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The Boy Scouts’ Bankruptcy, and the Scourge of Childhood Sex Abuse

During my many years as an academic, roughly half my time was devoted to research and clinical work with convicted sex offenders, many of whom had sexually abused children. The experience was harrowing. And my decision to eventually shift research areas accompanied the realization that I had numbed myself emotionally as a coping mechanism.

Thankfully, everything I learned from those days stayed with me. I say “thankfully” because, while I don’t miss the negative emotional effects, the knowledge I gained allowed me to understand the truth about child sex abuse with a clarity that I wish every parent could be afforded. The sexual abuse of boys, in particular, is much more prevalent than many realize.

I wasn’t terribly shocked to learn that the Boy Scouts of America recently declared bankruptcy as the result of hundreds of sex-abuse lawsuits. The Scouts have spent over $150 million on legal costs and settlements to date. The abuse allegations span a century. According to Boy Scout documents disclosed during litigation, more than 12,000 boys have been abused by at least 7,800 individuals since the 1920s.

The #MeToo movement brought increased awareness of the abuse and assault endured by girls and women. But boys and men who’ve been abused still often lack support. In some cases, they can even endure negative stigma when they go public with their trauma. Authors of a 2011 meta-analysis, drawn from more than 200 global sources published between 1980 and 2008, estimated that 7.6 percent of surveyed males had self-reported an experience of childhood sexual abuse (compared with 18 percent of surveyed females).

The widespread belief that those who abuse children were themselves child sex-abuse victims should be taken with a grain of salt, as some sex offenders have been known to exploit this correlation to gain sympathy. In fact, the underlying root causes differ widely among abusers. Some are clinically identified pedophiles—men who experience sexual attraction to prepubescent children. (In the case of female perpetrators, the abuse has less to do with sexual attraction and is typically at the request of a male partner.) Not all child molesters are pedophilic. In some cases, the abusers are unable to find a consenting adult partner, or act under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or have antisocial personality disorder.

It should also be noted that not all pedophiles act on their desires. But sex offenders who are pedophilic tend to have a greater number of child victims, and are more likely to victimize individuals outside their family.

Sexual abuse rarely takes the stereotypical form of lecherous old men luring children to their homes or vehicles. What stood out among the abusers I studied was how young many were, and how outwardly well-adjusted they seemed. They were usually connected to their victims in some pre-existing way, and were trusted by the child’s family. Usually, there had been clear warning signs regarding their motivations—for those who knew how to identify them. In many cases, I learned, parents exhibit willful blindness, because they don’t want to believe that such a horrible thing can be true.

Parents tend to be more protective of their daughters than their sons. They are more vigilant about where their girls spend their time, and whom they’re with. Boys often can become easier targets for sexual predators because parents simply don’t equip their sons with the same level of understanding about what sexual abuse looks like, and what they should do if they find themselves in an unwanted situation. Early identification of such predators is particularly important because studies show that offenders who abuse boys are more likely to commit further sexual offenses than those who abuse girls.

Potential abusers will go to great lengths to be friendly and relatable to children. They will invest time in becoming part of a child’s life, so as to gain parents’ trust and lay the groundwork for future abuse. Another common tactic is to lavish a child with money or gifts, and make the child welcome opportunities to be in the abuser’s company.

Other signs of grooming include non-sexual physical contact with the child in front of other adults, as a way of conveying to the child that being touched by the abuser is acceptable. An abuser also will encourage a child to share secrets, which later can be used as blackmail to prevent the child from reporting abuse. Male predators often seek out single mothers who might be looking for a father figure for their children, or who are simply happy to have someone help with child care.

If a child you know describes an experience of being abused, you should believe them. Emphasize that the abuse was not their fault. Actively take steps to ensure that the child isn’t abused again, and that the abuser doesn’t victimize others. Don’t assume that simply notifying the parents is where this task ends. When I was a researcher, I frequently encountered parents who took an alleged abuser’s side over the account provided by their own child.

Children frequently internalize sexual abuse as shameful, blaming themselves for what happened. Boys, in particular, will question what the abuse says about their own strength and masculinity. Many will act out by becoming physically aggressive, hypersexual or turning to drugs and alcohol as a means of coping.

Parents should have age-appropriate conversations with their children beginning early in life, in private, away from any potential victimizer. Teach children that their body is theirs alone, and they should tell a parent if anyone touches them inappropriately. Child predators sometimes will threaten to harm a child’s parents as a way to keep them quiet. Children should know that nobody can hurt their parents and there should never be any secrets.

The Boy Scouts of America’s bankruptcy represents not only the decline of one organization, but also symbolizes the larger failure of a tragically negligent approach to dealing with child sex abuse in churches, schools, sports leagues, and countless other institutions. Even now, in fact, many of us still don’t know how to talk honestly and constructively about the realities of sexual abuse. Until we do, many victims will continue to needlessly suffer in silence.



