The other day like millions of Americans I awoke to the news that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was filing for bankruptcy protection. For me, hearing about the legal posturing was like learning that a terminally-ill person had finally succumbed to a disease. It was sad, but inevitable.
I got involved in scouting in 2008 when my oldest son came home from school with a pamphlet. He wanted to join the Cub Scouts. I didn't think twice. We went to the first meeting and shortly thereafter I found myself spending hundreds of dollars not just on my son's uniforms, but also on mine. I became an adult leader and I started drinking the Kool-Aid.
My son jumped into scouting with a cannonball. He loved it; the uniforms, objectives, outings, the rules and the structure. We camped a lot, and he got exposed to all sorts of things that as a man, I wasn't really into; archery, rifle shooting, rock climbing, just to name a few. I grew as a "Scouter," another name for an adult leader. I founded a pack at a school that did not have one and I was a regular fixture at district meetings and training events. I was really into it.
But like anything, the more I became involved in scouting, the more I paid attention and slowly I started to see the cracks in BSA's shiny armor. In 2011, when I was the leader of a Cub Scout pack, I learned that the BSA in 2010 had been ordered to pay $18.5 million to a former scout who had been sexually abused by a scout leader in the 1980s. It was the largest punitive damage award to a single plaintiff in a child abuse case in the United States. Interestingly, back in Central Texas at district meetings and training events, there was no discussion about the sexual abuse cases being developed in other states and little did we know as adult leaders that here in Texas we had our own list of molesters in those files. Hundreds of men were stepping forward nationwide claiming they had been abused by their scout leaders yet back in Texas, crickets.
As a former military public affairs officer I've got a pretty good nose for spin. Coming from the U.S. Army, an organization that has told lies and committed many missteps on the world stage, I'm a big fan of organizational transparency. Clearly the BSA was hiding information not to protect its victims, as it claimed, but rather to protect its image and brand.
Had the BSA done everything it could to protect its youth members? Not really, but the tale of BSA's fall from grace was caused not by a failure of their youth protection program, but rather it was a systemic organizational failure by the BSA to protect its scouts and to hold child molesters in their ranks accountable for their crimes. Allegations of sexual abuse in the BSA date back to the 1920s and while some of the alleged abusers faced some consequences, overwhelmingly the majority did not. It should be noted that some of the accused molesters were allowed to continue to volunteer as leaders despite the allegations and BSA's knowledge of their crimes. Most abusers were merely added to what BSA called the Perversion Files, an internal BSA record that listed possible cases of sexual abuse dating from 1947 to 2005. An unknown number of files were purged by the BSA prior to the 1990s.
In 2012, the undercurrent of change and accountability continued to pull at the BSA. BSA's national policy to exclude homosexuals as scouts and as adult volunteers was an issue that I had to deal with locally as a scout leader. A parent whose son was interested in scouting explained to me that she couldn't allow her son to join an organization that wasn't inclusive. Conversely, I had similar results for opposite reasons when I explained our pack's policy of inclusivity to a father whose two boys wanted to join. After the dad broached the topic of homosexuality in scouting with me, I said my piece, he took a couple of applications and I learned they joined a nearby pack at a church. Guess he didn't like what I had to say.
Scouting's values surfaced again when my son tried to fund raise and sell popcorn. A family member who is a lesbian politely declined, stating that she was dieting. When I presented an option where she could donate to the pack directly without purchasing anything, there was no response.
BSA in 2014 decided to hold its collective nose and swallow the inclusivity pill that a majority of the nation wanted it to take. Homosexual scouts were permitted to join and in 2015, homosexual adult leaders were allowed to join, but by then the brand was damaged and many suspected self-preservation was at the root of its pivot to inclusion.
While the BSA knowingly allowed adults to abuse children, and while it discriminated against members of the LGBTQ community, it also failed to evolve. It failed to remain appealing to more than 74 million American children under the age of 18, luring less than three percent of children in the United States (2.2 million). By comparison, 4-H has nearly six million youth.
My son who joined scouting as a first grader stuck with it until he earned his Eagle Scout in 2018. His relationship with scouting lasted longer than many marriages and longer than some employment stints for many adults. But in the end, even for him, it had become a place of disillusionment.
Snowplowing parents did work for their kids to help them excel and earning ranks and merit badges was no longer about learning and experience, it was more about mass production, quantity over quality. Troops bragged about how many Eagle Scouts they produced each year as kids as young as 11 earned their Eagle Scout rank. You have to be 10 to join the BSA. He found that many of the adult leaders did not live up to the oath that they recited at their weekly meetings. Their actions spoke louder than words.
