The Brave Teen Who Helped Expose the Boy Scouts’ Child-Abuse Epidemic, and the Mormon Church’s Cover-Up
The new doc “Church and the Fourth Estate” profiles Adam Steed, a Mormon who was abused in the Boy Scouts and blew the whistle on a conspiracy involving the Scouts and LDS Church.
“We grew up always told that you’ll follow exactly what your Church leaders teach you, and if you don’t do it, you could lose everything,” laments Adam Steed, visibly shaking, in Church and the Fourth Estate. “We were taught that if a Church leader does something wrong, you’re supposed to follow them anyway and that God would take care of it.”
Steed, the Mormon subject of Brian Knappenberger’s documentary short that premiered at Sundance, took the road all-too-rarely traveled: he spoke out. At age 14, Steed was sexually abused by his Church mentor turned Scout leader, 24-year-old Brad Stowell, at Boy Scout camp.
The serial abuse happened at Little Lemhi, a camp that lies on the Snake River in Swan Valley, Idaho. In the film, Steed tearfully opens up about how Stowell preyed on him as a youngster, subjecting him to acts that, as a Mormon, he’d “saved his whole life for.”
After Steed reported Stowell to camp leadership, who brushed him off, he spoke with his superiors, who told him to remain silent. So, in a remarkably brave move for a scared teenager, he went to the police.
I’m seated across from Steed and Knappenberger in a hotel in Park City, Utah, where the film made its debut. And Steed is still haunted by the events of his past, tearing up at regular intervals whilst recounting his harrowing story.
“I can tell you directly what I know: in a camp where I’m being sexually abused by a man, and he’s abusing other kids, there was an entire subculture of ‘it’s OK,’ and when it wasn’t OK, I tried to get them to turn him in,” Steed recalls. “They called their leaders, and they talked to me on the phone, and they tried to get me to not come forward, not talk about it, make me promise I wouldn’t tell my parents, and make me feel guilty that I’d destroy all the good in the organizations if I came forward.”
“We’re talking about the president of the Grand Teton Scout Council, Kim Hansen, and Brad Allen, who was the liaison for Scouting for the entire Mormon Church,” he adds. “At that level, these people are on the phone with a 14-year-old who’s being actively sexually abused, guilting him and shaming him. And during the rest of that week, I know that this man continued to sexually abuse other boys.”
After Stowell reached a puzzling settlement agreement, sentenced to just one week in prison for each of the two-dozen boys he confessed to molesting, a county judge made another unusual move, issuing an order to remove the case from the public record.
Enter Peter Zuckerman, a reporter for Idaho Falls’ Post Register newspaper. Upon receiving a tip about a missing court case, he uncovered the court record, which revealed that Stowell had been accused of abuse by dozens of people at Scout camp. The court record also revealed that Stowell had confessed his pedophilic acts to an LDS bishop who sent him to counseling, and later claimed he was “cured.” Then, when a Scout leader asked him about Stowell, the bishop told him he saw no reason why Stowell shouldn’t be a Scout leader. You see, many saw the Boy Scouts as an arm of the Mormon Church, and many involved in the Boy Scouts—and this scandal—were prominent Church officials.
“The Scouting had been sending perpetrators to bishops who were also board members of Scouting, who were then sending them back to work at camps,” Steed tells me. “They basically say the bishops can be the judges, and so you go in there and confess your sins and it just depends on the bishop—whether they’re extremists, or whether they’re compassionate and understanding.” He pauses. “I’m worried that the reason they keep this sexual overreach into the lives of developing [young people], is that most of the tithing comes from the married couples.” (Mormons typically give 10 percent of their income to the Church.)
Zuckerman eventually published an award-winning series in the Post Register titled “Scouts’ honor” that examined the dozens of abuse allegations against Stowell, and the subsequent cover-up by the Boy Scouts and LDS Church. Then things got even stranger.
Frank VanderSloot, the billionaire founder of supplement company Melaleuca (and richest man in Idaho), who was heavily involved in the Mormon Church and Boy Scouts, took it upon himself to publish full-page ads in the local paper questioning the “Scouts’ honor” investigation. He also went after journalist Peter Zuckerman, claiming that because he was a “homosexual” his reporting was biased. In the film, Zuckerman emotionally recounts being alienated in his community and losing many of his friends as a result of the attack ads.
Knappenberger, who previously helmed the doc Nobody Speaks: Trials of the Free Press, about how billionaire conservative Peter Thiel helped take down Gawker, initially viewed the doc as a piece about “attacks on the press,” which is where he came across the “Scouts’ honor” series and Frank VanderSloot’s campaign against it. “He has chosen to use his money to go after people he disagrees with, or who he wants to silence,” Knappenberger says of VanderSloot.
Steed, meanwhile, was subjected to bullying at his middle school, the loss of nearly all his friends, and gaslighting by his Church.
“There was a letter going around [at the time] quoting the first presidency in all of the churches in Idaho and Utah and Wyoming, talking and minimizing what happened to me, the sexual abuse at camp, from the pulpit and sacrament. They made it look like they handled everything well and that it was an isolated case only. The cover-up by the Church was on so many levels,” offers Steed, shaking his head.
“There was a really powerful community all orchestrated and working together to destroy these stories of child abuse. Thinking about it as an adult now, this infuriates me.”
The harassment has continued to this day. “When I went to get married, [the Mormon Church] tried to stop my temple marriage because I was a victim of child abuse. They tried to embarrass me in front of all my family,” says Steed, now 37.
Apparently, a Church Elder with ties to the Boy Scouts called the temple, and tried to get them to cancel the ceremony. “My wedding started 45 minutes late with a frustrated temple president telling this guy, ‘This is my temple, you can’t mess with it.’ They tried to humiliate me on my wedding day, and my family had come from around the world to celebrate,” Steed remembers through tears.
In the wake of “Scouts’ honor” and Steed’s courageous efforts to expose abuse, multiple lawsuits were filed against the Boy Scouts of America, who were forced to turn over internal documents that revealed widespread abuse—as well as extensive efforts to cover up that abuse—within the organization. These so-called “perversion files” included over a hundred cases of Scout leaders who were accused of abuse and then either moved to a different troop or quietly kicked out of the Scouts. The Boy Scouts of America eventually acknowledged their abuse epidemic, and promised to take measures to change.
One of the most moving scenes in Church and the Fourth Estate sees Steed reading Stowell’s apology letter to him for the first time. “Sad when a pedophile says what the Church never said,” he mutters.
Yes, the Mormon Church never formally apologized for their role in the silencing of Steed, and the cover-up of his (and others’) abuse.
“It would blow my mind if the Church did a formal apology, because that would be so healing. It’s this huge elephant in the room, and it’s been such a painful pathway to feel so alienated in my own Church for standing up for what our Church teaches us to believe in,” he says.
“In my life, the greatest opposition was people thinking I was attacking the Church, when really I was trying to help save it,” he continues. “It was people accusing you of being non-Christian in angry and hateful ways, when really you started to relate to what Christ must have felt when he started to teach people against the establishment who hurt people in his day, and in that sense, helped protect people. I just never imagined that I would be a part of something so important after feelings that made me feel so unimportant.”