Even as its past policies on sex-abuse prevention fuel controversy, the Boy Scouts of America is hosting an unprecedented closed-door symposium Thursday with other national youth organizations, hoping to share strategies to combat future abuse.
The 10 participating groups, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the YMCA and Big Brothers Big Sisters, will hear presentations from some of the nation’s top specialists on child sex-abuse prevention. They also will discuss how uncorroborated information about potentially threatening adult volunteers might be shared among youth organizations.
Planning for the one-day session in Atlanta began late last year, part of long-standing efforts by the Boy Scouts to demonstrate a commitment to preventing the abuse problems that have bedeviled it and other youth groups over the decades.
The forum takes place just two weeks after the court-ordered release of confidential files compiled by the Scouts from 1959 to 1985 with information about 1,200 supposed abusers in the ranks of its adult leaders.
Michael Johnson, a former police detective hired by the Scouts in 2010 as national director of youth protection, has been the key organizer of the symposium, calling it a “ground-breaking opportunity” for groups serving more than 17 million youngsters to discuss their shared challenges and anti-abuse strategies.
“Crazy as it sounds, this hasn’t been done before,” he said.
One of the symposium’s sessions will deal with the type of confidential files kept by the Boy Scouts since the 1920s, containing a range of verified and unverified accusations involving thousands of adults deemed to pose a threat of abuse.
The Scouts’ policy — not always adhered to over the decades — is to share substantive accusations with law enforcement. Thursday’s symposium will include discussion of whether, and how, these types of files might also be shared among youth groups even when the accusations are unproven.
“This information is an incredible tool that might be helpful to other organizations, but where is the legislation that allows this to be shared amongst us?” said Mr. Johnson. “We want kids to be safe. We don’t mean to be defensive. But it is complicated.”
The psychologist recruited to facilitate the symposium, Michael Haney of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, said the question of information sharing is “a very gray area legally,” raising questions with no easy answers.
“You may have enough information to know someone violated your policy, so you don’t let him be a volunteer,” Mr. Haney said. “How do we deal with that so that individual can’t just walk around the corner and find another venue to have access to children?”
The session on information-sharing will be led by Suzanna Tiapula, director of the National District Attorneys Association’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse.
She said the youth organizations needed to be wary of reports that appeared false or vindictive, but should be working on ways to share with other youth groups any information deemed serious enough to report to law enforcement.
“That’s going to be delicate,” she said. “They have a lot of issues, and they’re trying to do it correctly.”
By Elaine Donnelly
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