Debra W. Soh holds a Ph.D. in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science and politics of sex. Follow her at @DrDebraSoh.

Featured Image: Library of Congress, 1937.

Filed under: Top Stories


Debra W Soh has a PhD in sexual neuroscience from the University of York. Her dissertation was in... She is also a sex writer with columns in The Globe and Mail, Playboy, LA Times among others. She is based in Toronto.


  1. parents exhibit willful blindness, because

    some homosexual paedophiles take on a mentoring & caregiving role in the groomed boy’s life.

    It might sound crude, but these phenomena can also be analysed from an economic viewpoint: what gets exchanged for what? what do the parents get in exchange for their willful blindness?

  2. Horrific. Thank you for the tips Dr Soh.

    With regards to the case, is an organization always responsible for the illegal conduct of its employees while on the job, or must they also have covered up wrong-doing?

  3. This all so tragic given that the history of almost every human culture, proves that teenage boys need admission to exclusively male society to socialise into roles of healthy stoicism and male responsibility. No one else will tell you that a many of man’s burdens are only to be articulated in the exclusive company of other men.

  4. I spent four years in the Boy Scouts and it was a great experience, the leaders were all fathers of other boys in the group, and they were good people, gave a lot of their time. It was in a small town where everyone knew everyone else, so you couldn’t get away with anything deviant for long, esp. in a community based organization with a number of leaders who knew each other well. Of course, in those days deviance encompassed a much wider net than it does now.

  5. (In the case of female perpetrators, the abuse has less to do with sexual attraction and is typically at the request of a male partner.

    Good God! Try searching Google News for ‘teacher, sex.’ You’ll find out that at least one woman teacher is arrested every week in the United States for having sex with a student - some as young as middle school. The include single, married, just married, teachers of special ed classes, coaches, assistant teachers, no to mention the administrators. They range from just out of college to their fifties, many sharing photos and videos of themselves with their intended darlings. They have sex with their students in their classrooms, supply rooms, their cars and trucks, the students’ homes and their own - including the married women. So … no. Definitely no.

  6. My brother is a former boy scout leader in a northeastern state, in a community that is predominately white, middle class and liberal.

    He stopped working with the scouts in recent years and he told me it was not because of the sexual abuse scandals, but because he was fed up with the boys’ fathers, few of whom bothered to involve themselves in their sons’ activities with the scouts, and rarely volunteered to help with camping trips or anything else.

    Although he did not say this, it appeared to me that he, in his capacity as a scout leader, resented being used as a convenient babysitter. He could have carried on, of course, on the principle that slight exposure to an interested father-figure was better than no exposure at all for the boys, but the years - and there had been a good many years - finally weighed too heavily, and so he retired from the scouts.

    I suspect this has played out in many parts of the US in exactly this way, although there are certainly regional differences, and even differences within regions. Some scout troops are blessed with charismatic leaders and interested, involved fathers. I’ve run into some of them in states like Texas.

    But I think my brothers’ experience is symptomatic of a slow, wide-spread dying of interest in the American people for the whole scouting thing, quite apart from the sexual abuse scandals.

  7. “…the larger failure of a tragically negligent approach to dealing with child sex abuse in churches, schools, sports leagues, and countless other institutions.”

    I sometimes wonder how any organization that works with children can afford liability insurance these days.

  8. You need a better parser…may I suggest yacc?

    Employees present real risks – when they do bad things to customers or fellow employees, lawsuits follow against the employer even if the employer didn’t have a policy or otherwise condone it.

    Significant government-mandated scheduling and benefits requirements – these are healthcare insurance, minimum wage, fair scheduling laws (so you can change schedules with the flexibility some businesses require), overtime pay, vacation pay, sick pay, maternity/paternity leave, max hours, equal pay without respect to work quality or experience or even because one is more likable/agreeable/personable/etc, unemployment, rules for firing even when working “at will” (wrongful termination), rules for hiring and what questions you can ask, allowable hair styles or dress codes…the list is extensive.

    all part of the drive to replace workers when they can – when you can use a machine or tool to reduce people, they choose them over people.

  9. Yet Another C Compiler?

    all part of the drive to replace workers when they can – when you can use a machine or tool to reduce people, they choose them over people.

    This is what I really needed to understand you; thank you for all the effort you put into it.

  10. I was actively involved in Boys Scout as an Assistant Cubmaster and Assistant Scoutmaster from the time my son was a Tiger Scout (1st grade) until he received his Eagle at age 18. During my time in the organization, BSA was extremely concerned about sexual abuse. All parent volunteers were required to take a course on identification of sexual abusers every year and we gave courses to the scouts every year on the same thing. We were always told to NEVER be alone with a scout other than our child. Scouts were always encouraged to report any instance of possible abuse to an adult leader.

