For more than a century, the Boy Scouts have been a prominent thread coursing through the American fabric. This revered institution has been the career launching pad for astronauts, athletes and authors, Nobel Prize winners and Civil Rights icons. Scouts have been cheered as Presidents, Nobel laureates and Oscar winners. But for all these stars in the sky, there are scores who’ve been left behind with a secret that the Scouts would prefer to keep that way. They are victims.
Late last month, the Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy, a preemptive move to protect itself from soaring legal bills, the result of an avalanche of sexual abuse lawsuits. The torrent of charges and settlements could bring an end to this 110-year-old organization. Already, this legal and moral crisis has caused a plummeting in both memberships and sponsorships.
In one case, the Boy Scouts were ordered to pay $1.4 million to a single victim abused in the 1980s. In that case, the names of nearly 8,000 former scouts who were sexually abused by adults charged with their care were also revealed. Mounting legal bills forced the organization to mortgage Philmont, a 140,000-acre refuge in northeastern New Mexico, to cover soaring costs.
The stain of this latest chapter sexual abuse by an institutional pillar is both generational and indelible, perhaps only comparable to that of the Catholic Church, another organization that covered up similar patterns of sexual abuse and forced diocesan bankruptcies across the nation. As in the case of the Church, court rulings brought to light evidence that the Boy Scouts also allowed known sexual predators to continue working with young charges in the thoughtless belief that protecting its image, apparently, was more important than protecting the children and ending the predation.
In the landmark case involving the Boy Scouts, Timur Dykes, a scout leader was found guilty of sexual abuse in 2010. But during the trial it was also discovered that Dykes’ crime was one of thousands that the Boy Scouts had known about but chose, instead, to conceal. In all, more than 12,000 young scouts were violated by adults that they trusted.
But no badge, a scouting benchmark for achievement in the organization, can salve the sin of exploiting a child. Childhood sexual abuse carries a shelf life that is more often than not endless, said Denver psychotherapist Christina Valastro. “Children are not mature enough to understand,” said Valastro. “They don’t have a sense of their own sexuality.” And because a brain is not fully developed until age 25, the memory of a sexual assault at the hands of an adult lingers, most often for years. “There’s a lot of shame,” she said.
In her practice, Valastro has counseled scores of adults who were victims of childhood sexual assault by an adult, a person of trust or both. The neurobiology of trauma, she said, has three components: flight, fight or freeze. “A child doesn’t have the skills to do any of these things,” said the veteran psychotherapist. “Their mind is not operating in that mode. There is no consent.”
While the Boy Scouts or the Catholic Church are institutional culprits in this national tragedy, the extent of pain extends well beyond two organizations. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry says children are most vulnerable between the ages of 7 and 13; nearly two thirds of sexual assault victims were under the age of 18; 34 percent were under age 12; 14 percent were under age 6.
The residue of sexual assault outlives childhood by an almost incalculable measure, said Valastro. She equates it to PTSD. Anxiety, fear, depression and anger, she said, are often the lingering effects of this experience. There are also mood disorders, self-esteem issues, shame and confusion. As a victim grows into adulthood, there may be sexual dysfunction or hyper-sexuality. “A sense of trust has been undermined.” “Something has been taken from you when a sacred boundary has been crossed.
Despite a certain darkness that lingers amongst victims of this crime, Valastro has also seen a Phoenix-like quality in many survivors. “People are highly resilient,” she said. “That’s what is so rewarding about my job.” While trauma often seems to reside a light year from hope and comfort, Valastro said it is not. “Healing results in awareness and support by bringing sexual assault out of the darkness of silence and into the light.”
In Denver, there are resources for recovery for victims of sexual assault. Valastro offered three: WINGS Foundation, an organization for adult survivors of childhood sexual assault, The Blue Bench, a center that offers comprehensive sexual assault prevention and support and RAINN, which deals with rape abuse and incest.
With the proper support, said Valastro, a victim of sexual violation can escape the trauma. “As ugly as their experience,” she said, “they’re survivors.”,“It’s an act of violence,” said Valastro.