Boy Scouts Forced To Reveal Scope Of Abuse

Last year, the Boy Scouts were forced to turn over all confidential files on adult leaders accused of wrongdoing, as part of a lawsuit filed by Matt, left, and Tom Stewart, shown here in Seattle in May 2007. The brothers were abused by their Scoutmaster. They received his West Seattle house, at rear, where they had been molested, in a settlement and quickly sold it. The Scouts now have background checks and training that didn't exist when the Stewarts were molested. AP/Mike Siegel, The Seattle Times

Like many other boys who grew up in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1980s, Tom and Matt Stewart shared a rugged 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 troop all the way to Eagle Scout. Years later, Tom became a Scoutmaster for his own sons.

But as they became adults and moved a thousand miles apart, each privately struggled with memories of Scouting that neither wanted to talk about: the sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of their Scoutmaster, Bruce Phelps.

Matt Stewart would grow queasy at the sight of young Scouts in uniform. Tom Stewart suffered nightmares of fighting off Phelps' advances.

Finally, 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, and the brothers spokesmen for a much larger issue. 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 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 past 15 years alone, the organization has kicked out leaders for such allegations at a rate of once every other day.

The 45 boxes of files are not public because of a strict court order that 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 point out 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.

But the Stewart brothers, now in their 40s, still grapple with the damage done by a single Scoutmaster. Phelps declined to be interviewed, but he has admitted abusing the brothers and two other boys in sworn testimony.

"The Boy Scouts is very unique because there is a very dangerous bond between Scout and Scoutmaster," explained Tom Stewart, now a 44-year-old Boeing engineer who lives near Enumclaw. "You are out in the middle of nowhere on an outing, and the Scoutmaster is God."

"I was constantly scared"

About five years ago, Matt Stewart was sitting on a beach in California, reading a newspaper story about sex abuse by Catholic priests, when he felt a chill of recognition. He saw the victims' trauma in his own life: work problems, a pattern of failed relationships, a deep distrust of authority.

"I knew that I had lost my youth," said Stewart, now a 42-year-old pharmaceutical salesman who lives in Palm Desert, Calif. "But I never knew why until then."

He called his brother Tom with the epiphany. Over the next few months, their pain congealed into anger. "We both had blocked out a lot of what happened to us," said Tom Stewart.

The Stewarts grew up as overachievers in Federal Way's Dash Point neighborhood: Straight-A students, musicians and athletes.

Their mother had urged them to join the Boy Scouts and had introduced them to Phelps, a teenage Eagle Scout who lived down the street and had his own Jeep.

Tom Stewart recalls his excitement as a second-grader when Phelps offered him a ride home after one of his first Cub Scout meetings. Along the way, according to Stewart, Phelps pulled over and performed oral sex on him. Matt Stewart also says he was about a second-grader when Phelps molested him during a fishing trip on Elliott Bay.

The abuse, including oral and anal sex, persisted all the way through high school, the brothers say: at Scout outings and camps, at a drive-in movie theater, at Phelps' house in West Seattle, and even in the Stewarts' own basement while their parents were upstairs.

Their parents let them spend entire weekends at Phelps' house on the pretext of working on merit badges, even after Phelps had grown up and 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.

The Stewarts say they stayed quiet about the abuse because Phelps threatened to shoot their parents — or himself. They say they believed him because he often carried a revolver. "I was constantly scared," said Matt Stewart.

Phelps denied making the threats in a deposition for the Stewarts' lawsuit.

Matt Stewart didn't break his silence until age 25, in late 1989, when he called Seattle police.

  • Dan Collins

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