    I don’t doubt that instances of sexual abuse occurred and I was not around in the 1920’s when some of the alleged instances being discussed occurred. But very sadly, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Scouts has had a tremendous positive impact on millions of boys, including my son. It is one of the very few organizations in which kids are encouraged and taught to make their own decisions. Watching a group of ten to twelve year old boys decide on a menu for a campout and decide who cooks and who cleans is a bit like watching sausage being made. But when left alone the kids actually pull it off. This is an increasingly rare thing in these days of bubble-wrapped children. The years from 10-18 are extremely important in the emotional development of boys and the positive impact of scouts on kids of this age cannot be overestimated.

    Scouts has been under attack from the left for a long time and this latest battle may finish it off. But well-intentioned people like Debra Soh only see one side. They blind themselves to the benefits of helping boys navigate the path to adulthood. I encourage her to learn more about scouts and scouting. More bubble wrap is not the solution.

  11. Our troop always had lots of adult volunteers. Part of the fun of scouts was that they were really great guys and gals. Heck, I enjoyed the campouts as much as my son did!!! But I live in a conservative community. It might be different in blue world

  12. I lot of good information here. Thank you.

    Here’s how my situation went down:

    My scoutmaster was, in fact, fairly young; 24. He was a “pillar of the community,” a straight-a science student at the local university who sang in a Lutheran church choir. He also ran a hell of a troop, one of the best in the state, literally; we went on monthly campouts, including in bitterly cold winter months, toughening us up. Each year we embarked on either a 50-mile canoe trip or hike, somewhere out of state. Our troop was extremely competitive in things like the Klondike Derby (where my patrol was on track for 1st place until — ugh, the shame! — I failed to tie … a square knot; don’t ask, it’s a terrible memory; we came in 7th).

    We looked up to this man, even though among us boys we talked about how “weird” he was. He had a couple “special” friends among us scouts, including a boy who was his charge through the “Big Brother” program. He rented a room in the house of another scout.

    He began to groom me when I was 12. An age at which I was sexually aware, and terrified that no girl would ever want to have sex with me … why would one, right? Here comes the scoutmaster, gently asking whether I’d like to become one of his “special” friends, which would mean outings together, just the two of us, and so on. He started giving me rides home from meetings at night, and once, leaned over and tried to kiss me (which I found repulsive, and fled his car).

    Then, on a campout, he happened to see a bunch of us boys (this was the mid-70s) “streaking,” and he decided it was time to make his move with me, and, as it happened, another, younger boy he’d been grooming.

    He pulled us into a car together and said he’d liked what he saw, and became semi-explicit in his proposal. We could still like girls, he said; he’d teach us how to “be” with girls; we’d be “bisexual.”

    And for whatever reason — I was an in-your-face kid, not like the quiet, shy types he usually targeted — I knew in that moment that I didn’t want what he was selling. Not even judgment at that point, I just didn’t want it. So I told him “No,” whereupon the younger boy agreed, and we fled the car.

    That evening, the younger boy and I had talked, learned how this grooming had gone. Poor kid had endured a lot more kissing, because he was shy and didn’t know how to say “no.”

    I was 12. I loved summer camp. I decided I would wait the few months until camp, then tell my father when I came home. In the meantime, my scoutmaster began to terrify me, approaching me in a semi-panic and offering to “hypnotize” me to forget. But in the end, I endured, and I went to camp, had fun, came home, and told my father.

    My father notified troop leaders and we had a meeting. The troop leaders, a prominent dentist and lawyer in the community, told me I must be mistaken. I was making it up. They’d never heard such a thing, but they’d “look into it.”

    They did NOTHING. A year later, the scoutmaster was nailed, red-haned, for raping a kid, and in a few months, he was convicted and sent up the river for eight years. He got out on parole and promptly reoffended in a neighboring county, where he had — crucial point — been allowed to join another troop.

    Fast forward to 2012. The LA Times scoops up the documents revealing the Boy Scouts of America’s “perversion files,” and, lo and behold, my old paper does a big story, puts my abuser on the front page, even his photo. Why? Because he was one of the most egregious examples of BSA’s knowingly allowing men who were in their “perversion files” to continue in scouting. Police reports indicated that he had at least approached nearly everyone in our troop.

    Meanwhile, the troop leaders I’d told my story to in 1975, who called me a liar, claimed not to know a thing about this until police informed them a year later.

    This spring, I interviewed the troop leader who still survived (the other had died). He told me I “must be mistaken,” because he knew that he didn’t know a thing about my scoutmaster until 1976. Except then he remembered something, a document that, based on my story, would confirm (he thought) I was wrong. When he found it and came back to the phone, he was shaken. I had been right, and he was wrong: I had warned him and the other man a year before they had taken this seriously, allowing my scoutmaster to brutally (really) abuse many more boys. That man was shaken and apologetic; he died in August, sadly.

