructive to families."
Anna Salter, a psychologist in Madison, Wis., who has authored several books about sex offenders, cautions that even today, strict child protection rules aren't enough.
"Even when you have the best policies, you have individuals who don't follow those policies," said Salter, a consultant to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Sex offenders are good at fooling people, and organizations such as the Boy Scouts or their church-related sponsors sometimes would rather keep quiet than risk a scandal, she added.
"While policies get steadily better, we still have kids being abused because the dynamics haven't changed."
(Contact special correspondent Jenni Bergal at jbergalgmail.com.)