Editor’s Note: This article has been updated as explained below.
Adam Steed never did become an Eagle Scout.
In 1997, Steed was a 14-year-old junior counselor well on his way to earning the rank of Eagle when he arrived at Camp Little Lemhi, a scenic campground on the Snake River south of Grand Teton National Park in southeastern Idaho. His father, Paul, worked as a Mormon seminary teacher in nearby Pocatello and felt secure sending Adam and his younger brother, Ben, to the church-sponsored camp. What no one in the Steed family—nor the parents of any other boys at Camp Little Lemhi—knew was that the camp’s program director, Brad Stowell, had a trail of dozens of child molestation accusations dating back nearly a decade.
After being molested by Stowell that summer, Steed acted on what the Boy Scouts of America, in its own literature and educational videos, calls “the three Rs of protection”: recognize, resist and report. But when Steed went public with his story to a local newspaper, he claimed that after he told camp officials that Stowell was waking up boys in the middle of the night to fondle them, he was told not to tell his parents.
According to “Scout’s Honor,” an explosive six-part series published by the Idaho Falls Post Register in 2005, Steed then took matters into his own hands and assembled a group of Stowell’s victims (many were easily spotted by the necklaces that the predator gave out to his favorite targets) and demanded that something be done. Within a week, the police took Stowell away, and he confessed to molesting at least 24 boys over nine years, many of them at Camp Little Lemhi. Stowell was sentenced to 150 days in jail and 15 years probation. Sixteen years later, he is now married and lives in Idaho Falls as a registered sex offender, and he claims to be completely rehabilitated. “I was a molester,” he told the Post Register in 2005. “I’m not anymore.”
After Steed’s story became public, numerous similar cases began coming to light, and Stowell’s predations proved far from unique. As recently as late June 2013, four men filed a joint lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America and the Mormon Church in federal district court in Boise, Idaho, claiming that they were victims of sexual abuse in the late 70s and early 80s in church-sponsored Scout troops. Lawyers for the plaintiffs claim that the Boy Scouts’ own records, along with newspaper reports from the time, prove that there were more than a dozen known pedophiles working or volunteering for the organization. In statements, the Scouts concede that wrong was done. “Where those involved in Scouting failed to protect, or worse, inflicted harm on children, we extend our deepest and sincere apologies to victims and their families,” said Scouts public relations director Deron Smith.
After he went public, Steed was the target of ridicule and gossip and even received hate mail.
The Boy Scouts of America and the Mormon Church, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS Church), have had an intertwined history in the American West dating back to at least 1913, when Scouting became a recognized and sponsored activity for Mormon boys. The partnership is so close that, according to the Boy Scouts of America, Scout troops should “be chartered by every [LDS] ward and branch that has two or more boys” of appropriate age. The Scouts offer an LDS-specific “Faith in God Award” as well as a “Duty to God” program that “strengthens young men spiritually” and advances them through the church’s religious education. In 2010, according to Scouts literature, the church sponsored nearly 350,000 Cub and Boy Scouts in almost 30,000 separate troops nationwide.
Compared to the abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church, the allegations that LDS officials and the Boy Scouts failed to act on reports of abuse have been less widespread. But since last October, when an Oregon judge ordered the Scouts to release thousands of pages from its Ineligible Volunteer Files (commonly referred to as the “perversion files”), more victims have been coming forward. In December, a Delaware man sued both organizations on the evidence provided in those files.
The recent Idaho lawsuit is set against the backdrop of Western communities where the Mormon Church is an influential religious, social, and political institution, places where abuse victims have faced pressure and even outright animosity for speaking out.
Steed’s victimization follows the common and sickening routine now familiar from Catholic dioceses and the crimes perpetrated by convicted child rapist and former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. Those who could have kept Stowell away from children knew all about his issues. In 1988, when Stowell was just 16 years old, he confessed to his mother, his church bishop, and a police officer that he had molested a 6-year-old boy who lived in his neighborhood. He was sent for six months of church-sponsored counseling, and then later that same year was hired to teach first aid to young boys at Camp Little Lemhi. In sworn testimony he delivered nine years later that was uncovered by the Post Register, Stowell said that was the summer he began preying on Boy Scouts.
By the time Steed arrived in the late 90s, Stowell had been promoted several times at Camp Little Lemhi, from counselor to assistant water sports instructor and eventually to programs director. The timeline of events surrounding his crimes is chilling. For two years in the early 90s, he traveled on his church mission to Alaska, where he molested a boy who has to this day not been identified. In 1991, Richard Scarborough, a neighbor who knew about Stowell’s checkered history, wrote a letter to the Boy Scouts of America office in Irving, Texas, to report the pedophile in their ranks. Three years later, when Stowell had still not been removed, Scarborough wrote another letter, this time to a higher authority: Mormon Church President Ezra Taft Benson. According the Post Register, the letter he received in return claimed that the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare had looked into the case and “determined the nature of the allegations warranted no further action.”
