Scout’s Honor Local officials, victim’s mother react to impact of confidential files
By: STEPHEN SEEBER Record Express Staff, Staff Writer
These are tough times for the Boy Scouts of America.
The recent release of the youth organization’s Ineligible Volunteer Files, often referred to as the "Perversion Files," opened some old wounds. For Lititz, the files revisited a 1974 incident in which a former troop leader was forced out of the program for alleged sexual misconduct. He found his way back into Scouting in 1985, as an unregistered assistant leader in Wilkes-Barre. There, he allegedly molested a Scout who eventually committed suicide. No police investigation, no charges filed, at either location. A Dec. 30 Sunday News article detailed this timeline and the anger of a still-grieving mother. The following day, the accused man who had never been investigated or charged, Kenneth Lamar Eshleman of Warwick Township, ended his life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Eshleman’s is one of thousands of previously confidential files maintained by the Boy Scouts. It was a way for the organization to police itself while enacting measures over time to improve youth safety.
Could the crimes Eshleman is accused of committing have been prevented? Did they even take place? Does the opening of the "Perversion Files" help solve the mystery or just muddy the water?
"The fact that these files exist has never been a secret," said Ed Rasmuson, Scout Executive of the Pennsylvania Dutch Council, which represents 5,600 Scouts in Lancaster and Lebanon counties. They were confidential to encourage people to come forward with allegations, he added. "I’m not sure if releasing them to the public was necessary."
In October, the Oregon Supreme Court opened the files, bringing to public light allegations of sexual abuse within the organization — some substantiated, some not. According to the files, 82 Pennsylvania volunteers were kicked out of Boy Scouts between 1961 and 1985 due to such charges. That list includes Eshleman.
In 1974, Eshleman was a 23-year-old Scout leader of the former Troop 154, which was sponsored by Lititz Church of the Brethren. Rumors that he was fondling boys in their tents at Camp Mack eventually led to his dismissal from the organization, according to Tom Lehmier, who was a Scouting executive at that time.
Lehmier, who joined Boy Scouts in 1935 and will turn 90 in two weeks, said he never knew or met Eshleman. However, he was involved in Eshleman’s dismissal from the Lititz troop.
"I heard all kinds of rumors," Lehmier recalled, "but I can’t go on rumors, and nobody ever came to me with evidence."
Why weren’t police notified?
"We lived in a different world," Lehmier said of the decision-making of 1974, explaining that confidential files were meant to protect kids. It wasn’t until 1996 that Pennsylvania adopted a Mandated Reporting law requiring professionals or officials to share suspicions of child abuse to the Department of Public Welfare. "Today, I would go to the police right away," he continued. "I was taught (long ago), as a Scout executive, that if someone is molested, we put him on a confidential list and get them out of Scouting. We tried to protect our kids."
Lehmier also explained that going to the police, at that time, would have been the responsibility of the troop’s sponsor.
Among the documents in Eshleman’s file are graphically-detailed letters from kids who claim they were fondled by their Scoutmaster; graphic correspondence between Lititz Church of the Brethren and the Lancaster County Council of the Boy Scouts; and Lehmier’s hope that hearsay would be enough to get Eshleman out of Lititz Scouting.
In a letter dated March 19, 1974 to Paul Ernst, a Boy Scout registration executive in New Jersey, Lehmier wrote:
"Trust the attached is sufficient to get Ken Eshleman on the confidential list. My D.E. (District Executive), Bernie Kelly, did a fine job investigating and brining to a successful conclusion."
Kelly’s internal investigation determined that Eshleman was "involved sexually with young boys," and his documentation included statements from the alleged victims.
Eshleman was asked to resign, according to the file. He agreed to do so, but denied the charges.
Forty years ago, the Boy Scouts’ internal files were considered strong enough to keep suspected child abusers out of the program. That was not the case with Eshleman, who managed to elude the system and reemerge in 1985 as an unregistered assistant Scoutmaster with Troop 33 in Wilkes-Barre. That’s where he met Josh Smith, a struggling teen dealing with depression. Eshleman bought gifts and wrote personal letters to Smith, who eventually told the staff of a hospital psychiatric unit that he had been molested by a troop leader. Five months later, he killed himself.
Lehmier said Eshleman was able to get back into scouting, at another location, only because he never officially registered with the organization. He was not there legitimately.
"He deceived the council in Wilkes-Barre," Lehmier said. "Had he been registered properly, he wouldn’t have gotten in."
According to Karen Martin, Josh’s mother, the Boy Scouts of America didn’t do enough.
"There should have been more of a warning," she said. "They should have gone a step further."
Martin said she holds a lot of resentment toward the organization that was supposed to be a safe haven for her boy. She wonders what her life might be today had Ken Eshleman never walked into their lives.
"I was robbed. Nothing can ever fill that void," she said. "They put my son at risk. They took his childhood. They took his life."
She said Eshleman presented himself as a nice guy. He visited their home and brought gifts. Eventually, her son’s depression spiraled downward, and she feels Eshleman is directly responsible for that. When she hears doubters say that he (Eshleman) was never investigated or charged, she simply says, "He got away with it."
"My son told me about the abuse," she said. "There’s no doubt in my mind. Every time I see the word ‘alleged’ it makes my skin crawl."
Today, 22 years after Josh’s death, things are different in Scouting. In addition to Mandated Reporting, the mechanisms are in place that would prevent an adult Scout leader from having any alone time with a child.
"What the Boy Scouts of America does today to protect children from abuse is very effective and very significant," Rasmuson said, "and the community needs to know that the young people participating in Scouting are safe."
Among the improvements:
1991: One-on-one adult and youth activities are prohibited.
1994: Criminal background checks required for all professionals and staff who work with youth.
2003: Boy Scouts begin conducting third-party, computerized criminal background checks on all new adult volunteers.
2010: Youth protection training, every two years, becomes mandatory for all registered adult members.
2011: Mandatory reporting of child abuse.
Rasmuson is quick to point out that these aren’t knee-jerk reactionary improvements.
"These initiatives have evolved over time, and they will continue to evolve and improve over time," he said.
He is equally quick to point out that while many of these safety measures were not in place when Eshleman was a Scout leader, it was a society-wide deficiency, not exclusive to Boy Scouts. As to whether or not the organization could have handled things differently in 1974, Rasmuson said he didn’t want to speculate. However, he believes the cutting edge protection procedures in place today will go a long way in preventing such incidents from happening in the future.
"The way we treated this issue 25-30 years ago is much different than today," he said.
Unfortunately, the improvements don’t bring much comfort to Martin.
"I’m very angry with the Boy Scouts," she said. "I feel as though the Boy Scouts of America has a very dark, looming shadow over its head because of this. I see it as criminal negligence on their part."
Martin said she has spoken with a law firm about possible legal action, but was informed that the statute of limitations prevents her from pursuing it.
"It’s not over in my mind," she said. "These are fresh wounds. I’ll never get my son back."
Her goal at this point, is to seek some sort of settlement that can be used to create a foundation in Josh’s name, one that would help abused and struggling children.
For Rasmuson and other current scout leaders, the goal is similar — to protect children from abuse so that they can experience the true benefits of Boy Scouting. He said he hopes publicity on the content of the "Perversion Files" will have a positive effect in the long run:
"If we are able to inform the general public, inform parents of Scouting-aged children, exactly what we do to protect a child, their confidence level in the program will go up." More SCOUT FILES, page A4