Considering the Boy Scouts of America’s deep ties to religion, as well as the fact that it’s an organization that places young children in the (often private) care of adult men, it’s no great shock that—like the Catholic Church—its history is rife with child sex abuse and attendant cover-ups. Scouts Honor: The Secret Files of the Boy Scouts of America is a blistering exposé about its scandalous past and, potentially, its present and future, since the Boy Scouts continue onward to this day, with no government or independent oversight to verify their claims that they both recognize their horrific problem and are committed to solving it.
Director Brian Knappenberger’s gripping Netflix documentary (Sept. 6) focuses on the “Ineligible Volunteer Files,” which the Boy Scouts alternately referred to over the years as the “Perversion Files” and the “Confidential Files”—the latter because these write-ups had to be kept secret from members, families, and law enforcement. They were first publicized by journalist Patrick Boyle, who read about disparate sexual assault accusations against Scout leaders and the evidence that was submitted as part of one case. What he discovered in those original 231 files was a treasure trove of damning material dating back to the Boy Scouts’ inception in England circa 1908. From the get-go, the Boy Scouts knew that their program attracted pedophiles and that it was a struggle to keep them out. In response, they created something known as the “Red Flag List”—a compendium of monsters that was reported on by The New York Times as early as 1935.
Scouts Honor thus immediately establishes the scourge of sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts as foundational and endemic. So too was the organization’s habit of concealing any such misdeeds from prying eyes. The Boy Scouts’ wholesome image is described in Knappenberger’s doc as synonymous with apple pie, the Stars and Stripes, Norman Rockwell, and Memorial Day parades. They represent “the best of America,” and they understood that their continued ability to entice kids to join, adults to volunteer, and donors to financially contribute was predicated on maintaining that patriotic appearance. Copping to the ugliness being perpetrated by authority figures against their innocent and defenseless charges would, they supposedly assumed, permanently taint their brand.
This is likely true. Nonetheless, it’s no excuse for suppressing this information and, consequently, allowing offenders to continue doing what they wanted with as many adolescent boys as possible. Even when they hired Michael Johnson, a former Plano, Texas-based detective (and child abuse expert) as their national youth protection director, they were apparently unwilling to take necessary steps to stymie this plague. In Scouts Honor, Johnson talks extensively about his dedication to protecting kids and his frustration at having his labors curtailed by the Boy Scouts, who repeatedly denied that there was an issue—sometimes to his face, as when a superior said he’d never heard about a standard-of-care manual that he was listed in—and handcuffed him from making child sex abuse a legitimate priority.
Johnson’s version of his tenure, and the Boy Scouts’ attitude toward this epidemic, is countered by his colleague, former Boy Scouts of America general counsel Steven McGowan, who admits that “mistakes” were made and that the organization is doing what it can to safeguard children. At the same time, however, he repeatedly tries to downplay the Boy Scouts’ guilt by arguing that child sexual abuse occurs everywhere, be it in the home or at school. He also deflects when pressed by Knappenberger about the Boy Scouts’ habit of deeming this a “minuscule” problem, even though lawsuits were later filed by a not-so-minuscule 82,209 individuals who alleged mistreatment by Scout mentors. McGowan seems to be in damage control mode, attempting to accept some blame without forever destroying the outfit, but his calculated intentions come across as transparent and insensitive.
As attorney Tim Kosnoff bluntly states, what went on at the Boy Scouts over decades was “nothing less than an atrocity,” and Scouts Honor details it via interviews with advocates, lawyers, and some of the myriad victims of abuse. Their stories are as nightmarish and heartrending as they are similar, and just as moving are their testimonials about the shame and fear that kept them quiet for so long—feelings exacerbated by the Boy Scouts’ tight affiliations with the Catholic and Mormon churches, whose anti-gay stances resulted in the organization embracing a de facto homophobic attitude that equated homosexuality with pedophilia. McGowan denies that any conflation occurred. Yet the Boy Scouts’ efforts to ban gay members—achieved via the 2000 Supreme Court “Dale decision” (and subsequently revoked)—implies otherwise. That they focused on vilifying homosexuality at the expense of rooting out predators is pinpointed as another of their many failings.
Scouts Honor revisits Kerry Lewis’ landmark 1987 courtroom victory against Timur Dykes (the leader of a Mormon-sponsored troop), which led to an $18 million award and, more importantly, made the “Perversion Files” public—thereby opening the floodgates to additional lawsuits that eventually drove the Boy Scouts to declare bankruptcy in 2020. Rather than a titanic victory for survivors, however, this was instead a canny strategy designed to keep the organization afloat, and it worked. Despite a judge approving a $2.46 billion settlement plan, hundreds of millions have been spent on legal fees, but most survivors still don’t know what they’ll receive, and the Boy Scouts of America gets to continue existing. Far from suffering a crushing blow, it appears that the organization has simply taken its lumps and moved forward, unfettered by demands to do more to shield kids from pedophiles.
The outrage elicited by Scouts Honor over that situation is compounded by the agonizing commentary of victims, who candidly speak on screen about the embarrassment, fury, and lingering psychological scars wrought by their ordeals. In agreeing to reveal their darkest secrets to the world in order to inspire others to stand against the Boy Scouts’ culture of abuse—and, in turn, to affect meaningful, lasting change—they prove to be the definition of courageous.