When Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson served as president of the Boy Scouts, from 2010 to 2012, a sexual abuse scandal was engulfing the organization.
As lawsuits and reporting by the Los Angeles Times revealed, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) had secretly kept files on thousands of scoutmasters and volunteers accused of sexual violence against children. The cases reached back all the way to 1947, many of which were never reported to law enforcement.
During Tillerson’s tenure, one particular case was working its way through the Oregon court system, culminating in an October 2012 ruling in the Oregon Supreme Court—four months after Tillerson stepped down as president—that ruled the BSA had to release 1,900 files to the public.
During Tillerson’s time as president, the BSA instituted mandatory reporting of sexual abuse claims to authorities—but Tillerson never spoke publicly about the pedophilia scandal, nor offered an official apology to any its victims. He remains in a leadership role in the organization to this day.
For one victim of abuse—an Eagle Scout, like Tillerson—the potential Secretary of State’s silence during that time represents a painful reflection of the organization’s historical failure to protect children. In 2003, Matt Stewart and his brother, Tom, sued the Boy Scouts of America, two local chapters, and their scoutmaster, and settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. The Stewarts have publicly spoken out about the Scouting scandal and Matt related his story to The Daily Beast below (with edits for clarity). As told to Tim Mak.
By Matt Stewart
Between 1971 to 1983, when we were ages 6 to 18, my brother Tom and I were sexually molested by our Boy Scout leader in Troop 336 from Tacoma, Washington. The realization [that we had] to come forward was after reading in the newspaper about the childhood sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church.
As Tom and I became adults, our mission was to make the public aware of the dangers of Scouting to parents. We sought the guidance and leadership of Seattle-based attorney Tim Kosnoff in 2002 to hold the Scouts accountable for the sexual childhood crimes committed against us as youths.
As president of the Boy Scouts and a longtime participant in the Boy Scouts, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson has served for decades in leadership roles. Rex Tillerson should have had a moral obligation to say something about sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts, and he did not.
Our multi-year lawsuit, from 2003 to 2006, against the Boy Scouts culminated in the landmark Washington State Supreme Court decision that forced the BSA to provide our attorneys with thousands of confidential files documenting thousands of childhood molestation cases by its adult membership over four decades.
The files are handwritten and printed documents by Boy Scout officials and letters from parents, as well as newspaper clippings from local newspapers, documenting each child abuse case and the details of how each case was handled by Boy Scout officials.
Most alarmingly, the files document how in many cases, Boy Scout leadership never notified the police of suspected abuse, and even told parents of alleged victims not to report the incidents to police. Instead, the organization decided to handle many cases privately.
These secret files, the public release of which Boy Scouts’ lawyers fought against for nearly two decades, included individual reports of molestation and the rape of children, incidents that were often never referred to law enforcement.
In this way, thousands of boys were abused by predatory pedophiles for decades.
Tillerson either knew or should have known the Boy Scouts confidential files existed.
In his role as president, he should have publicly apologized for the Boy Scouts’ role in this cover-up. The Boy Scouts have said they were proactive against childhood sex abuse when clearly their actions have shown the opposite. They have fought every abuse claim by their teams of attorneys. Their actions speak louder than their words. The organization is not to be trusted.
Tillerson’s leadership involvement should have included speaking out on this topic, rather than behaving like all other past presidents: doing nothing to apologize to the thousands of children who were raped over decades.
Is Tillerson qualified to lead as Secretary of State? I think not. Lawmakers should rethink their support for him. And senators should ask what Tillerson knew about the “perversion files” and when he knew it. Congress needs to send the correct message that it is not OK for leaders in charge of today’s youth to stay passive when sexual abuse is clearly documented before them.
I would strongly urge the new administration and Congress to distance itself from the Boy Scouts of America and stop supporting an organization that has caused such great family destruction for decades.
Editor’s note: The Boy Scouts of America did not directly respond to questions on whether Tillerson ever led any private effort to address the child-abuse scandal. A spokesperson for the organization noted that Tillerson “was instrumental in leading the organization through an important period of growth and development, while upholding the long-standing traditions of character and good citizenship that are essential to Scouting’s mission” and added that the Boy Scouts now have a “comprehensive program of education” to prevent child abuse, including criminal background checks and mandatory reporting of any allegation or suspicion of abuse to law enforcement.
“While not secret, the contents of the files have been kept confidential for effective reporting mechanisms,” the spokesperson added.