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 experts on child sex-abuse prevention. They also will discuss the sensitive topic of 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 Boy Scouts have been criticized for a lack of transparency in the ways they deal with sex abuse allegations. They have fought to keep their so-called "perversion files" confidential, and those files reveal many cases where the Scouts failed to protect youths from pedophiles.
Two weeks ago, the Scouts released files from 1959-85 on 1,200 alleged pedophiles after The Associated Press, The Oregonian, The New York Times, Oregon Public Broadcasting and other news media won a court case against the organization.
The public is excluded from the Thursday symposium, but the organization says that will encourage candid discussion among participants.
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 "groundbreaking 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," Johnson 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 allegations 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 allegations 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 allegations 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 Johnson. "We want kids to be safe. We don't mean to be defensive. But it is complicated."
The expert recruited to facilitate the symposium, Dr. 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," 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."
She praised the steps taken by the Boy Scouts in recent years to improve their child-protection policies.
Some of those steps date back to the 1980s, while others followed the 2010 judgment by an Oregon jury ordering the Boy Scouts to pay $19.9 million in damages to Kerry Lewis, who had been abused in the 1980s by an assistant scoutmaster in Portland.
That's the case that led to the recent release of the Scouts' files, prompting a pledge from the Scouts to re-examine the documents and identify instances when people within the organization knew about suspected abuse but failed to report it to authorities.
Within months of the Oregon judgment, the Scouts announced that all adult volunteers — now numbering 1.1 million — would be required to take child-protection training when they join the Scouts and repeat the training every two years. Last year, the Scouts stipulated that all adult staff are mandated to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement authorities and Scout leaders, even if this would not be required by state law.
Tiapula described the mandatory-reporting policy as excellent but said the Scouts needed to pursue a "massive education process" to ensure that the adult volunteers were knowledgeable about detecting potential abusers.
"There's quite a bit of work that they have to do," Tiapula said. "I think they know that."
Tiapula expressed regret that Thursday's symposium will be closed to the news media.
"It creates a sense there are things in the community that they can't be sharing," she said. "An open meeting conveys to the world they're doing the right thing."
However, Johnson and Haney said the closed-door policy was expected to encourage candid dialogue. Were the meeting to be open, Haney said, attorneys for the youth organizations might counsel participants to be cautious about discussing problems they face with youth-protection.
Symposium topics include the prevalence and prevention of child sexual abuse, the behavior of sex offenders and the growing threat of online predators.
Speakers include David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center; Victor Vieth, executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center; and Kristen Anderson, executive director of training at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The other participating youth groups are Girls Inc., USA Swimming, Camp Fire, the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, the American Youth Soccer Organization and The First Tee.
Conference organizers plan to summarize the conclusions of the meeting for a report that will be made available to other youth-serving organizations that did not participate.
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