Today, the Scouts concede that crimes by many other Scout leaders and volunteers went unpunished. “There have been instances where people misused their positions in Scouting to abuse children, and in certain cases, our response to these incidents and our efforts to protect youth were plainly insufficient, inappropriate, or wrong,” said Deron Smith with the Boy Scouts of America, when asked to comment on this story.
The Mormon Church is looking forward rather than back at crimes that cannot be undone. “As a society, we’ve learned a great deal about abuse in the decades since these cases, and made large strides in recognizing and preventing this societal plague,” said Church spokesman Eric Hawkins. He added that the LDS Church has adopted a 24-hour help line and has “dedicated significant efforts and resources to preventing and addressing abuse.”
By speaking out, Steed saved an unknown number of boys from sexual abuse. And yet, his decision to turn Stowell in and go public with his story turned many in the eastern Idaho Mormon community against him. After he went public, Steed was the target of ridicule and gossip and even received hate mail. The alienation among his peers was so complete that he dropped out of high school at 16 and took courses at a local college to complete his GED. For doing the honorable thing, “he lost all of his friends,” said Dean Miller, the Post Register’s executive editor at the time. As Steed told the paper in 2005, “I felt like I was the one who got in trouble.”
Steed’s family also saw their lives seriously disrupted. His father Paul quit his job as an LDS seminary teacher and devoted himself, full time and without pay, to fighting for the rights of sexual abuse victims. In 2006, those efforts paid off when then-Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne signed a bill that eliminated a statute of limitations that had shielded sexual predators from prosecution once their victims turned 23. The entire Steed family traveled to Boise to attend the bill’s signing into law.
The newspaper series, which would have rested on much flimsier evidence without Steed as a witness, stirred up deep controversy in Idaho Falls, a sleepy city of 60,000, and the surrounding majority-LDS communities. Frank VanderSloot, a prominent businessman and active Republican Party fundraiser (he served as a national finance co-chair to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012), paid for several highly critical ads (PDF) through his Melaleuca Company in the Post Register (PDF). Those ads questioned the paper’s competence and motivation. “Suspicious of the truthfulness and accuracy of the Post Register’s version of the story, Frank VanderSloot, president of Melaleuca, decided to learn the truth for himself,” the paid content announced. “The Post Register’s real intent,” one ad (PDF) read, “was to smear the Scouts’ good name and take away what the Scouts value most—their Honor.”
VanderSloot’s ads (PDF) also called attention to reporter Peter Zuckerman’s sexual orientation and suggested that the journalist was a “gay rights advocate” and therefore had “a personal axe to grind” against the Boy Scouts and the Mormon Church. Though he was not closeted, Zuckerman had, prior to VanderSloot’s campaign, kept his sexual orientation private in Idaho Falls, only telling his boss and a couple of colleagues at the paper. Zuckerman had experienced harassment over the stories starting even before the advertisements were published. After fielding angry phone calls at work and late night visitors at his own home, he left the state later that summer.
For Miller, who has since left Idaho Falls and is now the director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University, the ongoing and recent lawsuits are a reminder that institutions and society at large have not figured out how to properly deal with these crimes. “We as a people have some seriously unfinished business on how we treat victims,” he told The Daily Beast. After “Scout’s Honor” was published, more men in Mormon communities have felt empowered to come forward and report even more heinous crimes from their own childhoods. In Idaho Falls, the story even led the city’s police chief to admit, 40 years after the fact and during an interview with PBS, that he too was molested as a Boy Scout. Those voices of witness and validation, Miller said, were the most significant outcome of Steed’s sacrifice. Grown men who had been abused as children called Miller at the Post Register and told him, regarding Steed and other assault victims, “The best thing about this was that you believed them.”
UPDATE: In a letter to The Daily Beast, lawyers for Frank VanderSloot and Melaleuca have objected to the characterization of their advertisements as “attempt[ing] to out reporter Peter Zuckerman as a homosexual,” and to any implication that the ads caused Zuckerman to suffer harassment and intimidation. The letter points out, as The Daily Beast noted in the original article, that Zuckerman had come out to a small group of people in Idaho Falls. The letter adds that Zuckerman’s sexuality had been discussed on a local radio show and in a post he made while he lived in Florida on a website that is now defunct, and that Zuckerman was harassed even before the ads were published. Zuckerman and his editor have maintained that many people learned about his sexual orientation for the first time because of the ads, and Zuckerman has said that the ads led to further harassment. The Daily Beast did not intend to imply, and did not imply, that Melaleuca and VanderSloot intended to cause that harassment when they ran the advertisements. To eliminate any conceivable misunderstanding, The Daily Beast has replaced the phrase “attempted to out reporter Peter Zuckerman as a homosexual” with the phrase “called attention to reporter Peter Zuckerman’s sexual orientation” and has modified the end of the paragraph to make it clear that “Zuckerman had experienced harassment over the stories starting even before the advertisements were published.”