NEW YORK — Long a lightning rod for conservative criticism, the Girl Scouts of the USA are now facing their highest-level challenge yet: an official inquiry by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
At issue are concerns about program materials that some Catholics find offensive, as well as assertions that the Scouts associate with other groups espousing stances that conflict with church teaching. The Scouts, who have numerous parish-sponsored troops, deny many of the claims and defend their alliances.
The inquiry coincides with the Scouts’ 100th anniversary celebrations and follows a chain of other controversies.
Earlier this year, legislators in Indiana and Alaska publicly called the Scouts into question, and the organization was berated in a series aired by a Catholic broadcast network. Last year, the Scouts angered some conservatives by accepting into a Colorado troop a 7-year-old transgender child who was born a boy but was being raised as a girl.
Some of the concerns raised by Catholic critics are recycled complaints that have been denied by the Girl Scouts‘ head office repeatedly and categorically. It says it has no partnership with Planned Parenthood, and does not take positions on sexuality, birth control and abortion.
“It’s been hard to get the message out there as to what is true when distortions get repeated over and over,” said Gladys Padro-Soler, the Girl Scouts‘ director of inclusive membership strategies.
In other instances, the scouts have modified materials that drew complaints — for example, dropping some references to playwright Josefina Lopez because one of her plays, “Simply Maria,” was viewed by critics as mocking the Catholic faith.
The new inquiry will be conducted by the bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. It will look into the Scouts’ “possible problematic relationships with other organizations” and various “problematic” program materials, according to a letter sent by the committee chairman, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne, Ind., to his fellow bishops.
The bishops’ conference provided a copy of the letter to the Associated Press, but otherwise declined comment.
Girl Scout leaders hope the bishops’ apprehensions will be eased once they gather information. But there’s frustration within the iconic youth organization — known for its inclusiveness and cookie sales — that it has become such an ideological target, with the girls sometimes caught in the political crossfire.
“I know we’re a big part of the culture wars,” said the Girl Scouts‘ spokeswoman, Michelle Tompkins. “People use our good name to advance their own agenda.”
“For us, there’s an overarching sadness to it,” Ms. Tompkins added. “We’re just trying to further girls’ leadership.”
With the bishops now getting involved, the stakes are high. The Girl Scouts estimate that one-fourth of their 2.3 million youth members are Catholic, and any significant exodus would be a blow given that membership already is down from a peak of more than 3 million several decades ago.
The inquiry coincides with a broader effort by the bishops to analyze church ties with outside groups. Bishop Rhoades’ committee plans to consult with Girl Scouts leaders and with the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, which has been liaising with the Scouts for two years about various complaints.
The federation’s executive director, Bob McCarty, praised the Girl Scouts for willingness to change some program content.