Thirty years ago this summer, I spent two weeks backpacking across Philmont, a 140,000-acre expanse of northeastern New Mexico owned by the Boy Scouts of America. Most people who trek Philmont say it changed their life; it certainly changed mine. A few years later, I became an Eagle Scout — still one of my proudest achievements.
On Tuesday, the Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy, seeking, in part, protection from mounting costs involving several hundred sexual abuse lawsuits. The filing is a defensive move, and the organization may yet survive. But enrollment is plummeting and sponsors are dropping out; the future doesn’t look good.
For a long time, I’ve wrestled with some complicated feelings about the Boy Scouts. My personal experiences, and the ideas of scouting — blending self-reliance with community, practical skills with a republican civic philosophy — made me who I am. But “scouting,” a global, century-old movement, is different from the Boy Scouts of America, the organization based in Irving, Tex., that for decades has apparently covered up the risk of sexual abuse at the expense of thousands of young boys.
Scouting is a valuable, even vital idea; the Boy Scouts, though, is quite toxic. For scouting to survive, the Boy Scouts of America may have to go.
The Boy Scouts of America was founded in 1910, and almost from the beginning it has had a sexual abuse problem. Since at least the 1940s, it kept a list of red flag cases — known, grotesquely, as the “perversion files” — which were supposed to block abusers from further participation in Scouts. But the list didn’t do its job, nor did it save the organization from a steady drip of lawsuits.
Until recently, most of those cases were settled quietly out of court, so it’s hard to say how many there were, or how much the Boy Scouts paid the plaintiffs. But in 2010, a court in Portland, Ore., ordered the Boy Scouts to pay $1.4 million to a man who was abused by a scout leader, Timur Dykes, in the 1980s. During that trial about 1,000 red-flag files were introduced as evidence, though only the jury and lawyers were allowed to see them. The Boy Scouts at the time denied allegations of negligence but in 2012, it was forced to make public thousands of pages of documents from those files.
In an echo of the scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, the files show that the national organization often allowed scout leaders accused of abuse, including Mr. Dykes, to continue working with boys. The files also indicate that complaints about abusive adults were shot down by officials more interested in protecting the organization’s image than rooting out injustice.
The Portland case unleashed hell on the Boy Scouts. Along with a cascade of lawsuits over individual abuse claims, several former scouts are suing the organization for access to all the perversion files, which they say contain the names of 7,819 men who abused boys under their charge, along with 12,254 victims. Last year, to raise money, the Boy Scouts mortgaged Philmont, the crown jewel of the scouting kingdom.
It’s hard to square all this with the scouting I remember. My troop, in Nashville, was sponsored by a local congregation of the Disciples of Christ, a liberal, mainline denomination with just a bit more Jesus than the Unitarian Universalists. Our adult leaders were good men — funny, kind, wise, gruff — and the boys came from all around: white, black, brown, well off, working class. We hiked, we goofed off, we got away from our parents and we became like brothers.
For a long time, I’ve leaned on this particular experience to justify the general — whatever bad apples might be found in other troops, mine was proof that the organization was good at heart. The Boy Scouts have done the same, in reverse. After the Dykes trial, a Boy Scouts spokesman said, “The actions of the man who committed these crimes do not represent the values and ideals of the Boy Scouts of America.”
That may be true. But in 2020, it’s beside the point. Too many bad apples raise unavoidable questions about the orchard they came from. And while the Boy Scouts has done an admirable job of reform — owning up to its failures, admitting openly gay scouts and leaders, planning a compensation fund for victims — it still doesn’t feel like enough. Even if the Boy Scouts manages to get through this crisis financially, what possible reform could win back the public trust?
Is it possible to have scouting without the Boy Scouts? Of course it is, just as we don’t need the NFL to play football.
Scouting began in Britain, under the leadership of Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, a career army officer. In 1908 he founded the Boy Scouts; two years later he and his sister created the Girl Guides.
The movement spread quickly, with national organizations sprouting from North America, where the Boy Scouts of America opened in 1910, to Southeast Asia — today, Indonesia has by far the largest, with some 17 million members. Each national organization had to follow some basic parameters set by Baden-Powell, but otherwise was free to set its own rules. Some, like the Boy Scouts of America, exclude atheists; many don’t. Others have always been coed; the Boy Scouts didn’t admit girls until 2018.
The Boy Scouts is by far the largest scouting organization in America, but historically, it hasn’t been the only one. The same year it was founded, a rival organization, the American Boy Scouts, began under the leadership of William Randolph Hearst (it folded in the 1920s). More recently, the Baden-Powell Service Association has emerged as a coed, nonreligious alternative to the Boy Scouts. And of course there’s the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., founded in 1912 as the American branch of the Girl Guides.
At its height in the early 1970s, the Boy Scouts claimed more than four million youth; now it’s down to about 2.2 million. That’s a significant decline, but it’s still about twice as many boys as play high school football. The Girl Scouts has 1.7 million youth members.
Clearly, there’s a demand for something like Boy Scouts. There’s also a need.
Scouting is inclusive, in a way that belies the stereotypes and makes it an antidote to the racial and economic siloing so common today. Scouts wear uniforms not to play soldier, but to step outside their social roles — to become equals.
At its core, scouting offers a dual education in civics and self-reliance. Scouting is where I learned the importance of voting, conservation and civil rights. I also learned to pitch a tent, tie knots, purify water, climb a cliff and perform CPR. It’s this combo of values and skills, and the overarching idea that they go hand in hand, that makes scouting so valuable.
I’m grateful to the Boy Scouts. But while my adult leaders were teaching me how to tie a bowline hitch, adult leaders in other troops were preying on boys like me. Maybe it’s not about a few bad apples; maybe I was just lucky.
I won’t take the same risk with my children. Fortunately, I don’t have to. My wife and I recently enrolled them in the Baden-Powell Service Association. We love it. They get outdoors, go camping, learn about their community.
It’s progressive — coed, secular — and maybe not for everyone. Still, as a vision for what scouting could look like after the Boy Scouts, it’s heartening. With its bankruptcy, the Boy Scouts of America may have entered its final chapter. But as my children will tell you, the joy of scouting continues.
Clay Risen is the deputy daily opinion editor of The New York Times and the author of “The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century.”