Scout’s Honor: The Secret Files of the Boy Scouts of America Is as American as Apple Pie

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Scout’s Honor: The Secret Files of the Boy Scouts of America Is as American as Apple Pie

One of the least shocking things in Brian Knappenberger’s chilling Netflix documentary Scout’s Honor: The Secret Files of the Boy Scouts of America is that the Boy Scouts has always been a haven for pedophiles. It’s been true since the Scouts’ founding across the pond in the United Kingdom over 100 years ago, where the very first troop discovered that their doctor was molesting the young boys. As admitted by a convicted serial pedophile, the Boy Scouts just makes it all so easy. As these abusers are the authority figures meant to be the guardians of children, they have unfettered, unsupervised access to their victims, most glaringly in the form of overnight camping; there is minimal background evaluation for would-be Scoutmasters, no government ID-ing or fingerprinting, and former Youth Protections Director of the Boys Scouts of America Michael Johnson faced a hard, quote-unquote, “hell no” when he suggested both approaches for vetting the adults spending substantial time with young children. As Scout’s Honor details, it’s incredibly simple for abusers to return after getting kicked out.

It’s all because the Boy Scouts is hobbled by its own lofty, all-American reputation. What it represents becomes more important than the violence it’s perpetuating and the victims it’s harmed. It’s a reputation of “Norman Rockwell, mom ‘n’ pop, and apple pie,” as a voiceover describes at the very beginning. Like the kind of deceptive suburban façade which has notoriously fascinated director David Lynch for his entire career, it’s a rosy reputation harboring nasty secrets. It’s decades of sexual abuse, negligence and cover-ups—a larger scandal than that of the Catholic Church (which is, unsurprisingly and along with other churches, often connected to the Scouts) all for the sake of protecting the Scouts from being seen as exactly what it is: A haven for pedophiles. It’s to the extent that one of Scout’s Honor’s interviewees, former Scouts general counsel Steve McGowan, will seemingly stop at nothing to deflect culpability in an attempt to protect the dignity of the Scouts as he trades barbs with an admirably pushy Knappenberger. McGowan’s ultimate viewpoint is that the Scouts’ scandal is not a reflection of the Scouts but of society; it’s happening everywhere, and all the Scouts can do is the best they can to protect children from it.

Of course, the Scouts haven’t done a very good job at that, have they? McGowan would like viewers to believe that it’s simply a case of some people making some mistakes sometimes. Yet the Scouts’ reputation has, since the result of the 2019 Kerry Lewis trial, the public release of the “Perversion Files”—the records of abuse within the Scouts dating back over a century—and subsequent bankruptcy, been partly tarnished. Still, the BSA trudges confidently onward despite dwindling admission, opening its doors to both boys and girls. McGowan tries his best to convincingly express to the camera, after Knappenberger probes him as to why parents should ever trust the organization again, that the Scouts are still proving themselves to be a safe place for children. Nevertheless, as much of Scout’s Honor is a back-and-forth dialogue between separate, conflicting interviews of former colleagues Johnson and McGowan, Johnson hits back: He believes that the organization is absolutely still a major risk for the vulnerable young people entrusted into their care.

Knappenberger’s documentary is fairly boilerplate in terms of format, and its title and introductory credits sequence invoke the hallmarks of exploitative true-crime (his last doc was another Netflix vehicle, a series called Web of Make Believe: Death, Lies and the Internet). However, Scouts Honor does not give in to true-crime trappings, although it’s saturated with the same aesthetics—of talking-head interviews, and intermediary archival footage and images—as the very worst of them. The filmmaking is standard while journalistic, and the story is unnerving, upsetting and explosive. The interviewees are made up of former insiders Johnson (now a whistleblower) and McGowan, alongside outsiders like journalist Patrick Boyle (who helped to expose the Perversion Files), lawyer Christopher Hurley and victims themselves sharing their stories—some publicly, for the very first time. The latter are often incredibly difficult to watch, but their disclosures seem necessary, especially for the victims, who admit that they feel a sense of relief in conjunction with their fear by getting on camera. As one explains, it’s important that they don’t feel alone.

Still, Scout’s Honor: The Secret Files of the Boy Scouts of America is a bit like an illuminated brick wall. While it’s hopeful that the documentary could bring about catharsis for survivors, it all ends on a very ambiguous note. The BSA’s bankruptcy in February 2020 came about after several states created laws which allowed for the victims—a whopping 82,000 of them—to sue the organization over old abuse allegations. But, as one talking head explains, it’s essentially led these victims to become collateral in a very complicated legal process. Billions are owed in damages, and it’s unclear how much has actually made its way into the victims’ pockets where it belongs (the BSA has since exited from Chapter 11 bankruptcy). It’s infuriating and disenfranchising and very, very familiar (again unsurprisingly mirroring the Catholic Church’s scandal). While Scout’s Honor may only anger and dismay the audiences that watch it, it’s still a brutal depiction of the foundation of violence, ignorance and apathy which the entire country is built upon, and of the perpetrating parties who continue to profit from it. In that way, Scout’s Honor is as American as apple pie.

Director: Brian Knappenberger
Release Date: September 6, 2023 (Netflix)

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.

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