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Boy Scouts Sex Abuse Secret Files Kept From Law Enforcement

July 17, 2012 1:14 p.m.


Mitch Blacher investigative reporter, 10News

Phyllis Shess is a former San Diego deputy district attorney and now executive director of the San Diego Sex Offender Management Council

Related Story: Boy Scouts Sex Abuse Files Kept From Law Enforcement


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, it's Tuesday, July†17th. Our top story on Midday Edition concerns revelations about hidden child sexual abuse, this time from the files of the Boy Scouts of America. The 10 News investigation team is airing more of what it's found out about cases of molestation in the boy scouts, some here in San Diego. The focus is on what the organization knew about predatory behavior against scouts and what it did with that information. Mitch Blatcher is investigative reporter at 10 News. Welcome.
BLATCHER: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Phyllis Shess is former San Diego district attorney. Welcome to the program.
SHESS: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: This investigation and the one 10 news aired in May seemed to resolve around what you call the boy scout secret files. What information contained in those files?
BLATCHER: They are essentially what the boy scouts call ineligible volunteer lists. They include information that would disqualify somebody from being an adult member of the boy scouts of America. In this case, we have information that resolves sexual abuse allegations with those. We have about 5,000†cases. They range from 1971 to 1991. They were released after a civil litigation in the state of Washington. And the scouts fought the release of those files, but they give you a look into what the scouts knew and what got people kicked out of scouting. This 20-year windows really the only peek that we have into how they handle things internally.
CAVANAUGH: This is more than just a list of names of ineligible volunteers. What kind of information is in there?
BLATCHER: There's allegations of abuse. I mean, there are detailed letters from victims, from parents of victims, there are newspaper clippings, there are all sorts of different media reports, in some cases police reports Nsome cases there are conviction records, sex offender registrations, all sorts of things that would lead someone to not be qualified to be involved in a youth organization.
CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us a little bit more about this order to release the information to the media? Why were the boy scouts ordered to do that? I believe it was a court up in Oregon ordered that information released, at least some of that information.
BLATCHER: The Oregon Supreme Court actually upheld the release of that information. The information was originally released because of a man named Tim cosnof in Seattle, he represented a man named Matt Stewart. He was molested as a child, and his molester, the statute of limitations ran out on that case. No prosecution was ever done. Hover, Mr. Stewart was able to hire
Cosnof to sue the boy scouts, and part of that settlement was the public release of what the boy scouts of America call their ineligible volunteer filings. But on the top of all file, all of them say confidential files. And all of those files were released under court order, part of this settlement in Seattle.
CAVANAUGH: And how many of these cases involve San Diego?
BLATCHER: At present, we were able to find thrift 35 specific cases of sexual abuse ranging from those 20 year. There are cases all over the country. The main point of these file, and this was the first story we ran in May once we had a chance to review the files, was that the ineligible volunteer file, the point was to keep people who should be ineligible out of scouting. So we went to see was that effective. And we had a couple examples in San Diego where one guy was in Patton state mental hospital. According to the State of California, he was a mental unstable sex offender. And this is somebody who was disqualified on the ineligible volunteer filings yet somehow resurfaced in scouting and molested more children.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Phyllis, you were intimately involved in one of these cases. You're featured in the 10 news investigative report because of your prosecution of boy scout volunteer John atwood. Can you tell us about that case?
SHESS: That was about 20 years ago. And John atwood was a former eagle scout, or still an eagle scout, who had taken a leadership position as a scout master or leader in the boy scouts of America. And during the course of his involvement had befriended a number of boys, was very popular with the boys, very charismatic, very involved in their lives. And during the course of getting to know these kids, singled out several of them basically and groomed them, ultimately inviting them on individual camping trip, sexually assaulting them after he gave them beer, alcohol, basically, got their defenses down. It was a really tragic case because he harmed so many kids, not just the ones he actually was found guilty for assaulting, but the kids who trusted him and the families who trusted him
CAVANAUGH: As you point out, this was 20 years ago. At that time, what kind of cooperation did you get from the boy scouts of America?
SHESS: I do not recall the boy scouts of America being involved at all. I do not recall receiving a telephone call, a letter, or any note of concern from them. However, I also have to add in fairness that that would not be unusual. When you're prosecuting a case, you're primarily involved with your victims and their continued safety and security as they go through that process. So I would not necessarily expect the institution to contact us. I do not recall that they wrote anything during the sentencing. I think they did what large institutions often do. They distance themselves and chose to disassociate themselves hoping they were not tarnished by this, which of course is ridiculous.
CAVANAUGH: And it's my understanding that the boy scouts did not bring this case to the law enforcement's attention. Rather it was parents of one of the children who brought it to the attention of law enforcement.
SHESS: That's correct.
CAVANAUGH: Mitch, what do we know about what the boy scouts might have known in singling on this case again?
BLATCHER: Well, the file is pretty specific. It details an assault inside a San Diego hotel room as Mr. Atwood was debuting a scout up to the lost valley scout camp, which is just east of Escondido. And it says he got him drunk and he molested him. It's that cut and dry. And there's detail. But it doesn't ever say whether or not police should be contacted, are contacted, if only says that this should be grounds for disqualification for being involved in scouting.
