The recent Boy Scouts scandal took me back to the 1970s. In my teens, I spent years in a large institution devoted to rituals proclaiming its high ideals. Unfortunately, not all the grownups lived up to those ideals.
Rumor had it that some men made sexual advances toward the young people they were charged with guiding, and other grownups did nothing to stop it. A teenage girl I knew reported being groped to higher-ups, who warned of dire consequences - for her - if she went public. In addition to the groper was a man who took boys on "camping trips." A third fellow eventually married one of his charges.
Contrary to stereotypes, none of this happened at scouts or at church, but in my public high school. Statistics, such as they are, suggest that this was no anomaly. As my colleague Jay Greene wrote in a wonderful and completely ignored blog, in the average year, just under one (.76) of every 1,000 priests is alleged to have participated in sexual misconduct with minors. A statistically identical .77 of every 1,000 male teachers lose their license each year for sexual misconduct.
As Jay writes, "Given that we are comparing license revocations for teachers to allegations for priests, the rate of misconduct among male teachers may be considerably higher than among male priests."
On the statistical plus side, something like 98 percent of male teachers and priests - and even more female teachers and nuns - go through their careers without any charges of sexual wrongdoing. From what The New York Times reports, the same seems true of the scout leaders. The ethical overwhelming majority of teachers, clergy, and scout leaders should not be stigmatized by a few bad actors.
The more serious issue, at least for some institutions, concerns whether organizations dealt with evil or covered it up. When I told my own teenager about what went on back in my old high school, he was stunned that no one went public. I had to explain that this was how things worked back then, and in some venues even today. People trusted leaders. Some leaders, many then and a few even now, cover up corruption out of misplaced loyalty to their institutions, as in the case of my old school. That is both sinful, and an all too common human failing.
At the same time, we have to acknowledge that not all allegations of abuse are truthful. Sometimes charges come from people bent on settling scores or seeking cash. Knowing that, some leaders are too quick to look the other way and trust in their friends. That may characterize what happened with old Joe Paterno, who couldn't believe that someone he knew and trusted, Jerry Sandusky, would betray the football program they had built together, and do so in the most horrible way imaginable. Perhaps this was something old Joe Pa just couldn't imagine.
And then sometimes back in the bad old days, leaders tried to do the right thing but simply do not know how. From current media reports, that seems to be the case with the Boy Scouts of America. The bulk of allegations of wrongdoing go back before the 1980s, a very different time than today. Since the 1920s, the BSA kept lists of people considered "unsuitable" for scouting. Yet in a largely volunteer organization operating across the nation decades before the Internet, information was not always shared across troops, much less across states. Second, as The New York Times reports, the scouts did not want to engage in witch hunts for perpetrators: BSA refused to embrace sexual McCarthyism. And like the rest of society, the BSA simply did not have a standard playbook for dealing with something as then unthinkable as child sexual abuse.
Given the times, the Scouts seem to have behaved fairly responsibly, probably more so that my old public school, Penn State, or the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Of course, all this analytic talk about organizational learning is cold comfort for the victims.
Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.