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Ex-Boy Scout boss to lead group that helps gay youths

The former head of the Cradle of Liberty Council Boy Scouts, a group the city sought to evict because its policy banned gays, has been hired to lead a nonprofit that helps gay youths.

Thomas Harrington, new CEO of Valley Youth House.
Thomas Harrington, new CEO of Valley Youth House.Read moreThe Boy Scouts of America

The former head of the Cradle of Liberty Council Boy Scouts, a group the city sought to evict because its policy banned gays, has been hired to lead a nonprofit that helps gay youths.

Thomas Harrington will be introduced Wednesday as the new CEO of Valley Youth House, an Allentown-based organization with offices and initiatives in Philadelphia.

In an interview, Harrington said the policy that disallowed gay scouts was set by the national Boy Scouts of America and had no bearing on his new role at Youth House, which, among other programs, helps gay, lesbian, and transgender youths find jobs, housing, and comfort in their own identities.

"We never discriminated," Harrington said of his three-year tenure as the Liberty Council scout executive and CEO. "Anybody that knew the leadership of the Cradle of Liberty Council would know they were national advocates for changing the Boy Scout policy."

Harrington, an Eagle scout, led the Philadelphia-area council from 2010 to 2013, then became Western Region director for the Boy Scouts of America. In that job, he said, he worked behind the scenes to encourage the national leadership to lift bans against gay youths as members and gay adults as leaders.

Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, called Harrington's hiring "disappointing."

"You've hired a person who upheld discrimination against gay youth," he said. "And now that same person is going to be dealing with gay youth."

Segal said Harrington contacted him after accepting the job. "I told him if I were them, I would not have hired him," Segal said.

Earlier this year, the Boy Scouts of America announced it was lifting its ban on allowing gay adults to be scout leaders. Gay youths were allowed into the Boy Scouts in 2013.

For years in Philadelphia, starting before Harrington became head of the Liberty Council and continuing during his tenure, the city and scouts fought a pitched battle.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision deemed the Boy Scouts a "membership organization" that could exclude gays. The city government contended that the scouting council's refusal to explicitly reject the national policy violated the City Charter.

City officials sought to evict the scouts from their longtime home in a building on city property near Logan Square, saying the ban on gay members was discriminatory. In 2010, however, a federal jury ruled for the Boy Scouts, saying an eviction would violate the group's First Amendment rights.

The city appealed the federal decision, and in 2013 the sides reached a settlement: The city would pay $825,000 to the Liberty Council, and the Boy Scouts would move out.

Lesley Fallon, chairperson of the Valley Youth House board of directors, said board members asked Harrington about the Boy Scouts ban during his job interview, and also discussed it among themselves.

"I know Tom personally did not agree with that policy, and he worked within the organization to change it," she said Wednesday. "I understand the concerns, because it is so important to us support the LGBT youth. . . . I have no question where Tom stands as a person, and where he has put his influence with the Boy Scouts or now with Valley Youth House."

An initial pool of about 75 applicants was trimmed to eight or nine, all seeking to become the third director in the agency's 43-year history. Harrington stood highest because of the breadth and depth of his experience with youths, Fallon said.

"We knew there were going to be questions, but we knew Tom was the right person to run the organization," she said. "I'm very comfortable that Tom's personal views are in line with ours."

Valley Youth House, which raises and spends about $20 million a year, runs several programs to help vulnerable, abused, and homeless youth. Its Pride initiative aims to help gay youths "embrace their identity and overcome the obstacles presented by housing insecurities and homelessness," its website says.

In October, Valley Youth House gained wide publicity for its "Sheltering Pride" effort, which sought to raise awareness and money to help youths forced from their homes because of their sexuality. Nonprofit leaders lugged a couch to prominent sites in Center City, declaring that "couches don't count" as reliable housing and asking passersby to discuss the issue.

In Philadelphia about 40 percent of homeless youths are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transsexual, studies say. National statistics mirror that - and show 40 percent ran away or were forced out of their homes because their families could not accept their sexual orientation or identity.

"We have four pillars of Youth House, and the first one is, 'We are inclusive,' " Harrington said.

During the battle over the Boy Scouts ban, Harrington told The Inquirer that his council had no membership test, but "there is a national policy we have to follow."

He said this week, "The national policy was the national policy. There were many people who wanted to change it."

Local scout leaders faced a choice, he said. They could comply with the policy, or "we could have chosen to not be a Boy Scout council anymore. But many of us, including me, felt the Boy Scouts served a lot of kids."

Since starting at Youth House about 10 days ago, Harrington said, he has reached out to local leaders, including those in the gay community, "to let them know the mission and focus has not changed."

Segal, the Gay News publisher, praised Youth House as passionate and committed to helping gay youths.

Harrington "will be judged on his actions," Segal said. And, he added, people will be watching.