CAVANAUGH: We had a sound bite from a video released by the boy scouts of America when some of their files called ineligible volunteer files were released to the media. It features bob Mazuka, the chief scout executive of the boy scouts of America.
NEW SPEAKER: We take our responsibility to protect youth from abuse very seriously, and work hard to insure that we maintain the miest quality leadership. We have a long history of incorporating new best practices into our youth protection program. But unfortunately there still have been times when the best practices at the time were insufficient, and for that, we are deeply sorry.
CAVANAUGH: That phrase, be the best practices of the time raises and leaves that question about what did the boy scouts know, and what did they do with that information? What have you learned about the way the boy scouts have traditionally using the best practices of the time handled allegations of sexual molestation?
BLATCHER: I want to be real clear. We have the files from 1971 to 1991, so what we're getting is a glimpse into that time period. The scouts say now they have advanced. Since 1994, they've background checked every single adult in scouting and increased what they call their youth protection practices policies since then and tried to, as he's put it, update their practices of the time.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Phyllis, in the context of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, and the abuse scandals in the Catholic church, with your long history in prosecuting these cases, have you found that this clandestine handling of information about sexual abuse, is that typical within organizations?
SHESS: Well, I hate to use the word typical, but I do know that there is a tendency for large organizations to choose to protect the institution over the individual, whether it be a child or an adult. And I think we clearly see that in the Sandusky case. I think that that is a clear part of what has happened in the boy scouts of America, and certainly in the Catholic church. So while the institution, even now, has, referring to the boy scouts, has put in place extensive programs and information to prevent this kind of incident from happening again, and specifically checking the backgrounds on people which is so fundamental it's amazing they weren't doing it before, but even though these institutional safe guards may be in place, it's impyretive that we don't depend on those institutions and safeguards to protect us just as we can't depend on the fact that laws exist to protect us. We have to take individual responsibility for what's going on in our own homes with our own children. I know in the case that we spoke of a few moments ago. All of those children came from very loving, warm, watchful families who were seduced by a predator and who trusted him enough to let their children go off alone with him.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask, I want to let everyone know that we did ask a representative of the boy scouts of America to join us today, or to send us a statement, which we would have read, at least in part. But they declined. Phyllis, in reading the information that went along with that video on the boy scouts website, they seem to have explained the fact that they did not pursue law enforcement charges, did not give out a lot of this information to law enforcement in respect to -- to respect the victim, and their privacy, and their family's privacy, to keep that information confidential, so it could keep coming in, and the victims would know that they would remain private. How does that kind of an explanation work with you?
SHESS: Well, I think it's a convenient explanation. But I will also say it is a very complex situation. It's somewhat like you have in family abuse situations. I want to protect the child from being harmed anymore, from people knowing that this child has been involved in that kind of situation, and I don't discount that there may be people in any large organization who have that specific thought in the back of their mind. But having said that, every one of us has to know that if one child has been harmed, there can be ten more who will be or have been harmed and whoever is doing that crime needs to be stopped in their tracks and reported to law enforcement. So I view it more as an excuse. There are plenty of safeguards in place within the criminal justice system to protect the victim's identity. Prosecutors throughout this country go out of their way to make sure these kits are not revictimized again and their family is not traumatized more by what they've already gone through. So it's a convenient excuse.
CAVANAUGH: Mitch, you talked to us about a certain case represented by Seattle attorney Tim cosnof whose statute of limitations ran out so they can't pursue legal action. But I'm wondering, are there any pending cases maybe against the boy scouts or resulting from abuse within the boy scouts and the statute of limitations has not run out?
BLATCHER: That's a very good question. That's where our investigation is going. So far we've been able stofind roughly 40-50 cases that are ongoing, that are civil cases, that people are suing the boy scouts of America across the country. It might be one of the reasons at least a look behind the scenes. My editor and I talk about why the scouts haven't been willing to do an on-camera interview with us. Perhaps their lawyers aren't interested in having somebody off the cuff talk about this issue. I will tell you, you asked earlier about kind of the culture that we're looking at, because we are hooking at a very specific period of time, and we're doing 2†stories, one this evening at 5:00, and another one tomorrow. And the one tomorrow really gets into the groundwork on why the boy scouts of America handled these cases the way they did, and one of the things we've been able to find was an internal memo from the boy scouts of America dating from 1972 that seems to lay the groundwork as to if somebody does something that's not consistent with how the boy scouts of America think you should act, what do you do? And there's a series of steps, but nowhere in there does it ever mention reporting allegations of abuse to authorities.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. Okay. Your full report you said is tonight at 5:00?
BLATCHER: Yes, and then we'll have a follow-up tomorrow including that memo tomorrow at 5:00.
CAVANAUGH: And that's on 10 News.