The Boy Scouts’ Sexual Abuse Scandal No Longer Lives in the Shadows

Vanity Fair [New York NY]

September 6, 2023

By Savannah Walsh

Director Brian Knappenberger and former Boy Scouts youth protection director Michael Johnson on exposing a decades-long cover-up in Netflix’s documentary Scouts Honor: “They tried to squash the story every time.”

When documentarian Brian Knappenberger asks former detective Michael Johnson why he took a job with the Boy Scouts—Johnson was the organization’s youth protection director for a decade, before parting ways with it in 2020—Johnson levies a wary look his way. “Do you want the truth,” he answers, “or what I was told to say?”

As it turns out, Knappenberger is searching for both. His Netflix documentary Scouts Honor: The Secret Files of the Boy Scouts of America details decades of sexual abuse within the world’s most famous youth club—and the reason why even now victims and their allies largely decline to speak about it. “They tried to squash the story every time,” the director tells Vanity Fair. “This is an organization that holds themselves up as moral leaders, as people that are teaching your kids how to be leaders. And when they had to make a leadership decision themselves, the moral decision, they failed time and time again.”

When Knappenberger was making his 2020 short film Church and the Fourth Estate, which approaches the abuse of Boy Scouts from a media angle, 82,000 survivors came forward with allegations against the organization. “This was staggering—more claims than were made against the Catholic Church,” says Knappenberger. “I felt like it wasn’t getting nearly the attention it deserved. I thought it was one of the most underreported stories in the last few years.”

Like the Catholic Church, few wanted to believe that child sexual abuse was happening in the Boy Scouts—which invokes visions of “Americana and apple pie and baseball,” says Knappenberger. But according to his documentary, there has been rot in the organization from its inception. Created as a guiding tool for young boys in 1908 England, the group was forced to fire the doctor working at the world’s very first Boy Scout camp for sexual misconduct, the doc explains. Not long after the Boy Scouts invaded the United States, the Red Flag List—also known as the Ineligible Volunteer Files or Perversion Papers—was born, a system designed to quietly keep track of suspected predators within the organization. That information was kept confidential in the Scouts’ Texas headquarters, even as thousands of boys were being abused by their scoutmasters. (The files were publicly released in 2012.)

“The Boy Scouts knew that for this product to sell well, they had to have the highest integrity among the Boy Scout leaders. So parents were convinced that when you put your boy in the hands of the Boy Scouts, you are handing them over to the most responsible men, the most honest men,” journalist Patrick Boyle, who first publicized the perversion papers and wrote a 1994 book on the scandal, says in the doc. “They essentially had a product defect that they were ignoring—that this organization was built in a way that molesters could get in, abuse kids, and get away with it.”

Scouts Honor delves into some of the group’s darkest chapters. In the 1970s, Troop 137 in New Orleans was exposed as a covert pedophile ring. Later that decade, Christopher Schultz, a 12-year-old New Jersey boy abused by his scoutmaster and religious leader, took his own life. And in 1989, Thomas Hacker, who admitted to molesting hundreds of boys while serving as a scoutmaster, was sentenced to 100 years in prison. When Christopher Hurley, the attorney who deposed Hacker, asked why he had chosen the Boy Scouts as his breeding ground, Hacker allegedly replied, “Because they made it so easy.”

Johnson says he was fired by the organization after it filed for bankruptcy—but he’s elected not to take severance so that he’s able to speak out against the group. “They wanted me to say that I was retiring,” he tells VF. “Then they sent me this letter, where if I signed it I couldn’t say anything at all about the Boy Scouts of America to anybody. To me, that just sounded crazy. So I refused to sign it, and I’m looking at the media about how Boy Scouts is trying to position themselves as safe. And I knew they were lying.”

Steve McGowan, who served as BSA’s general counsel from 2013 to 2022, has refused to acknowledge systemic dysfunction in the organization. Instead, he suggests in the documentary that the Scouts are merely a reflection of society’s brokenness. “Remember, the Boy Scouts of America did not abuse these kids. We had some bad people that got in,” he tells Knappenberger.

“This is a dangerous deflection because basically, he’s ignoring what is uniquely problematic about the Boy Scouts,” says the filmmaker. “Taking kids away from their parents, away from the safety of their communities and overnight camping trips with men—this is something that’s unique to the Boy Scouts.” Adds Johnson, “You have to get approval from this adult scoutmaster to get your Eagle Scout. Let’s do the math about the grooming leverage that’s inherent in that type of a situation.”

The group may claim to have a rigorous application and screening process—but according to Johnson, “that’s bullshit.” The film reports that Boy Scout volunteers are not required to provide any identification, due in part to cost concerns. And while a child protection training program is available to all scoutmasters, it is not mandated viewing. (According to the BSA site, youth protection training is required for all registered volunteers, and, as of 2019, the registration guidebook says all adult participants must provide a social security number.)

Johnson was dumbfounded to learn that McGowan spoke to Knappenberger. “I really and truly can’t believe [it],” he says. “Steve McGowan knows everything, literally. The lobbying efforts, the IV file issues, all of the lawsuits, the bankruptcy filings, the response to Congress. He is involved in all of it and approves everything, including the messaging. That’s who I reported [to] at Boy Scouts of America, and there was a lot of headbutting. I personally am glad that the world will get a little taste of what I was having to deal with behind the scenes.”

Johnson was also struck by how much abuse the film was able to expose. “But none of it surprised me,” he says. “And there’s so much more. Oh, there’s so much. But they did a fantastic job of honoring the survivors, number one, and that was huge. I’ve talked to some survivors, and they felt like somebody finally listened to them.”

Fearing an avalanche of claims after multiple US states enacted laws allowing accusers to sue over decades-old sexual abuse allegations, Boy Scouts filed for bankruptcy in February 2020. That may prevent future abuse—but it’s a decision with major implications for those survivors, says Knappenberger.

“There wasn’t a chance for survivors to get up and tell their story to the judge. So it’s not like some of the other scandals that we’ve heard, where people get a hearing in front of the Senate Committee,” he explains. “Chapter 11 bankruptcy is a very simple mechanism to keep the organization going. And so it turns survivors into creditors. It’s no different than a roofer that wasn’t paid or something. It’s a very, very inhumane way of dealing with this.” (Earlier this year, the Boy Scouts exited Chapter 11 bankruptcy after reaching a $2.46 billion dollar settlement with accusers. At the time, CEO Roger Mosby admitted that the organization had “failed” thousands of abuse victims.)

The only way to hold the organization accountable, Johnson says, is by demanding a formal congressional investigation—one far from Boy Scouts of America’s purview. “And I don’t mind being the first witness,” he says. Whatever comes of such an inquiry “doesn’t mean Boy Scouts should go away,” adds Knappenberger. In fact, transparency “is the only way for our kids to be safe. It’s the only way for the Boy Scouts to survive.”

Savannah Walsh

Savannah Walsh is a staff writer at Vanity Fair, covering film, television, and pop culture. Previously, she wrote for Elle and Bustle. She lives in Brooklyn.