clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Scouts Honor’ shines a light on the blind eye of the Boys Scouts and the bravery of survivors who were failed

‘The Secret Files of the Boy Scouts of America chronicles decades of a culture of abuse and the incessant ways it was covered up.


In the opening moments of director Brian Knappenberger’s documentary, Scouts Honor: The Secret Files of the Boy Scouts of America, the organization is painted as “mom, pop, and apple pie.” Classic footage plays of young boys doing archery, smiling, and in the backdrop of various Presidents. The Boy Scouts have always had the patriotic air to it, and they’ve used that to conceal a rather insidious sexual abuse problem the organization has had since its inception in England in 1908. In the first troop, a doctor was reportedly kicked out due to sexual misconduct claims. Now, in the present day, over 82,000 victims’ survivors have come forward to speak about their allegations, and the Scouts itself has declared bankruptcy.

How could something so perverse and widespread happen for so long? Well, it would anger you further to know that the Boy Scouts kept records of the men who were on a defacto “red flag list,” which went by a couple of names – at first, it was the “Confidential Files,” then the “Perversion Papers,’ and finally the “Ineligible Volunteer Files.” As journalist Patrick Boyle would note, these files were reported on as early as 1935 by the New York Times. Boyle and former Youth Protections Director of the Boys Scouts of America Michael Johnson both serve as the mouthpieces for the disturbing cases throughout decades and how higher-ups impeded every attempt to make added protections for children.

Johnson is exceptionally adamant in wanting to protect children from various forms of abuse – he had spent 16 years prior in Plato dealing with those cases. No matter how hard he tried, the institution would shut him down – wanting basic things such as checking photo IDs for Scoutmasters or setting up a hotline for kids to report abuse. The pushback was due to cost, sheer laziness, or the fact that Boy Scouts protocol was to tell “trusted adults” instead of the police.


I couldn’t imagine reading the original 231 Confidential files in total. Still, Boyle speaks about various cases in which even if a leader was flagged as a potential predator, the standards were so loose that they could move to another town. A case in 1977 involving Troop 137 in New Orleans uncovered an entire sex ring operation. Some commonalities in these disgusting acts were that men looked for single-family homes (mainly encompassing a single mother) and promised to pay for things to instill some financial stability. The Boy Scouts' central ethos is one of honor, and with the things Scouts Honor uncovers, it’s anything but.

Knappenberger keeps things from a straightforward, detail-based perspective that allows previous victims to gain the megaphone and speak about what they went through. These now older men exhibit bravery in talking about their stories – many of whom never got to tell their parents or began to speak about their experiences with family members in their 40s and 50s. The documentary also explains why men are not compelled to speak out about sexual abuse committed against them. They have to worry about rampant homophobia, chronicling what happened to them. In the case of the Boy Scouts, the organization had close ties with the Catholic and Mormon churches.

Many of the attitudes inaccurately and disgustingly pined queer identity to pedophilia. Anyone who dared speak out about their leaders' actions was ostracized from their communities. It is hard and downright infuriating to hear these stories and see how these alleged acts have broken these men – but we need to know the pain for them to start healing and for us to reckon with the damage (there has still been no Congressional investigation).

Kerry Lewis’ courtroom win against Timur Dykes in 1987 led to the public uncovering of the Perversion Papers and an $18 million settlement. Regarding the bankruptcy proceedings, while a judge approved a $2.46 billion settlement plan, it’s unclear when the survivors will receive that money. Thus, the Boy Scouts continue today, and Johnson believes there is still a sexual abuse issue. Former Boy Scouts of America general counsel Steven McGowan is a figurehead for the “we recognize something was wrong, but we’re better now” culture. This is all the while deflecting some of the accounts he’s told – mainly stating that abuse mostly occurs in the home. Johnson pushes back on most of these assertions.

If you’re bursting with contentment by the end of Scouts Honor, you should be. There was an entire system in place for young boys to fall prey to nefarious men just on the merit of what the organization is “supposed” to embody. American values should encompass justice and equal protection for all people regardless of their identity – but we still have a long way to go.