The Lookout

Retired Boy Scouts executive defends his work as keeper of secret sex files

Jason Sickles, Yahoo
The Lookout

Paul Ernst appears to be your average mild-mannered accountant type, but look past the glasses and the tie, and you'll find a man once tasked with the job of playing morals cop for the Boy Scouts of America.

For more than two decades, if a troop suspected that a child molester was among them, Ernst was the guy to tell. From 1971 to 1993, when he retired, Ernst was officially the BSA's national director of registration, subscriptions and statistical services—maintaining membership rosters, producing stats for annual reports and keeping the books on Boys' Life magazine subscriptions. But he also had the unpleasant task of being point man for the Boy Scouts' "perversion files," a secret system started around 1920 to try and keep unfit leaders out of the institution's ranks.

Ernst regularly received letters from across the country. They detailed despicable acts by adult staffers and volunteers, and requested the men be banished from the BSA's rolls:

"indecent liberties with a child."

"mooning (dropping pants) of boys by the adult leaders."

"second degree sodomy."

For Ernst, once a small-town Scout himself, policing the organization's seedy side meant being the middleman between troops on the ground and BSA brass, who strived to keep their system as private as possible. That shroud of secrecy is now being attacked by victims' advocates who blame the Scouts for putting the institution before individuals.

Officially, the Scouts have asked Ernst not to talk. But the 86-year-old did tell Yahoo News he has no regrets about his career and that he performed his job the way he was told.

"We made some mistakes just like everybody does," he said recently outside his suburban Dallas home. "We were protecting kids. And we thought we were doing a fairly good job, but we can't take things from one generation and put them in another. The laws have changed, everything has changed."

He declined to discuss specific cases with Yahoo News, but 20 years ago he described to a reporter his early days on the job. "The files themselves were very shocking to me," Ernst said. "I said this is one of those things in life that you have to completely divorce yourself from when you leave the office."

Separating himself from the secret files hasn't been easy. Since retiring 19 years ago, Ernst has been ordered to testify in lawsuits by abused former Scouts who faulted the organization for failing to protect them. Lawyers like Paul Mones (who deposed Ernst in the video above) have assailed the BSA for failing to notify law enforcement or study the files for patterns that might help identify perverts.

"He was clearly the point person during what is the crucial time period that these files arose," said Mones, a Portland sex abuse attorney.

In 2010, detailed evidence from the confidential files persuaded an Oregon jury to award $20 million to a man who was molested by his troop leader in the 1980s. The amount of the penalty was a record for the Scouts to pay out. But the bigger black eye came last month when, against the Scouts' wishes, the secret files from 1965 to 1985 used in the trial were made public (minus victims' names).

Since then, reporters across the country have been scouring the more than 1,200 cases of alleged molesters in the files. The findings haven't been favorable: Some alleged abusers were allowed to resign quietly, while others were merely put on membership probation where they were able to violate children again.

[RELATED: L.A. Times' database of the files]

For Ernst, who still volunteers once a week at the National Scouting Museum in Texas, the scandal has meant seeing his name and critiques of his career make national news.

"Going back and making decisions 20 years later is kind of hard," he said when asked if he would have done anything differently. "I've been retired for many years."

One particular quote by Ernst has been used widely. In a 1981 reply to a request to have a den leader banned, Ernst wrote, "I will agree that sleeping nude and showing the boys pornographic books indicated very poor judgement [sic] when dealing with cub scouts. I do not know, however, that this is a serious enough offense to refuse registration anywhere he might try to register unless there are more instances."

Five months later, the den leader Ernst was referring to was court-martialed by the Air Force for encouraging two boys to engage in sexual activities in his presence.

As he has in depositions over the years, Ernst reiterated to Yahoo News that the files were never intended to be investigations, just a tool to catch ineligible volunteers who might seek to rejoin their ranks. Privacy ensured anonymity for victims, the BSA has long maintained.

"We weren't trying to persecute anybody," Ernst told Yahoo News. "We were trying to protect kids and also not cause people to lose their jobs. We weren't trying to put people in jail because of something they did. That was up to the law to decide that."

That defense is very indicative of Ernst's era as a Scouts executive, said Patrick Boyle, author of "Scout's Honor:  Sexual Abuse in America's Most Trusted Institution."

The Scouts "were very reflective of their time, which is, we just want to not have this problem, but we're not going to think about what happens when the problem leaves us," he said.

Often Ernst's correspondence with troop leaders reads as though he was tiptoeing around the circumstances in order not to offend the accused.

"We hope you will use this information with discretion since we have tried to maintain our files so that they cannot be subpoenaed in any legal action," he wrote in a 1988 letter.

"A big part of his job was protecting the organization from angry adults. … They were concerned about being sued by adults who wanted to be a part of Scouting and weren't allowed," Boyle said. "What they didn't have on their radar was that they might get sued by the victim."

[RELATED: Boy Scouts' youth protection resources]

While file after file is laced with details of lewd acts, most also contain at least one page dedicated to minuscule accounting like whether or not the alleged abuser was due a refund for his Boys' Life subscription.

"The files do show an incredible focus on really small details … at the expense of stepping back and looking at the big picture," Boyle said.

These days, reporting suspected abuse to the police is a mandatory first step, and the director of registration is no longer responsible for the ineligible-volunteer files.

"Today, the files are not maintained by an individual, but a team," said BSA spokesman Deron Smith.

This long-overdue policy shift, Boyle said, might have let Ernst escape the Scouts' sex scandal.

"Honestly, you gotta feel for the guy," he said. "The guy did not ask to be in charge of policing child molesters for the Boy Scouts. In fact, he was not trained to police child molesters for the Boy Scouts, but that became his job.

"On the other hand, he handled thousands of files about child molesters and you gotta hope at some point he would have seen some patterns and recognized that they had a significant problem."

The soft-spoken Ernst seemed to be at a loss for words when asked what he might say to parents now reading the public perversion files.

"What can you say?" he said. "I'd say we made some good decisions and bad decisions probably. I don't know. I have no idea."

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