A new lawsuit against the Boy Scouts sheds light on thousands of cases of pedophilia within the organization. It looks as if the Boy Scouts used the same playbook as the Catholic Church and Penn State: cover-ups, denial, and manipulation. All in service of the institution over the individual.
In these recent cases of widespread sexual abuse, almost all of the children, mostly boys, are in the early stages of puberty. This is a time when these young children are trying to figure out what it means to be a man. And after the abuse, they wonder about their own masculinity and sexual identity. Most feel guilt. Almost all feel shame carrying this secret, sometimes for decades.
I know because I am a psychologist. But I also know because I was one of these boys.
I was an insecure 12-year-old when I was sexually abused by my Boy Scout troop leader. At the time, I felt different from the other kids because my grades were so poor. I remember walking to school from my middle-class neighborhood in Margate, N.J., and doubling over with stomach cramps. In hindsight, I was so afraid of going to school that I literally could not move.
The man who abused me was my Scout leader and my seventh-grade teacher. He was physically large. He was powerful, but kind. He may have seen that I was very sensitive and very insecure and he believed in me and saw my potential. I saw him as a “man’s man,” just the opposite of my dad, who was gentle and sweet. I liked this kind of powerful man and I wanted to make him proud. I was flattered when he invited me to join a leadership club that was private and elite.
On the day he abused me, I met him in his house after school. Twenty minutes later, I found myself naked in his bed, terrified and tearful after being threatened with a paddle. He held me and then he began touching my penis and kissing me on the lips. I wasn’t aroused nor repulsed. I was just very confused.
I went back one more time because I was scared not to. I stayed in the Boy Scouts for the same reason.
It took me 10 years to realize I had been sexually abused. All I knew during those years was that I felt different and unworthy. And every time I asked a girl for a date and she rejected me (not all that unusual!), I told myself she rejected me because she could see something broken inside of me.
I didn’t tell my parents until I was nearly 40 years old. I kept it my secret shame. I was sure people wouldn’t believe me or would react in a way that would make me feel more ashamed.
Shortly before the abuse took place, my Scout leader, who held a degree in psychology, suggested I invite a psychologist in for career day at school. I’d barely even heard of psychology. After all, this was 1958, when issues of mental health weren’t widely discussed.
When the psychologist came in and talked about what he did, I became increasingly curious. I decided right then and there I would become a psychologist no matter what obstacles.
In 1969 I was awarded my master’s degree, which enabled me to get a license and begin practicing as a psychologist. Over the years I have treated many people who have been abused either physically or sexually. Those patients have one thing in common: a kind of darkness deep inside that’s called shame.
My experiences as a sexual-abuse victim help me relate to these patients deeply. I know that shame and the fear that if anyone knew our dark secrets, we would be rejected and wind up alone in this world.
I regularly remind my patients — and myself — that it’s not our fault. After all of these years I still get angry sometimes. Murderously angry. But most of the time I am fine.
So much suffering comes from this kind of abuse — and much of it is based in shame. The shame that victims such as I feel as a result of being abused. Even the Boy Scouts organization’s denials, manipulations, and deception are based in shame.
As a psychologist, I know that my Scout leader had a disease. Years after he abused me, allegations about his conduct with other boys became public. Shortly after that, in a tragic turn of events, he murdered his wife and three sons before taking his own life. I believe that, too, was a result of the shame, the shame he felt over his actions.
When I heard about the latest and widespread allegations of sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts, I felt grief all over again and rage at the abuses. I also felt residual guilt about not saying something to someone when I was 12 years old. I know it’s unrealistic, but I still sometimes wonder if I could have helped other boys avoid this pain if I’d spoken up.
At its best, the Boy Scouts create and build an important community for children. But the volume of allegations of sexual abuse and the likely cover-up show that the Boy Scouts is a deeply flawed organization with wrong-minded priorities. For this organization and those it has harmed to begin healing, those in charge must open up and allow everything to become visible.
Not only do we need full disclosure from the Boy Scouts. We need to know that there are active plans to remediate the harm caused by both the abuse and the cover-up. I suggest meetings with Boy Scout leaders, victims, and parents of current Scouts. I would like to see this moderated by someone who understands mindfulness and compassion in the business world.
Sexual abuse of children is a disease of shame. It is like a mold that keeps growing and growing. The only way to stop the growth is to bring in sunshine and light.