    For those of you who insist on standing up for BSA, and claiming it was just a few bad apples: The BSA knew my troop’s ruthless rapist and abuser was a problem years before it allowed him to repeatedly assume leadership positions in troops, including, incredibly, after his first conviction and release.

    To all you who want to defend BSA and feel sorry for the organization, I have a couple of choice words for you, but I won’t spill them here. Use your imagination.

    BSA deserves to go down in flames, forever. I loved scouting. I think I might have had the mettle to be an Eagle Scout. But because of them, my experience was ruined, and believe me, I did not experience nearly the horrors as many, many other boys.

    Screw you, BSA. Screw you, all you goddamn defenders.

  13. Cedric:

    I still have many friends involved in scouting and I agree and disagree with you. I agree that scouts has gotten absolutely paranoid about sexual abuse in their training programs. That is a good thing. I feel sorry for people that have been abused but the incident discussed by Seitch happened 45 years ago. The leaders I worked with were children at that time and a lot a has changed. Heck, Scouts is being damned for incidents that happened 100 years ago. That past is past

    But I never saw the top-down rigidity you describe in all the time I was involved in scouts. We as a troop had quite a bit of freedom to plan campouts, advancement programs etc. There was mandatory continuing training for scoutmasters and committee members, but again I see that as a positive. The training I got as an Assistant Scoutmaster helped me to do my job better. And the trainers were being paid just as much as me- NOTHING!!!. After my son got his Eagle we both worked as new Scoutmaster trainers until he headed off to college.

    The most important thing we learned, and the hardest to teach was to keep the parent leaders from making decisions. Scouts is a boy-run, now a girl and boy-run organization. A scoutmaster’s job is scout training and overall coordination not micro-management. The magic of scouting is seeing the kids successfully develop and implement their own solutions. Yes we can do it better, but then they learn nothing.

    Every fall, when we had the first, new scout campout, We would have a meeting with the new parents and specifically instruct them NOT to help their son pitch his tent, cook his food etc. That help would come for older scouts. Parents camped on a separate areas from the patrols. Yes occasionally we had to intervene, but far less often than many might think. Staying away was hard for a lot of parents, but most saw the wisdom in this approach. We also has a hard and fast rule -NO ELECTRONICS!! That included cell phones so no calls to mommy and daddy. We always had one or two scouts that got homesick on the long-term campouts, but most developed a sense of pride at their ability to be independent.

    One of the coolest things I saw was a scout that had been homesick the year before calm another younger scout on his first long-term campout. He actually succeeded where multiple adults, including me, failed. His experience resonated with the younger kid in a way that an adult’s could not. A 12 year old kid helped an 11 year old kid better than any adult could!!! What other organization can develop that kind of leadership skills?

  14. I obviously cannot comment on the pain arising from individual instances of sexual abuse. I can say without reservation that Scouting has had a profoundly positive impact on my family. My father was a Scoutmaster; I and my niece Queen Scouts. I am profoundly proud of my experience in Scouts and of the dedication of the adults who have volunteered their time to make my experience a positive one.
    I note that, depending on the source, since the BSA was founded in 1910, it is reported that between 110-130 million Americans participated in BSA programs at some time in their lives.

    Context and nuance are important in these discussions. The article notes:
    “According to Boy Scout documents disclosed during litigation, more than 12,000 boys have been abused by at least 7,800 individuals since the 1920s.”

    Given that 110,000,000 to 130,000,000 boys have been involved in Boy Scouts in the US since its inception in 1910 this reported number represents a rate of abuse of about 0.0092308%

    In context it is reported that 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult.

    The general rate of sexual abuse for boys is therefore about 1.89%

  15. Robin, I think you have hit upon the pertinent question. What is a fair assessment of culpability? Presumably a court has found BSA culpable based on its consideration of the evidence and a finding of malfeasance.

    I would observe however, that as a society we have shown a tendency to tear dominant institutions, and even nations, apart based on the idea of irredeemable institutional guilt established through the harms done by what is often a sub-group of perpetrators to a sub-group of victims (as an aside I am sure the statistics as presented can be probably quibbled with); especially if there is financial reward to be had in doing so. Any good done is heavily discounted, totally ignored or even denied.

    Are all Roman Catholics paedophiles? Are all white Canadians racist and perpetrators of an ongoing genocide? Are all men misogynistic rapists? Are all Americans responsible for historical slave holders? Should non-perpetrators be held culpable and be required to pay for harms done? Should those institutions and even nations associated with the harm be allowed a continued existence?

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