Thursday, July 18, 1997
Scout leaders' poor reaction
no good deed

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Funny, I always thought the Girl Scouts' motto was: Be prepared. When did they change it to: Cover your butt?

That's what scout leaders are doing in the alleged fondling case at Camp Butterworth. Earlier in the week, a counselor at the Warren County camp was accused of rubbing the breasts and buttocks of at least 10 girls.

No one notified authorities for almost 12 hours. Any organization that works with kids - schools, camps, church groups - is supposed to report a suspected case of sexual misconduct immediately.

That's immediately as in: the instant you know.

It's a state law. But it was ignored.

The thinking behind rapid reporting is authorities will immediately conduct an investigation, while witnesses are fresh, leads are hot and suspects are present.

Instead, camp and Girl Scout officials started their own investigation. They interviewed the girls. Then they let the counselor, a 19-year-old exchange student from Tanzania, board a bus for New York.

They gave her about an hour's head start.

Then they called the cops.

Working fast, the counselor got a lawyer. The attorney has said her client caught a plane for Tanzania. Don't look for her to come back any time soon.

See no evil

Meanwhile, back at camp, the adults in charge don't see a problem. At the national headquarters in New York and on the local level, Girl Scout officials are patting themselves on the back.

After performing a total botch job on a very serious incident involving sensitive youngsters, the grown-up scouts say their way was the right way and everyone is proud of themselves.

"We've been pleased with the way the incident was handled," is the quote from Claudia Davis, media relations director at Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. headquarters.

Is there a Girl Scout badge for fogging, stonewalling, suspension of belief or spin-control?

Pleased? About what?

That parents didn't hear till hours after the fact? That authorities were called after camp staffers "interviewed" the girls? That the person accused of fondling young girls has skipped town?

Instead of pleased, try apologetic. Upset. Embarrassed. Appalled. "We thought we were doing the right thing," says Barbara Bonifas, executive director of the Great Rivers Girl Scout Council. Great Rivers runs the camp.

She says the counselor was put on the bus to keep her away from the campers.

Ms. Bonifas: "We always knew where she was."

Hey, the FBI knows a serial killer is somewhere in Miami. But nobody feels "pleased" about it.

If scout leaders wanted to protect campers, they could have put the counselor in an office with someone big enough to keep her there. Then called the cops.

And called them quickly.

Saving face

There is no excuse for even the slightest delay in a case like this. But that didn't stop Girl Scout spokesperson Claudia Davis from trying to make one.

"The priority," she said, "was the parents and the girls." That may be so. But it's obvious from the actions, the timing and the statements in this case that the top priority was saving the bacon of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.

Protecting the Girl Scouts' good name came at the expense of 10 little girls, their parents and, if the charges are true, simple justice.

So spare me being "pleased" and "the priority was the parents and the girls."

That baloney might work for the duration of a press conference. But what about when the next batch of campers is dropped off by their parents?

What about next month, if the charges are true, and campers and their parents still wonder why the suspect got away?

The Girl Scouts is a great organization, a valuable part of the community's programs for children.

But no organization, or its leaders, can hide behind a good name. Keep that up and before long, you'll have nothing left to hide behind.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.