DOVER, Del. (AP) — The former youth protection director for the Boy Scouts of America said Tuesday the organization is not doing enough to protect children from sexual abuse and is still trying to maintain a veil of secrecy over decades of past abuse.
In a speech at the National Press Club, Michael Johnson urged Congress to investigate the BSA’s efforts to cover-up decades of past abuse, as well as the dangers he said the organization still poses to children.
“The Boy Scouts of America is not safe for kids. It is safer, but it is not safe for kids,” he said.
“We failed you. I failed you,” a tearful Johnson added in remarks aimed at abuse survivors.
Johnson was terminated in December in what the Boy Scouts described as a financial restructuring. He refused to sign non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements in exchange for a severance payment.
“I’m fed up with people telling me in that organization what to say, how to say it, and what to believe,” said Johnson, who was hired in 2010 as the BSA’s first youth protection director.
A spokesperson for the Boy Scouts said there was no attempt to buy Johnson’s silence and the terms in the severance package were the same as those for other eligible employees who were terminated.
Asked why he decided to step forward now, Johnson said he began to sense in recent years that the Boy Scouts were becoming less receptive to needed reforms.
“All of the sudden, I wasn’t able to make the changes that were needed, and there were excuses and omissions…. I felt, naively, that I could make change within the organization, and there were some successes, but it wasn’t nearly enough,” he said.
Johnson’s decision to speak out comes amid a key point in the Boy Scouts of American bankruptcy case, as ballots are being distributed to tens of thousands of men who say they were molested as children by scoutmasters and others to vote on whether to approve the BSA’s reorganization plan.
The Boy Scouts, based in Irving, Texas, sought bankruptcy protection in Delaware in February 2020, seeking to halt hundreds of individual lawsuits and create a fund for men who say they were sexually abused as children. Although the organization was facing 275 lawsuits at the time, it’s facing more than 82,000 sexual abuse claims in the bankruptcy case.
In an article published in August 2019, just six months before the bankruptcy filing, Johnson defended efforts by the Boy Scouts to protect children from sexual abuse.
“Contrary to many inaccurate reports, our youth protection policies are in line with — and sometimes even ahead of — society’s knowledge of abuse and best practices for preventing abuse,” he wrote. “We actively share and continually improve these policies through our mandatory youth protection training, our ongoing collaborations with groups such as the Centers for Disease Control and youth-serving organizations, and continuous engagement with survivors of abuse and top experts in this area.”
“The child safety policies and procedures we utilize are among the most advanced and comprehensive of any youth-serving organization today,” he added.
The Boy Scouts issued a statement Tuesday expressing appreciation for Johnson’s dedication to youth safety and for the effect he had on the organization.
“We are disappointed to hear Mr. Johnson’s characterization of the program he spearheaded and the concerns he raised, especially given his past public support for the robust measures the BSA instituted at his recommendation,” the statement read.
“Today, Scouting is safer than ever before,” the statement adds, citing many policies that have been implemented in recent years.
“While any instance of abuse is one too many, it’s important to know that the vast majority of claims in the BSA’s Chapter 11 case predate our modern youth protection policies. Specifically, 85% or more of the claims allege a first instance of abuse prior to 1990, and 50% or more of the claims allege a first instance of abuse prior to 1974.”
In an Oct. 6 letter to Congress, Johnson urged lawmakers to begin investigations and hearings into the “high risk of child sexual abuse that exists within Scouts BSA.”
Scouts BSA is the traditional Scouting experience for children in fifth grade through high school, according to the BSA’s website.
In the letter, Johnson touted several improvements in youth protection policies during his tenure but nevertheless described them as “drop in the bucket” better suited for “low-risk” organizations, not “high-risk” organizations such as the Boy Scouts.
“Throughout my time at Scouts BSA, I witnessed decisions being made that showed the top priority of the organization was not the safety of children, but the preservation of the reputation and brand of the institution and its top sponsoring organizations,” Johnson wrote.
By way of example, Johnson said more than half of reported sexual abuse incidents in the Boy Scouts were perpetrated by other youth, which he blamed on lack of adult supervision and the large age range at many events.
He also said BSA lacked proper screening procedures and reference checks for adult volunteers and leaders, and that known offenders are still volunteering and still have access to children because of a lack of accountability by troop sponsoring organizations such as churches and civic groups.
Johnson proposed a dozen “action steps” in his letter to Congress, including a review of the BSA’s federal charter and an independent task force to study youth-on-youth sexual abuse. He also called for the public release of information regarding decades-old “ineligible volunteer files” or “perversion files,” listing Scout leaders and volunteers suspected or convicted of abusing children.