In Scouts’ sex-abuse scandal, dark secrets for a model citizen

Boy Scouts of America and Cub Scout troops carry a large American flag during the LibertyFest Fourth of July parade in Edmond, Okla.
Boy Scouts of America and Cub Scout troops carry a large American flag during the LibertyFest Fourth of July parade in Edmond, Okla.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Who could have been a more upstanding citizen than Ernest Boland?

Businessman. Rotarian. Adviser to local government officials. Full colonel in the Army Reserve. And, for 25 years, the leader of three separate Boy Scout troops.

“He helped a lot of boys start on the right path in life,” an admirer wrote in nominating Boland as Athens’ citizen of the century.

But behind the façade of uniforms and civic engagement, Boland seemed to harbor dark secrets. Across Athens, scouts and other boys quietly unburdened their shame: Boland, they told their parents, was not the trusted mentor they perceived him as, but a child molester, one who forced them to repeatedly perform sex acts with him.

These secrets finally were revealed last month through the release of long-confidential files that detailed accusations of sexual abuse by scoutmasters nationwide. Boland’s file claims he molested a dozen or more scouts and other boys between the 1950s and the 1970s. Even when some of the boys told, the file shows, prominent adults in Athens kept the matter quiet, tacitly giving Boland the chance to continue abusing boys under his authority.

The way Scout officials, leaders of his church and others handled the allegations against Boland reflects the ethos of an earlier era, before such iconic institutions as the Roman Catholic Church and Penn State’s football program were forced to deal with scandals involving the sexual abuse of children. Laws did not mandate reporting suspicions of abuse to authorities, as they do now, and a common approach was to deal with child molesters, especially those who enjoyed a degree of prominence in their communities, behind the scenes.

“In those days, this was a no-no in terms of publicizing it,” said the Rev. James Griffith, who as Boland’s pastor in the mid-1970s heard reports of his sexual transgressions. “It was suspected, but there was not much done about it.”

No one at his church, Griffith said, discussed reporting Boland to the police or even telling the scouts’ parents.

The Boy Scouts of America severed ties with Boland only after the organization received the third of three complaints about him in five years. The report of an internal investigation from 1977 barely mentions harm to the children Boland was accused of molesting, but lists in detail his civic activities.

“The complicated part of this matter,” a Boy Scout official wrote, “deals with the image the man portrays to the community.”

Boland is 88 now, retired from his pest-control business, confined to a wheelchair, and out of scouting far longer than the quarter-century he spent as a troop leader. Through his family’s lawyer, Edward Tolley of Athens, Boland declined to comment.

Boland’s case is surprisingly typical of those contained in the Boy Scouts’ so-called “perversion files,” which were released to the public last month following the settlement of a lawsuit accusing the Scouts of covering up sexual abuse for generations. National scouting officials apologized for past failures and said the organization now follows model policies to prevent abuse.

The documents indicate that Boland, like many other scout leaders, molested boys over a long period, despite persistent reports of his offenses.

“It sounds so familiar,” said Curtis St. John, a spokesman for Male Survivor, a New York-based advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse. “You weren’t allowed to talk about it, which is what the offenders relied on.”

Unlike many other scout leaders named in the files, Boland was later charged with a sex-related crime: providing sexual material to minors. A judge placed Boland on probation through what Tolley described as a “deferred first-offender sentence.”

“I have no indication that this matter related to a Boy Scout troop he had in the ’70s,” Tolley said Saturday by email.

The case was never publicized in Athens, and because court files detailing the case were sealed, Boland was able to get a post-retirement job at a South Carolina orphanage, where he lived with seven boys as a house parent. The Rev. Elliot Smith, president of Thornwell Home for Children, said Boland’s personnel file indicated that he cleared a criminal background check.

“Everything got swept under the rug,” said an Athens woman whose son, now deceased, accused Boland of molesting him. To protect her family’s privacy, she discussed Boland only on condition of anonymity.

She blames the abuse for her son’s alcoholism, a factor in his premature death. “He said the only time he didn’t think about this was when he was drinking.”

She is angry that, because so much time has passed, Boland can be neither prosecuted nor sued.

“I don’t want this man to get by without something being done,” she said last week. She recalled that Boland used to visit her family’s home, that he sat near her husband at weekly Rotary Club meetings.

“We taught our kids to beware of strangers,” she said, “but it never occurred to us it would be someone we considered a friend.”

High profile

The Athens that kept the reported abuse of Boy Scouts so quiet is a place apart from the Athens of college football and fraternity houses and masses of University of Georgia students. It is a place of small businesses, prosperous churches, Rotary meetings, and neighborhoods full of kids needing adult guidance.

Ernest Boland thrived in this Athens.

Boland enlisted as a private in the Army in 1943, shortly after graduating from high school in Pahokee, Fla., according to an autobiography he published online. After the war, Boland made his way to Athens, lured by an offer to play football at UGA. His football career lasted just one season, but he stayed at the university, earning a degree in entomology in 1951. The same year, he married his high school sweetheart, joined the Army Reserve as a second lieutenant, and founded a business: Boland Bonded Pest Control Co., which he would operate until he retired in 1988.

During the 1970s, Boland bought advertising space in Sunday editions of the Athens Banner-Herald to run his weekly column: “Insects & Your Health, by Ernest Boland.” One week, he might write about the health hazards of a termite infestation; another, he would explore the risks from cockroaches. A photograph of Boland accompanied each piece: short hair, horn-rimmed glasses, white shirt, coat and tie. He was not smiling.

Boland’s profile in the community continued to rise. He joined an advisory panel to the county school board. He chaired a commission that drafted a proposed charter for merging Athens and Clarke County.

And he became scoutmaster of the oldest continuously chartered Boy Scout group in Georgia: Troop 22, based at First Baptist Church of Athens.

