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Grief and anger


February 19. 2013 9:17PM
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It's been 21 years since 18-year-old Joshua Smith hanged himself in his bedroom, but his mother, Karen Martin, still struggles with her loss.


A few months before his death, Joshua had confided to a counselor that he had been sexually abused by a man while on trips with the Boy Scouts of America in the mid-1980s, Martin said.


For years, she questioned herself: Why didn't she know? Could she have done more to protect her son?


The grief that haunts her today turned to anger a few weeks ago, when she learned the man Joshua accused of molesting him was among thousands of men who were banned from the Boy Scouts based on allegations of sexual abuse.


The man, from Lititz, Pa. was removed as a Scoutmaster of Troop 154 in Lititz in March 1974 after three Scouts alleged he had sexually abused them, according to internal Boy Scout documents released recently.


The man was never charged in connection with the 1974 accusations. Neither the Boy Scouts nor the parents of the boys involved reported the alleged abuse to police, the records show.


The confidential list, as it was called by the Boy Scouts, ensured the man could not serve as a Scoutmaster. But that did not protect her son, Martin said.


Befriended Scoutmaster

That's because the man continued to attend Scout outings through his friendship with another Scoutmaster who headed Troop 33 based out of a Lutheran church in Wilkes-Barre, Martin said.


There is nothing to indicate whether anyone within the troop, which is now disbanded, had knowledge the man was on the Boy Scouts confidential list. The former troop leader at the time of the alleged abuse did not respond to several phone messages.


Martin, 59, of Swoyersville, said she never knew the man had previously been accused of abusing Scouts until several weeks ago, when she came across his name on a website set up by an Oregon law firm that identified the men contained in the so-called perversion files maintained by the Boy Scouts.


I read the file and thought, ‘those bastards.' They knew he was doing this and they covered it up, Martin said.


The Times Leader is withholding the man's name because he was never charged in connection with the alleged abuse of Martin's son.


Martin said her son's case was investigated by Luzerne County Children and Youth Services, which determined the allegations were founded. A criminal investigation was also launched, but the case was dropped after Joshua's death, she said.


Without him to offer testimony, there was nothing that could be done and the case was closed, she said.



Scouts under fire

The Boy Scouts organization has come under fire for how it handled cases of alleged sexual abuse. Attorneys who obtained files of the alleged abusers as part of several lawsuits claim the Scouts purposely kept allegations of abuse secret to protect the organization's reputation.


Thomas Lehmier, a former Boy Scout executive who investigated the 1974 allegations made against Joshua's alleged abuser, said he believes the Scouts are being unfairly demonized by the media and public.


They're saying we were trying to protect the Boy Scouts. That's bull crap, Lehmier, now 89, said in a phone interview from his home in Lititz. We were trying to protect those kids from predators. We don't care about the Boy Scouts. We care about kids.


Lehmier acknowledged police were not notified about the alleged abuse. That's because the parents, concerned for their children's privacy, chose not to contact authorities, he said.


I said to the parents, ‘Do you want to carry this any further?' They said no, Lehmier said. They decided to drop it. If you want to go to police, it's your son, not my son. What was I supposed to do?


Today there are mandated reporting laws that require counselors, teachers and others who deal with children to report allegations of sexual or physical abuse. Those laws did not exist in the 1970s.


Organization responds

In an email, Deron Smith, a spokesman for Boys Scouts of America, said the organization takes extensive steps to ensure children's safety, but it acknowledges mistakes had been made.


Unfortunately, there have been instances in the past where people misused their positions in Scouting to abuse children, and in certain cases, our response to these incidents and our efforts to protect youth were plainly insufficient, inappropriate, or wrong, Smith said. Today the BSA requires background checks, comprehensive training programs for volunteers, staff, youth and parents and mandates reporting to authorities of even suspected abuse.


The Boy Scouts also require two adults be present with Scouts, ensuring no children are left alone with an adult, he said.


It's not clear how thoroughly the Boy Scouts check the background of adult non-Scouts who take part in Scouting activities, however.


Smith did not respond to specific questions about whether background checks are performed on non-Scouts or if their names are checked against the confidential list. He said those decisions are made at the local troop level, but he did not provide details of what steps local troop leaders must take.


Martin was alarmed to learn the organization continues to permit adults who are non-Scouts to take part in Scouting activities.


That was Josh's case exactly, Martin said. It should be mandatory that anyone not associated with the organization who goes on trips be vetted to ensure there is no history of abuse.


Male role model sought

Martin said she's worked hard over the past two decades to overcome her grief. The revelations about her son's alleged abuser have brought back many painful memories.


She thought she was doing the right thing when she signed Joshua and his brother, Sean, up for Boy Scouts. The boys' father died in 1982, when Josh was 9 and Sean, 12, and she wanted a male figure in their lives.


Martin said the man befriended Joshua, frequently traveling from his home in Lititz to take him on trips and buying him gifts. At the time, she thought he was just a nice man reaching out to a boy in need. Now she sees his actions as classic signs of grooming.


He was the perfect candidate for a pedophile, Martin said. He had issues with his father being gone. He was vulnerable and fragile.


As a child, Joshua was happy-go-lucky, a certified goofball who used to amuse family and friends with his impression of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous TV host Robin Leach.


As he entered his teenage years, his personality took a drastic turn as mental illness took over his life, she said.


The once talkative child became sullen and dark. He withdrew from society and began engaging in bizarre behavior, including setting small fires in the attic of the family's Carlisle Street home in Wilkes-Barre, she said.


Most disturbing, Martin said, he became fascinated with the occult. She said he created writings and drawings of a satanic or bizarre nature, and amassed a large cache of weapons in the home, including knives, guns and machetes.


Martin said she tried desperately to find help for Joshua. She phoned and wrote to experts all across the United States, but was frustrated by the lack of services.


In August 1990, she had Joshua committed to a psychiatric hospital. That's where he finally revealed his secret.


They thought he might have been abused. They kept on Josh and worked with him until finally he came out and told them what happened, she said.


On Feb. 21, 1991, Joshua was set to return to the psychiatric center after a weekend visit home. His brother found him hanging in his room that morning.


I ran to the bedroom and dropped to my knees and screamed ‘not yet, not yet,' Martin said.


Mom: Abuse hurt Joshua

Martin acknowledges Joshua was a troubled teen who suffered from mental illness. She does not blame the Boy Scouts for all his troubles, but is convinced the alleged sexual abuse played a role in his deepening psychological issues and ultimately led him to take his life.


One thing he said to me, he knew he had been abused and he didn't want to grow up to be an abuser. He was terrified, she said.


She said she decided to come forward with her story now because she wants to ensure the Boy Scouts are held accountable, if not in the court system, in the public eye.


I long ago accepted my son's death by his own hands and believe that he is at peace with himself. But for those same years, I have been haunted with the fact that the pedophile who sexually abused my son was never brought to justice and was never stopped from hurting another child, she said. Without a doubt I think it's criminal negligence on the Boy Scouts' part …My son did not have to die.


 
 


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