A 12-year-old boy sat in a San Fernando courtroom a month ago as his Big Brother, an accountant who volunteered to be his special friend, pleaded guilty to molesting him and four other boys.
In a Van Nuys courtroom two weeks ago, another Big Brother, a UCLA psychology professor, pleaded no contest to similar charges. And a third Big Brother faces a preliminary hearing this week in San Fernando on allegations that he had sexual contact with his teen-age charge.
The men had allegedly taken advantage of an organization devoted to helping boys from broken homes by matching them with adult males who volunteer to serve as role models. Big Brothers can be especially attractive to potential molesters because it encourages volunteers to develop close, private relationships with boys.
Across the country, at least 22 Big Brothers were convicted of sex crimes from 1982 to 1987 after taking sexual liberties with their charges, according to Big Brothers of America records. Records kept by Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles show that, since 1982, at least five of its volunteers have been convicted in the area. A sixth case is pending.
Big Brothers officials concede that child molesters occasionally infiltrate their ranks, but they say the organization goes to extraordinary lengths to screen out molesters and is tightening the net each year with more rigorous requirements, including fingerprinting and highly personal interviews.
Insurance companies that cover Big Brothers, however, are demanding further precautions. They want psychological testing of candidates.
"Everyone here is extremely concerned" about child abuse, said Terry Correlio, director of program development and research for the Philadelphia-based Big Brothers of America, which placed more than 60,000 Big Brothers nationwide this year. Even though molestation by Big Brothers is infrequent, it was enough for the organization to form a task force on child sexual abuse last February.
Sexual molestation was not a concern when Big Brothers of America formed in 1903, when a Cincinnati businessman took a fatherless boy under his wing and encouraged his friends to do the same. In 1955, Walt Disney helped found Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles.
The aim wasn't to provide parental substitutes but rather a special friend in whom the boy could confide, a male figure for the boy to emulate. The relationship would bolster the youths' self-image and confidence, founders believed.
But some Big Brothers took advantage of the relationship. No one really knows when it started. Public awareness of sexual abuse peaked several years ago, about the time the McMartin preschool child-abuse case surfaced, officials say.
Today, Big Brothers is operating with screening methods that its officials believe may be so tight that suitable men are discouraged from applying.
"It's not easy to become a Big Brother," said Nancy Rose, director of public relations for Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles, which has 420 Big Brothers and another 300 boys on a waiting list.
George Salazar, a Los Angeles Police Department detective in Van Nuys who investigates child-abuse cases, said the group drops volunteers at the first sign of improper conduct.
"A child molester is very sophisticated in his approach to molesting kids," Salazar said. "It's so difficult to interview someone and figure out if that person is a child molester."
Since 1982, Big Brothers applicants have been fingerprinted at their own expense to disclose any criminal record or motor vehicle violations. References, including the applicant's employer, are checked.
The most critical phase, Rose said, is the applicant's three-hour interview with a staff social worker. The man must disclose his complete sexual history--his first sexual experience, dating patterns, marital relationship and any abuse as a child.
A screening committee that includes a mental health expert and a member of the Los Angeles Police Department's sexual exploitation division reviews questionable or unacceptable applicants and another 10% of applicants chosen randomly as a further precaution.
Social workers are trained to look for "red flags"--aspects of a man's personality that suggest a child molester, said Mark Wild, director of services for Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles.
If he is single, does he date women? Is he shy, withdrawn? Does he have friends or is he a loner?
Does he have an inordinate interest in children? Does he hang out at Disneyland or other places designed for children?
"We ask them to name five good things about themselves," Wild said. "The true child molester can't do it" because of extremely low self-esteem.
Records show that only 10% of applicants are accepted in Los Angeles, usually single men in their late 20s or early 30s.
Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles won't match homosexual or bisexual men with boys. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California sued the agency on behalf of a Los Angeles car salesman, a bisexual, who applied unsuccessfully to become a Big Brother. The case is pending.
Since screening procedures have been tightened in the last four years, Wild said, Big Brothers has accepted no candidate who was later arrested for molestation.
As a preventive measure, the organization offers a program about molestation to boys and their mothers. And after a match is made, staff social workers watch for warning signals during frequent talks with the Big Brother, the boy and his mother.
Are they spending too much time together? Are they only going to the man's home rather than public places? Is the boy moody?
Insurance companies, looking to cut losses from possible lawsuits, have requested additional testing of potential Big Brothers. But most agency officials are skeptical, saying that no psychological test can accurately predict whether a man will molest a boy. And they reject the polygraph test as unreliable.
"Where do you draw the line?" Wild asked. "How many girlfriends do you talk to? Are we going to have everyone tested for AIDS?"
Even after cases arise in which Big Brothers have been identified as child molesters, Wild said, he has gone back over the men's records and found nothing that would have tipped off the organization.
In one 1984 case, the Big Brother was a former Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority executive. Another case that year involved a former Bible class instructor from Burbank. In that case, as well as others, it was Big Brothers personnel who alerted police to a possible molestation.
Craig Mathias, who in August pleaded guilty in San Fernando to five counts of lewd conduct, is a certified public accountant who served as a Boy Scout leader besides being a Big Brother. Four of his victims were Scouts.
Despite the care Big Brothers takes to protect its boys, some say the screening and monitoring are not sufficient.
The mother of a 14-year-old boy filed a $15-million lawsuit in Van Nuys Superior Court against Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles and her son's Big Brother, Mark D. Yerkes.
Yerkes, a professional stunt man from Granada Hills, was sentenced by a San Fernando judge to 18 years in prison last year after a jury found him guilty of three counts each of sodomy, oral copulation and lewd conduct with a child.