Abuse ‘hard to forget’

Under Boland’s leadership, dozens of boys from Troop 22 earned the Boy Scouts’ highest rank: Eagle. Many of Boland’s former scouts, some in their 60s and 70s, fondly recall hikes and camping trips with what is now laughably inadequate equipment. “We dug latrines … rain, sleet or snow,” a former Athens newspaper columnist once wrote about his old troop.

But at the same time, internal Boy Scout documents said, Boland was molesting scouts from his troop as well as other boys he supervised.

Scout officials in Athens began investigating Boland in the early 1970s after they were approached by the father of a former Troop 22 scout. From 1961 to 1963, the father said, “Boland had forced his son to perform oral sex acts with Boland acting as the male figure,” according to the scouts’ report. The father said his son revealed the abuse several years later during psychiatric treatment.

The investigation also documented a case that did not directly involve the scouts.

As scoutmaster, Boland apparently forged an unusual arrangement with law-enforcement officials: When boys in the community got into minor trouble with the law, he sometimes acted as an unofficial probation officer, counseling and supervising the boys to keep them out of juvenile court or jail.

Whether Boland brought any of these boys into scouting is not known.

One of the boys, now a 65-year-old man, was placed under Boland’s supervision after neighbors accused him of vandalism when he was 12 or 13, he recalled in an interview. He spoke on the condition that he not be identified publicly.

“For spite,” the man said, he grabbed laundry off the neighbors’ clothesline and hid it nearby. A few days later, he said, two police officers came to his house with a third man: Ernest Boland.

Working with Boland, the officers said, would keep the boy out of jail.

“It was my first time ever getting in trouble,” the man said. “It was like probation.”

Soon, he joined other boys doing chores for Boland: cutting the grass on lots he owned or preparing buildings to be repainted. Often, the man said, boys ended up alone with Boland. That, he said, is when Boland threatened them with jail time if they didn’t perform sex acts.

“He would use that against us,” the man said. “He had what we did over our heads.”

Boland molested him two or three times, the man said, before he told his parents. They were angry, he said, but adamant that he keep quiet. “You’d be ridiculed,” they told him.

He never saw Boland again. Until recently, he didn’t know Boland was still living.

Regardless, half a century later, he struggles with shame over the traumas of his adolescence.

“I wish I hadn’t got in trouble,” he said. “None of that would be in my background. You do spiteful things, you get what you deserve.

“I forgive him for what he did. God tells us to. But that don’t mean you’ve got to like the person. It’s kind of hard to forget.”

‘His word against another’

By the time the first complaints about Boland emerged, he had organized another troop and installed himself as its scoutmaster.

After the former Troop 22 Scout’s father came forward, a parents’ committee from the new organization,Troop 2, decided to ask Boland to resign. But he quit before the committee could confront him.

“There was strong evidence that Boland had been involved with several scouts,” a Boy Scouts investigation found. “However, in all cases, it was his word against another individual.”

Two executives at the Boy Scouts’ district office in Athens were “hopeful that the situation had been resolved,” one of them wrote later. They decided the “best course” would be to “suspend any further action,” the executive wrote.

Boland was not finished with the Boy Scouts, however.

From 1973 to 1975, he repeatedly proposed forming another troop in Athens, again with him as scoutmaster, scout executive Ron Hegwood wrote in 1977.

“I was able to discourage this action for three years with evasions and generalities,” Hegwood wrote. But Boland finally forced the issue. Hegwood wrote that Boland directly referred to the Boy Scouts’ files on adults barred for sexual misconduct: “Is my name on the Confidential List … and can you prevent me from becoming a scoutmaster?”

Hegwood could do nothing to stop Boland, he wrote.

Why Scout officials had not tried to formally bar Boland after the initial allegations is not clear. Some of the people involved in the matter have died, and others won’t say what happened.

“I’m not going to discuss this issue with you,” Hegwood said from his home in Mississippi. Then he hung up the telephone.

In the fall of 1975, Boland established Boy Scouts Troop 3. He based the troop at Beech Haven Baptist Church, where he was a longtime member.

If Boland was looking for a fresh start in Scouting, he instead stoked old suspicions about his behavior with children.

The father of the former Troop 22 Scout approached the parents’ committee of the new troop, saying he knew of as many as 10 to 12 boys Boland had molested, according to the scouts’ investigation. Parents had not reported the abuse, the father said, to protect their sons’ privacy.

Hegwood notified the Boy Scouts’ national headquarters, and he met with Griffith, the Beech Haven pastor. The pastor, Hegwood later wrote, shared even more damning information: Boland had kept an apartment in Athens, purportedly for illicit sexual encounters, and he had taken two scouts to Maryland for a week during his Army Reserve training, staying with them in a motel.

In a report to the Scouts’ national office, Hegwood checked a box describing reports of abuse by Boland as “substantiated.”

Griffith never confronted Boland. Instead, he said last week, he asked a church deacon and a lawyer from the congregation to speak to the scoutmaster.

“That took care of it,” Griffith said. “These two men said, ‘We will handle this.’ They both were capable and it was under their authority. I did not get into it. It’s the kind of thing that can tear up your church. A wise pastor certainly will not do anything to hurt the entire congregation.”

Both emissaries have since died. Griffith, who later became executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, said he never heard more claims of sexual impropriety involving Boland.

“I think Ernest tried to do better when he knew he was caught,” Griffith said. “I really think he did.”

On March 11, 1977, Boland resigned as Troop 3’s scoutmaster. His business was suffering from his spending so much time with the Scouts, he wrote to other troop leaders.

“Of course, you know a person must earn a living for his family,” Boland wrote. “There is no way to quit but to quit completely.”

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