A leak from inside the Boy Scouts of America last month about discussions on possibly ending the group's national ban on gay members changed the debate itself by creating an impression that change was imminent, according to scouting officials and taped comments from a meeting of scouting's executive board obtained by The New York Times.
Those apparently false expectations were dashed days later when the board, under intense scrutiny it had never intended, deferred action.
The proposed shift in policy has been portrayed in news accounts mostly as a kind of trial balloon, floated to gauge sentiment about where scouting might go on a hugely divisive question. But the proposal, though seriously in consideration, was not supposed to become public at this moment, Scouts officials confirmed. The plan for the meeting this week was a quiet discussion behind closed doors, they said, free from the outside pressures that have buffeted scouting, especially since summer, when the organization reaffirmed its ban on gay scouts and leaders after a two-year review.
Instead, the exact opposite of quiet deliberation broke loose with a fury on Jan. 28, when word of the proposed change was confirmed in a statement from Boy Scouts headquarters, followed by further reverberations this week when the Boy Scouts said the decision would be deferred until the annual national meeting in May. Groups on both sides said on Friday that the three-month window to marshal their forces and tactics in influencing opinion inside and outside scouting would be exploited with gusto. Without the leak, and the expectations about sudden change that arose as a result, there would not have been a window at all.
"We are amazingly sorry with the fact that this got out and got ahead of us," said Tico A. Perez, scouting's national commissioner, at a town hall meeting on Tuesday with about 250 staff members and volunteers with the Boy Scouts of America, including the executive board. A recording of Mr. Perez's comments, made by someone at the meeting, was obtained by The Times.
"Someone leaked the information," Mr. Perez said on the tape, someone who "either didn't like what we were doing, or they thought they were going to be helpful to the conversation."
A spokesman for the Boy Scouts, Deron Smith, said in an e-mail on Friday that the source of the leak had not been identified.
"While it's unfortunate that someone chose to share a private discussion, meant to foster communication and understanding, identifying that person or understanding their motivation isn't our focus," he said. "Rather, our desire is to address this topic, internally, and continue serving America's youth."
The discussion over the ban on gays, and the costs and benefits of maintaining it, is clearly intensifying.
Since the organization reaffirmed the ban last year, scouting's financial support has taken a hit, with some corporate sponsors backing away. Two of the 16 members of the board of directors -- volunteer officers of the 70-member executive board -- announced that they support the change, which would allow local scouting units to decide for themselves whether to admit homosexuals. But some churches -- a cornerstone of scouting in sponsoring almost 70 percent of those units -- have said they might leave the fold if the ban is lifted.
At the Tuesday meeting, Mr. Perez, expressed commiseration with board members who might feel besieged, and frustration that the discussion had been hijacked. About 17,000 e-mails flooded the Boy Scouts' in-box in just five minutes, he said.
"It gave the impression, No. 1, that we were driving something to a vote, which we were not trying to do -- we were trying to start a conversation," Mr. Perez said of the unplanned release of the proposal. "And, No. 2, that we were doing something that we were going to spring on the board."
He added, "We tried to have a family conversation."
Mr. Smith, the scouting spokesman, said in an e-mail, "The B.S.A. doesn't have an agenda on this matter and is committed to doing what's best for its organization, not for external organizations that have their own missions and aims."
But those "external organizations," ranging from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or Glaad, which strongly supports a change, to the American Family Council, a conservative group that is pushing the Scouts to hold to their ban, have seized the moment.
"Given what happened with one week's notice, I shudder to think what will happen with three months' notice," said Zach Wahls, the founder of Scouts for Equality, which opposes the ban. "There will be a lot of effort, a lot of energy and a lot of time put into this between now and May."
Some churches that participate in scouting said a very public three-month debate, even though the Boy Scouts never intended it, could be a blessing by creating pressure for them to declare where they stand.
"We have not taken a position," said Larry Coppock, the national director for scouting ministries at the General Commission on United Methodist Men."We just need time."
A senior vice president at the Family Research Council, Rob Schwarzwalder, said he thought that the debate on homosexuals in scouting, and in society, had accelerated since news of the proposal broke and would only increase its momentum heading toward the vote at the national meeting, scheduled for May 22 to 24 in Grapevine, Tex.
"I think you're seeing the emergence of a widespread grass-roots movement," he said. "In the last two weeks, I think that these things have arisen extemporaneously. It's something that has animated many people because of their religious convictions and concerns about their children."
Mr. Perez said at the Scouts meeting this week that the ferocious attention brought to bear after the leak did have its upside. The torrent of passionate opinion, he said, was proof that scouting still matters.
"America cares about who we are," he said. "That is the silver lining in all this."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.