Now my son is one of more than two million men who have earned the Eagle Scout rank. BSA loves to brag that only four percent of scouts go on to earn the rank, making it seem as if kids are enduring a Navy SEAL-like gauntlet where only the most robust of souls survive. It's bullshit. We all know that the BSA has suffered some intense attrition, it's numbers dropping when the Latter-day Saints pulled more than 400,000 from the program, its membership falling around 50 percent from its max in the 1970s. Child sexual abuse, intolerance and a lack of evolution has drained the organization of its identity and health.
Make no mistake, all of this happened to the BSA because of toxic masculinity, a cultural symptom that plagues our society. Because a culture of toxic masculinity existed in the BSA, the organization did not manage the sexual abuse of children as it should have. Toxic masculinity prevented people from understanding the abuse or maybe it helped them ignore it. BSA's inability to accept LGBTQ people into its organization is also a clear indicator of a toxic male culture. The silence illustrates the permissiveness.
As a career PR guy and as a father, I am glad that the BSA is making strides toward change. However, I have to wonder about the motives of the organization. Is BSA really interested in helping the victims as it states or is it merely covering its own ass? I suppose only those at a very large table, with very large salaries are privy to that information. As for my family, I pulled my two youngest sons from scouting. It just isn't relevant and they were no longer interested in it.
Locally in Austin, the news of the BSA bankruptcy and its causes came and went. Only a couple of local media covered the news and interviewed the Austin-area BSA PR flack. There was messaging about how the local scouting council was not legally a part of the national organization and how it is independent. On their social media pages there is no mention of bankruptcy or the sexual assaults despite the fact that 23 local men have been accused of sexually abusing boys in the Central Texas area since 1960 and one as recent as 2014 who was arrested after placing a camera in the shower of a Cub Scout camp. He was employed there for eight years. Also absent from any news coverage or PR products is the mention of a 2008 conviction of a former Central Texas scout leader who preyed on kids for 30 years.
It is true that legally, local BSA councils and the national organization are structured in such a way that local councils own their facilities and land. It was a smart way to organize an institution to protect it. But while the organizations might be legally different and separate, the truth of the matter is that the local councils are the fabric of the national council. When you go to a McDonald's in Florida, the food is basically the same as a McDonald's in Ohio. The franchisee might be different, but the company and its culture are the same. Local scouting councils are like franchises and the national council actually makes money from membership dues collected at the local level. The national organization relies on the councils to bring in several million dollars each year.
If it is reported that the local organization is still viable, abandonment of the BSA by families is less likely to happen. You should know that the national BSA council says it provides "materials and support for local councils" and that it "uses its funds for development of program materials and resources, infrastructure support for local councils ..," as well as paying the "salaries and benefits for employees." So, it is not as independent as they want us to believe. If the national organization is not healthy, neither are its limbs.
Beyond the fact that all of its members wear the same uniforms and recite the same oaths, the BSA is one organization and that organization failed to protect its kids. It needs to be held accountable and my hope is that through transparency with the public and its members, BSA will survive this, but if it does not, the world will still turn because kids do not need patches in order to do activities and parents do not need an organization to be actively outdoors with their kids.
But local scouting councils ignoring the elephant in the room by claiming there is no connectivity is bullshit. It is a reverse grassroots effort. Let's not forget it was local scout leaders who committed the sexual abuse of boys at those local councils nationwide. It was crimes perpetrated at the local council level that led to the financial and moral bankruptcy of the BSA. It was those legally freestanding councils who cleared those abusers to interact with the kids. It was the local councils that allowed the abuse to happen and it brought down the mother ship. The local councils make up the web that is the national organization.
Did I mention that the BSA with its $10 billion in assets has hired FTI Strategic Communications to help manage this PR nightmare?
If you are a victim of sexual abuse in scouting or know someone who might be a victim, use this tool to from the LA Times to determine if your scout leader was accused of sexual abuse. Please note, this device has not been updated in some years.
When my son was younger, long before he earned his Eagle, he would often stray as boys do and do something that fell short of our family's definition of character. I would always refer him back to the Scout Oath and the Scout Law and it helped guide him, putting him on a good course.
The BSA should likely re-read its Scout Oath and Scout Law. As I watch all this unfold the hypocrisy of it sickens me. After all, a scout is trustworthy. A scout is helpful. A scout is brave.