SEATTLE, Wash. (KING) - Investigators have obtained secret files once locked up inside one of the country's most trusted youth organizations: the Boy Scouts of America.
Since 1919 the Scouts have been compiling files on Scout leaders-scoutmasters, assistant scoutmasters and other volunteers from across the country-accused of sexually abusing children; many of whom were young scouts in their troops.
The files number in the thousands.
For decades, only top Scouting officials knew about the files, which are often referred to as the "perversion files".
Each one contains details on a different Scout leader suspected of abusing children.
The records include police reports, victim statements, notes on phone calls with parents, newspaper clippings, and official letters from the Scouts organization alerting the suspected molester that he'd been banned from Scouting for life.
The original idea for keeping these files was a good one.
The Boy Scouts of America wanted a type of blacklist which the Scouts officially call the ineligible volunteer list.
The intention was to kick alleged molesters out of the program and to make sure they didn't sneak back in through another troop or state.
NBC affiliate KING 5 obtained 50 of the files which all stem from cases in Washington state.
They range from 1974 to 1991 and involve leaders from dozens of different troops.
In some cases in Washington state Scout leaders quietly removed accused abusers from their positions and put them on the ineligible volunteer list, without alerting law enforcement.
The sample of files obtained by the KING 5 Investigators show that in most cases the Scouts found out about sex crimes from media reports and law enforcement.
As the decades progressed, Scouting officials with access to the perversion files, kept in locked cabinets at Scout headquarters in Irving, Texas, had amassed thousands of files.
Their own records showed sex abuse inside Scouting wasn't isolated to one or two parts of the country.
It was rampant in every state including Washington.
Attorneys representing Scouts in abuse cases say this collection of confidential files should have prompted the Scouts to be pro-active in preventing more abuse.
"The files grew from tens to hundreds to thousands. They ended up having a body of knowledge probably unlike any youth serving institution in the United States; demonstrating that pedophiles were infiltrating their ranks," said Mike Pfau.
Pfau is a Seattle attorney who has represented dozens of former Scouts in sex abuse cases.
By the 1960s Pfau and other critics say the Scouts had enough files to know they needed to act to protect their young scouts, but instead of instituting safety policies and alerting parents and volunteers that the program was a magnet for pedophiles, Pfau says the Scouts circled the wagons to protect the Boy Scout brand.
"The Boy Scouts of America had an institutional knowledge that pedophiles were infiltrating their ranks, molesting their scouts, and they knew about it, long before they took appropriate measures to protect kids," said Pfau.
In a letter posted on the Boy Scouts website, three top Scouting executives wrote that the files are being mischaracterized.
"While some people have attempted to categorize these files as a treasure trove of information about pedophiles and their actions, that simply is not the case. Despite the important role in identifying unfit adults for involvement in Scouting, the IV (ineligible volunteer) files tell us precisely what researchers already knew and have known for many years: There never has been a profile of a child sexual offender," wrote the officials.
The Scouts say protecting kids was exactly why the files were confidential. "It is a fact that Scouts are safer because the barrier created by these files is real," former Scouts Chief Executive Robert Mazzuca said in a YouTube video posted on the organization's website. "We have kept these files confidential because we believe victims deserve protection and that confidentiality encourages prompt reporting of questionable behavior, removes the fear of retribution and ensures victims and their families the privacy that they deserve," said Mazzuca.
In a written statement the Scouts also admit they could have done better in some cases.
"The BSA's (Boy Scouts of America's) system of ineligible volunteer files functions to help protect Scouts. However, we also know that in some instances we failed to defend Scouts from those who would do them harm. There have been instances where people misused their positions in Scouting to abuse children, and in certain cases, our response to these incidents and our efforts to protect youth were plainly insufficient, inappropriate, or wrong."
Critics say the Scouts actions and inaction follow in the footsteps of the Catholic Church; ten years after that scandal broke.
"Keeping information secret, focusing on protecting brand or reputation over protecting children and not placing the protection of kids first, I think those are all similarities between the Catholic Church scandal and what's going on with the Boy Scouts of America now," said Pfau.
The Scouts are quick to point out they now have a strong Youth Protection Program and rigorous policies in place to prevent abuse against children. Some of the safeguards include:
- Mandatory background checks for staffers.
- Mandatory background checks for all volunteers.
- All suspected abuse must be reported to law enforcement.