It was never just about the Catholic Church.
Yes, the church’s role in harboring clerics who abused children – and then in shamefully covering up those crimes – delivered a profound shock to the public conscience, but does it matter to a child if the adult sexually abusing him or her is a priest or a camp counselor or a relative?
Or a Boy Scout leader?
Pedophiles being what they are, there could have been no doubt that some would have wormed their way into organizations such as the Scouts, there to pick off the children they knew to be the easiest to mislead and control. There have been reports in the past of child abusers within Scouting but, now, with New York having changed the law to allow those who victimized long ago to seek justice, terrible stories are starting to emerge.
The expectation of experts is that many more are to come.
The Boy Scouts, to their credit, appear to have been more aggressive about referring abusers in their ranks to law enforcement than the Catholic Church, which for decades was more interested in protecting its reputation than children. Nevertheless, there was a level of denial – as there was among Americans, generally – both about the scope of the problem and how best to deal with it. Reputation, it seems, factored into the Boy Scouts’ response to child sexual abuse, as well.
Why else would Bob O’Donnell have to sue the Scouts at age 54 for criminal sexual assaults he suffered more than 40 years ago?
O’Donnell, of the Town of Boston, was abused by a Scout leader in the mid-1970s. “The guy pretty much raped me, more than once, by giving me enough alcohol so that I didn’t even realize what was going on,” O’Donnell told News reporter Jay Tokasz. He said he was assaulted at least 10 times.
As an abuser of children, Ronald C. Williams knew his dark territory well. Not only was he a volunteer Scout leader, but at that time, when O’Donnell was a Scout in Blasdell, Williams was also a police officer. He was, in fact a K-9 officer, with a dog that he brought to Scout meetings.
Like priests who have molested children, Williams preyed upon them by playing on the faith that parents would have had in so sterling a citizen: police officer, Scout leader, putative role model. If trusted organizations valued their reputations more than the safety of children, they got away with it, in part, because parents were naïve.
In truth, most Americans were in those days. The country then had an elevated trust in politicians, media and even celebrities, viewing them with a level of deference and admiration that today seems almost incomprehensible.
And the church? The Scouts? Few people in those days would have thought that such organizations offered so ready a hiding place for pedophiles. But they did. Over the past 28 years, Williams – police officer, Scout leader, putative role model – served prison sentences in three states for felony convictions of child sexual abuse.
As of today, at least 25 Boy Scout leaders from the Buffalo area have been charged with molesting children or morals crimes involving children or were barred by the Boy Scouts of America from registering as Scout leaders due to allegations involving children. The number is expected to climb quickly.
After years of failure, New York State in February approved the Child Victims Act. The law extends the statute of limitations to allow felony charges against sexual abusers of children until their victims turn 28. The new law also allows victims to file civil lawsuits until they turn 55.
Perhaps most significantly, for the one-year period that begins on Aug. 14, victims of child sexual assault will have a “look-back” window allowing them to file civil lawsuits, regardless of when the abuse occurred. They should take advantage of it.
The Scouts in April apologized to the victims of abuse and encouraged them to come forward. Chief Scout executive Michael Surbaugh also said the organization will pay for unlimited counseling by a provider of the victims’ choosing. It’s the right thing.
In the meantime, parents have a terrible challenge: They must protect their children without teaching them to be fearful. We have always lived in that world, apparently. It’s just that now we know it.