What Was Catholicism's Role in the Boy Scouts' Anti-Gay Decision?

Did institutional Catholicism play a role in the Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) recent decision to re-affirm their ban on gay Scouts and leaders?

Many commentators think the answer to that question is “Yes.”   The BSA recently held a two-year closed door discussion on the matter, and they emerged with the same position that they have had for years: no gay scouts and no gay leaders (including lesbian women, as a story toward the end of this post will illustrate).  Commentators were quick to infer that fact that a large number of scout troops are hosted by Catholic and Mormon churches, both of whom have strong policies against associating with gay-friendly organizations, played a role in the decision.

An editorial in The Los Angeles Times points to some dramatic statistics:

“. . . The Boy Scouts, unlike the Girl Scouts or international Scouting groups, derive considerable support from religious organizations that take a dim view of homosexuality, especially the Mormon and Roman Catholic churches. Less than 2% of the U.S. population is Mormon, but 15% of Scouts are. The Boy Scouts of America could lose hundreds of thousands of Scouts if it opened its doors to atheists and gay people.”

Columnist Alfred Doblin of New Jersey’s Record newspaper cites the lawyer who defended a gay Scout leader in a Supreme Court battle:

“The BSA’s anti-gay policy has been under public scrutiny since 1990, when a New Jersey assistant Scoutmaster, James Dale, then a student at Rutgers University, was dismissed after Scout officials learned he was gay. Dale did what any good Scout should do: Stood his ground. He stood it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“In 2000, in a split decision, the high court ruled the Boy Scouts could, indeed, discriminate based on sexual orientation.

“Now, more than two decades after dismissing Dale, after the U.S. military has lifted its ban on gays and lesbians openly serving, after six states plus the District of Columbia allow gay and lesbian couples to legally marry, and after similar organizations such as the Girl Scouts of the USA have left this issue behind, the Boy Scouts continue to defend discrimination.

“In an interview Wednesday, Evan Wolfson, who represented Dale before the U.S. Supreme Court, said, ‘What is going on here is the hijacking of the organization by the most reactionary elements of the Catholic hierarchy and the Mormon hierarchy. This secrecy, and this handing down on high in this supposedly membership-run organization, is so like them.

“ ‘It shows how far the Boy Scouts has now become from what most people think of it being, including otherwise worthwhile programs that ideally would help all youth, because of the way it has been hijacked,’ said Wolfson.”

Doblin also commented on the secrecy of the BSA’s deliberations:

“It is impossible to believe that the findings are reflective of the Boy Scouts’ membership when that membership knew nothing of the investigation.

“A Boy Scout is brave. Where is the bravery in a secret committee?”

John Sweeney of Delaware’s News Journal had some sympathy for protecting the rights of religious groups which sponsor Scout troops and offered a compromise for the BSA if religious groups’ objections are fueling the continued discriminatory policy:

“. . .[T]he Scouts are essentially a religious group. The Boy Scouts organization doesn’t allow atheists either. And, in this country, how can you require a religious group to go against its beliefs? Most of the arguments we have heard are secular in nature, with the critics treating the Boy Scouts as a purely secular group.

“But, and this is my second point, the sponsors of Boy Scout troops are often churches or synagogues or other religious organizations. How can you require the Catholic Church or a a mosque to endorse a behavior its teachings hold as wrong?

“On other hand, though, that very federalism, if you will, provides a solution. The national organization really does little in running individual troops. Not all of the religious organizations that sponsor the troops forbid or condemn people who are gay. Likewise, many secular organizations also sponsor troops. Why not let them follow their beliefs as well?”

Across the Atlantic, Nancy Goldstein, a columnist in London’s Guardian newspaper drew a comparison between anti-gay policies of the BSA and the Catholic hierarchy, with very worrisome forebodings:

“Because the Scouts are already, despite their very best efforts at concealment, on the record as having had similar difficulties as those other allegedly gay-free institutions with sexual abusers among the men it has entrusted with its youth. And for similar reasons. Not because the molesters were ‘gay; – in fact, LGBT people make up a fraction of child abusers and the sexual preferences of the sick, primarily male adults who molest children skew towards age rather than gender – but because the organization’s leaders refused to discipline the child abusers in its midst or to involve the police, long past the time when they knew of instances of sexual abuse. In fact, the smoking gun in the most recent of the many cases filed against the Scouts by former members for failing to protect them from predatory leaders was the Scouts’ own ‘perversion files.’ These privately kept documents, over 20,000 pages of them, detail accusations and investigations of sexual abuse and other improprieties by 1,200 Boy Scout leaders across the United States from 1965 to 1985 – as well as what the organization did and did not do to protect their youth once cases of abuse were known to them. . . .

“There are remarkable similarities between the Boy Scouts’ and the Roman Catholic church’s handling of the sexual abusers in their midst. Both institutions documented numerous instances of abuse, failed either to discipline the adults involved or alert the authorities, and then decided, as the church did in 2002, at the height of its own sexual abuse scandal, that gays were the problem.

“Which brings us closer to the heart of the matter. Ignore all of the Scouts’ official mumbo-jumbo about the (unidentified) leaders who comprised the special committee of top Scout leaders that made this decision, especially the part about their alleged “diversity of perspectives and opinions”. As the LA Times notes, what’s really happening here is a business decision about the organization’s sustainability, driven by the influence of two of the Scouts’ most powerful benefactors: the Roman Catholic and Mormon churches. About 400,000 of the 2.7 million members left in the dwindling organization, “belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”, which “encourages members to become involved in the Boy Scouts, and has its own section on the Boy Scouts of America webpage.”

In a related story, PinkNews.co.uk reports that the Ohio woman who was dismissed from being a Cub Scout den mother because she is a lesbian, has brought a 300,000 signature petition to be reinstated to the BSA:

Jennifer Tyrrell and her son, Cruz

“Jennifer Tyrrell, who was the leader of a Bridgeport, Ohio, Tiger Cub den, was dismissed in April. She had been den mother for the group for a year, taking the position when her seven-year-old son Cruz joined.

“Ms Tyrrell says a local Cubmaster knew of her sexual orientation and assured her it would not be a problem when she joined.

“Delivering the Change.org petition, Ms Tyrrell told CNN: ‘Along with those 300,000 signatures were tens of thousands of comments from scouts – current scouts, former scouts, across the board – who disagree with the decision to keep this policy in place.’ ”

“She added: ‘I don’t think it was their intention to personally disrespect me. Unfortunately, it’s just a policy that we need to update a little bit.

“ ‘I love Scouts as everybody probably knows by now. Cruz loves Scouts and we don’t have any ill feeling toward the Scouts. We just wanted to be included.’ ”

Various news reports about the BSA’s decision noted that a number of parents were withdrawing their sons and any future support to the Scouts as a protest.  What’s your opinion?  How should Catholics respond to this discriminatory policy, which may have been influenced by leaders of their church?  Feel free to make suggestions in the “Comments” section for this post.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry





0 replies
  1. Donna J. High
    Donna J. High says:

    I deeply regret how defensive individuals r shifting responsiblity for child abuse to the gay element. Unfortunaely this action will not protect children because it does not attempt to address the problem for realistic, appropriate solutions. My respect for two wonderful groups is damaged a great deal.


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