Brothers force Scouts to reveal abuse scope
Thousands of suspect leaders detailed
August 29, 2007
BY JONATHAN MARTIN
SEATTLE -- Like many other boys who grew up in the early 1980s, Tom and Matt Stewart shared a childhood of hikes, campouts and fishing trips, most of it thanks to the Boy Scouts of America.
It was a program that kept the brothers involved in their Federal Way, Wash., troop all the way to Eagle Scouts. Years later, Tom Stewart became a Scoutmaster for his own sons.
But as they became adults and moved a thousand miles apart, each brother privately struggled with memories that neither wanted to talk about: of sexual abuse they had suffered at the hands of their Scoutmaster, Bruce Phelps.
After decades of silence, the Stewart brothers grew convinced they weren't alone. In 2003, they sued the Boy Scouts and their former Scoutmaster and won an out-of-court settlement.
Four years later, the case has become a landmark in the 97-year history of the Boy Scouts. For the first time, the Boy Scouts of America has been forced to turn over to the Stewarts' attorneys its entire archive on sexually abusive Scout leaders.
The previously private records show that the Boy Scouts have ejected at least 5,100 adult leaders nationwide for sexual abuse allegations since 1946.
And the files reveal that, despite efforts to keep potential abusers from joining, the problems persist. In the last 15 years alone, the organization has kicked out leaders for such allegations at a rate of one every other day.
The 45 boxes of files aren't public because of a court order, which prohibits the Stewarts and their lawyers from disclosing specific cases. But a statistical summary of the files, provided by the Stewarts' attorneys, shows the problem is larger than previously known.
Boy Scouts officials won't talk about the cases, but they note that ejected volunteers represent a small fraction of the 1.2 million adults who participate in Scouting every year. They also stress that they now have rules, including background checks and training, that didn't exist when Phelps was abusing Scouts.
Phelps declined to be interviewed, but he has admitted to abusing the brothers and two other boys in sworn testimony. He has never been convicted of a crime.
"The Boy Scouts is very unique because there is a very dangerous bond between Scout and Scoutmaster," said Tom Stewart, now a 44-year-old Boeing engineer. "You are out in the middle of nowhere on an outing, and the Scoutmaster is God."
The abuse involving the Stewart brothers, including oral and anal sex, persisted through high school, the brothers say -- at Scout outings and camps, at a drive-in movie theater, at Phelps' house and in the Stewarts' basement while their parents were upstairs.
Their parents let them spend weekends at Phelps' house on the pretext of working on merit badges, even after Phelps had moved to West Seattle, where he led another Scout troop.
"He would say, 'OK, that knot looks fine; you got your merit badge -- now let's have sex,' " said Matt Stewart, now a 42-year-old pharmaceutical salesman in Palm Desert, Calif.
The Stewarts said they stayed quiet about the abuse because Phelps threatened to shoot their parents -- or himself. They said they believed him because he often carried a revolver.
"I was constantly scared," Matt Stewart said.
In a deposition for the brothers' lawsuit, Phelps denied making the threats.
But according to a police report, Phelps admitted to a detective that he had abused the Stewarts and two other boys. The detective wrote that he called the regional Scouting office, but no one returned the call.
Despite Phelps' confession, the case was closed without charges being filed because the statute of limitations had expired, the detective wrote.
Phelps' name wasn't added to the Boy Scouts' secret Ineligible Volunteers Files until the Stewarts sued in 2003. The organization later said the lawsuit was the first time anyone had complained about him.
But there have been complaints about thousands of other Scout leaders in the United States.
In fact, since its founding in 1910, the Boy Scouts of America has kept files on volunteers it considers to be unfit, including sexual abusers, criminals and homosexuals. The organization has periodically purged the files, according to depositions in other cases.
As early as 1935, the organization had files on about 1,000 so-called degenerates. The Stewarts' attorneys counted 732 files from 1946 to 1971.
Gregg Shields, a spokesman for the national Boy Scouts office in Irving, Texas, said the files are intended to prevent ejected Scout leaders from bouncing into new leadership roles among the 300 councils nationwide.
"It is merely a suspicion or belief, a question of fitness of an individual in the Boy Scouts," he said.
"We are a private organization, and we can extend leadership positions to whomever we see fit."
The organization guards the contents of the files but has been forced to turn over parts of them a handful of times.
To get the full set, the Stewarts' attorneys fought the Boy Scouts up to the Washington Supreme Court.