A Boy Scout to the end

Mary Beckman
Local columnist

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The kid's got guts. When he was 14, Adam Steed saw that the adults who were supposed to keep him and his friends safe weren't doing so. And when he tried to do something about it, he was met with what can be generously described as ignorance or more cynically, stonewalling. In the face of opposition, disbelief and a culture that takes children for liars and liars for upstanding citizens, Steed persisted until the Scout leader who was molesting boys was finally arrested.

Kudos to his parents and perhaps even the Boy Scouts for giving Steed the skills to tell the difference between authority and criminal behavior. It's not such an easy distinction to make, especially when we're taught to respect our elders -- or taught to believe in the sanctity of age-old institutions. He succeeded where hundreds of Catholics and their priests have failed.

Steed told the paper if he hadn't tried to stop Stowell, he could have enjoyed high school. I doubt that. In taking a stand, he did help his peers and victims-to-come enjoy their teen years. One could even say he helped a Boy Scout leader get his life back on track.

Even though he doesn't know me from Adam, I want Steed to know I think he did the right thing. My older brother, Joe, was molested by a flamboyant, gregarious Catholic priest when he was 12. Joe was one of a handful of founding members of Father Coughlin's All American Boys Chorus, and for a couple of years, the focus of Coughlin's abuse. After quitting the choir, Joe stayed quiet in his torment until he told Mom when he was 14. Dad went to the cardinal to tell him what happened -- church authorities told Dad they'd take care of it. That was the mid-1970s.

Six years Joe's junior, I didn't really understand why I was going to visit my big brother at a mental hospital the summer he was 15. Nor did I understand why, during his 16th year, he would lock himself in a bathroom with his guitar and wail "Feelings" over and over and over again.

But I learned as I grew up. And we all knew that Father Coughlin was still leading the chorus, which had grown to 125 boys. Finally, in 1990, Joe tried to stop him again. Joe met with two of the choir's board members and Coughlin. The board members promised him that Coughlin did not have access to little boys. And though Coughlin has never admitted publicly that he ever molested anyone, Coughlin told my brother at that meeting that Joe was his only victim. Still nothing changed.

It took another three years, five more men to admit they'd been abused by Coughlin, and media coverage for the chorus to fire the reverend and for the diocese to strip him of his priestly duties. Joe was the first victim to publicly identify himself. He said being molested was like "losing an arm or a leg" but it was important to stop the shame that comes from silence. Steed's self-assured actions suggest times are changing, yet still someone tried to keep it secret.

One lawsuit against Coughlin's diocese was settled in December for $100 million three months ago, 31 years after Dad alerted the archdiocese. For stopping Stowell so quickly, the Boy Scouts owe Adam Steed a debt of gratitude. Maybe they can name a new merit badge after him, one perhaps woven from leather cord.

Beckman is freelance science journalist. She lives in Idaho Falls.

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