The Irving-based Boy Scouts of America exited bankruptcy earlier this year with a $2.4 billion plan to compensate victims of alleged sexual abuse spanning decades.
But the emotional scars remain, as does the criticism from some circles about the organization’s lack of accountability, empathy, or oversight. That’s where Brian Knappenberger hopes his latest documentary can provide a voice.
Scouts Honor: The Secret Files of the Boy Scouts of America, which focuses on gut-wrenching accounts from survivors and whistleblowers, begins streaming Sept. 6 on Netflix.
“They looked at it as more of a PR problem rather than a human safety problem,” Knappenberger said of BSA leadership. “They did a lot to silence these stories.”
The film spotlights a few of the more than 80,000 potential victims nationwide identified through the 2020 bankruptcy declaration, some of whose horrifying anecdotes date back almost 50 years.
One of the primary interviewees is Michael Johnson, a former Plano police detective. Johnson specializes in criminal child sexual abuse cases and worked as a youth protection advisor for BSA for 11 years through 2020.
Johnson said there are multiple reasons why such conduct tends to remain hidden, such as the power dynamics involving male victimization, systemic attempts to shield culprits through misguided policies, and the reputation of the iconic, faith-based, all-American brand.
“Sexual abuse is terrible for any gender, but it’s different for men than it is women,” Johnson said. “The scoutmasters, who are a majority of the perpetrators, are idealized figures who had access to these boys for years, and are able to set up these relationships.”
For those whose psychological wounds were covered up for years because of shame or fear, the legal options for financial or punitive justice are limited, Johnson said.
“If it takes them that long, even if they go to the police and say they were sexually abused as a scout 25 years ago, the criminal statute of limitations has run out or the perpetrator is potentially dead,” he said.
When Knappenberger was making his 2017 documentary about press freedom, Nobody Speaks, one of the main subjects had come forward as a victim of abuse while in Boy Scouts. That prompted the filmmaker to dig deeper. He said some of the subjects in the film are sharing their trauma publicly for the first time.
“It’s just a matter of listening and giving them the time they deserve, and understanding that it’s incredibly difficult,” Knappenberger said. “You have to give them that platform and respect the courage it takes. A lot of people are suffering in silence. They’re in some ways speaking for people who haven’t come forward yet.”
In the past, when allegations surfaced, BSA leadership would try to discredit victims or intimidate those seeking to expose abusers, Knappenberger said. While the financial settlement and corresponding blanket apology is a start, true healing remains elusive.
“Documentaries can drag these subjects into the light of day,” Knappenberger said. “I hope there’s a public reckoning. I hope the film sparks some discussion.”
More than 5,300 claimants to the bankruptcy settlement are from Texas, the second most of any state behind California. The plan has been upheld in court thus far, but could face more legal challenges from detractors.
Johnson remains unconvinced the BSA is committed to significant reforms before, at minimum, a broad third-party investigation is completed by a government or law enforcement entity that includes full transparency and cooperation.
“The Boy Scouts of America doesn’t believe they have a problem. They don’t have any motivation to change,” Johnson said. “Justice is still not served.”