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Local Scouts quick to respond to crisis

Jackson County Commissioner C.W. Smith credits early police training in sex crimes against children — along with strong support from local Boy Scout leadership — as a key reason why Southern Oregon men named in the recently released "perversion files" weren't protected or quietly passed off to other communities.

"I was sort of like the pitbull," said Smith, a former Boy Scout executive board member and Medford police officer, and Jackson County's sheriff from 1983 to 1995.

"We tried to be aggressive about (child sexual abuse) early on," Smith said. "I'm sure glad we did what we did. When you get into this, you know you've saved somebody. You know you've taken a predator away."

Thousands of pages of documents detailing sexual abuse by Scout leaders were released Thursday by order of the Oregon Supreme Court after the Boy Scouts lost a 2010 civil suit. The documents included cases from the 1970s and '80s involving men from Medford, Cave Junction, Ashland and Eagle Point.

Unlike some other areas of the country, where local authorities and Scouting leaders appear to have shielded molesters, the records show the five local men named in the documents were arrested and local Scouting officials ensured they were permanently removed from the organization.

Smith said he remembers some of those decades-old cases. He still resents that predators used their positions of leadership to prey on the youths, while noting the good leaders he had as a Scout.

"I was a Scout," Smith said. "And I never had a problem. I had kind, respectful, honest men as my Scout leaders. It bothered me that (these pedophiles) would take advantage."

In 1984, a 42-year-old former member of an Explorer Post sponsored by the Jackson County Sheriff's Department who had been convicted of first-degree sodomy tried to start a new Explorer Post with the Crater Lake Council.

Richard Allen Backes had been arrested in October 1978 for molesting neighborhood boys in his Medford home. He was convicted in 1979.

Smith remembers the Backes case. He praised then-Council Scout Executive Ed Weiseth as "straight-up guy" and a strong leader dedicated to protecting the scouts.

"He wanted to deal with it," Smith said. "And he made sure we did something about it."

It's not known whether Backes served time for his crime. But the released files show that in 1984 Weiseth sent the Scouts' Texas headquarters a warning that Backes had visited a local summer camp and recruited potential members for the new post.

Weiseth wrote that when Smith learned of Backes' criminal record, he "met with Mr. Backes and has made it very clear that he will in no way be associated with the Sheriffs office Exploring Program," according to the files.

Smith had trained at the F.B.I. academy along with Lt. Tommy Rodgers, he said. Rodgers went on to become a national child abuse expert, and provided ongoing training for Smith.

"I was a crime prevention officer for many years," Smith said. "I knew the kind of markers that indicate a sexual predator of boys and girls."

Decades ago there were fewer protections for children, less community awareness and less understanding of trauma prevention and appropriate interview techniques within the police departments, Smith said.

Children often initially deny sexual abuse out of fear, confusion, shame and other reasons. And it didn't help matters that in those days, a child's initial police contact was often more like a criminal interrogation, Smith said. Officers were "brusque, official" and did not take into account the perspective of the child. Officers may have already contacted the adult in question, which only further intimidated the children, he said.

"You have to be circumspect and careful," Smith said, adding he had learned a less "official" and more respectful approach would lead to better results.

If a Scout leader or volunteer came under suspicion, Smith had a rule of thumb.

"You go to the kids first," Smith said.

Smith said he would conversationally encourage the kids to discuss their adventures with that adult. What had they done while they were on camping trips, excursions or home visits, he'd ask.

"You just ask, in a rather matter-of-fact manner to tell you about the fun they had," Smith said. "If they start clamming up, if they start acting funny and they don't want to, or can't, tell you about what's been going on, that's when we know we'd better dig deeper."

In 1985, William George Wellhausen, then 56 and a unit commissioner for a troop based in Cave Junction since 1977, pleaded guilty to first-degree sexual abuse and was ordered to serve five years' probation and pay a $4,000 fine.

Wellhausen was convicted of molesting a young girl who was a foster child in his home. His file contained a transcribed confession to Oregon State Police detectives.

In 1985, adult troop member Gerald Wayne Gunter of Ashland pleaded guilty to sexual abuse charges and was ordered to spend six months in jail with five years' probation.

Both Wellhausen and Gunter were removed from Scouting in 1985 and files started to ensure they could not register again, according to the documents.

Another database of Boy Scout secretive files compiled by the L.A. Times mentions that an Eagle Point scoutmaster admitted to entering the tents of sleeping Boy Scouts and sexually abusing them in 1988. The file said he was convicted and barred from rejoining the Scouts in any capacity,

Smith said after he became involved in the cases, he urged the Boy Scout council to take proactive steps to protect their young members. Local scouting organizations insisted upon background checks for their employees and volunteers before it became required by law, he said.

Smith said any organization that caters to children can become a target location for pedophiles.

"They are skilled manipulators. They can be gracious and ingratiating," Smith said.

Smith spoke about the "human element" that can make it difficult to convince adults to act on their suspicions. Adults who remain silent or turn away for fear of offending a potential child molester are abdicating their responsibilities and putting children at risk, Smith said.

"They know it's not right. But people subjugate their moral values for personal friendship," Smith said.

Local Boy Scout officials were unavailable or declined to comment on this story Friday. A staff member referred the Mail Tribune to their website for guidelines that include "Steps to Reporting Child Abuse," "Scouting's Barriers to Abuse" and other youth protection literature.

The media storm around a breaking story like this can besmirch the whole organization, Smith said. As a former Scout himself, he said, he heaved a sigh mixed with sorrow and relief when he read about the "perversion files."

"But if it makes an organization become far more diligent, then it's a good thing," Smith said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Local Scouts quick to respond to crisis