I was an active Boy Scout as a teenager because I had strong motivation: getting myself the hell out of the Scouting movement. It was a cultural rite and a family thing, one I hated—but the rule was that I couldn’t leave until I’d reached the highest rank. My older brothers were Eagle Scouts, as were most of my cousins and nephews. Now the Boy Scouts of America are filing for bankruptcy, like USA Gymnastics and a bunch of Catholic dioceses in the United States before them, and for similar reasons. The Scouts’ motto, of course, is “Be Prepared,” but when it came to compensating a mere fraction of the victims of sexual assault in their dens, they weren’t. Now their finances will mirror their morals.
Good, I thought, when I heard the news. I hope this means they’re dead as a cultural force. The entire Scouting ethos is based on predation. One guy from a Virginia Boy Scouts troop of mine later pleaded guilty to molesting children in a church building during his Mormon mission to Las Vegas. I lost track of most of the rest. I made Eagle at 14, and that was that.
I’d started out early in the organization, in Germany; my dad was stationed at Bitburg Air Base, but our family lived out in town, which meant that, aside from school, Cub Scouts was where I hung out with Americans of my own age. I was indifferent to the group, but I loved the outdoors; I spent most of my time out in the woods or down by the river and traveled steadily up the ranks—Bobcat, Wolf, Bear, and Webelos, and Arrow of Light, for which I vaguely recall walking a thin, slightly raised platform meant to symbolize a bridge.
It wasn’t really my thing, but in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints it was the official youth program for boys, and a record of promotions through the organization was cultural currency—tangible evidence, like the accumulation of material goods, of your spiritual success. Having a family full of Eagle Scouts meant having a family full of righteous men, and training began early. It was simply something I knew I’d have to get through.
By the time we moved back to the States, I was 11, eligible to join the Boy Scouts; there wasn’t much choice in the matter. Scouting should’ve been a natural fit: I already enjoyed running around in the woods by my house wearing camouflage, playing Army man; I’d sewn my own ghillie suit. But Scouting was full of weirdos being babysat by man-children on power trips once a week on Wednesday night, with weekend campouts every couple of months, plus a week at a Scout camp in summer.
I raced through the program as fast as possible, ready to quit once I’d gotten Eagle. My Boy Scout Requirements 1993–1995 book charts the minimum required progress for Eagle Scout: 16 months and a total of 21 merit badges. That’s what I did, carefully and cynically choosing the easiest elective merit badges, like Pets (“Requirement 3: Present evidence that you have cared for a pet for four months”) and Collections (“Requirement 2: Explain the growth and development of your collection”). These accompanied the required merit badges, like Personal Management (“Requirement 6: Tell how important credit and installment buying are to our economy and the individual and the family”).
Doing this, I learned—and am reminded now, flipping through the merit badge requirements—how much the Boy Scouts were cultural predators. They ripped off and distorted Native American dress, customs, and cultures as shamelessly as Instagramming white girls in headdress at Coachella. The “Indian Lore” merit badge required a scout to give the history of one Indian tribe, make a full Indian costume, and visit a museum to see Indian artifacts but never once mentions talking to a Native person—there are only 2.9 million in the U.S.
A fraternity within Boy Scouts called Order of the Arrow is among the worst at such cultural appropriation: Its “tapping out” ceremony, described here by Native artist and Scout mother Ozheebeegay Ikwe, leans heavily on whites wearing redface. (“While American Indian attire has been the historic tradition used in OA ceremonies,” the Order announced in an update on its website last month, “circumstances may dictate that lodges use either the Scout Field Uniform or the Alternative Ceremonial Clothing.” The announcement concluded by assuring OA members that “Ceremony scripts and the core messages they possess are remaining the same.”)
The high cost of the Scouting program was another form of predation: It’s expensive to be a member. Today, a bare-bones short-sleeve Scout shirt sets parents back $36.99, a shoulder patch $3.49, a long-sleeve shirt and switchback canvas uniform pants each come in at $39.99, a belt $12.99, a neckerchief $10.99, and socks $9.99. Not that the uniform components were all required, but that resulted in a tiered uniform system that subtly distinguished the rich and upper-middle-class kids from the poor. Kids with money had better gear for camping, and it was never cheap to attend a national or international jamboree (which worked out for me, since I had little interest in going).
At my Eagle Scout board of review, I recall feeling uncomfortable as old men asked me what I would do if one of my friends told me they were gay (“Requirement 2: Demonstrate Scout Spirit by living the Scout Oath”). To my shame—to this day, it bothers me—I hedged, faced those stuffy codgers wearing $9 Boy Scout socks and matching bright kerchiefs, put on my most earnest expression, and said something to the effect that I would try to help my hypothetical gay friend not be so gay, if they didn’t want to be gay. This seemed to satisfy them, as did the thousand-plus books that my book drive collected for the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters. I passed my review, got my terminal rank, had it presented in another weird ceremony, then kept my promise and promptly quit. Years later, when I enlisted in the Army, I entered at a slightly higher than usual rank, private first class, because I had been an Eagle Scout.
The whole Scouting organization was rotten, that’s been crystal clear to me since then; it seemed confirmed when disaster artist Robert Gates left the BSA presidency in 2016. When your outfit is abandoned by a Beltway maven who failed to predict the Soviet Union’s fall as an intel analyst, palled around with Iran-Contra conspirators as a CIA deputy director, and oversaw America’s post-9/11 wars of choice as the secretary of defense—twice—you know there’s some sinister shit afoot. Rats are always the first ones off a sinking ship.
The Boy Scouts have long known about the predators within their midst: Their own closely guarded “Perversion Files” tracked sexual abuse cases from 1944 to 2016. The numbers are staggering: 12,000 alleged victims—all children and teenagers—abused by 7,800 separately identified Scoutmasters. Think about those numbers, coming from an organization that held itself up as a pillar of American morality. That’s at least 72 years of horrifying, intimate abuse, hidden and concealed by an organization that taught its charges to “Do a good turn daily” while producing enough victims to fill an Army division. Many of these victims had no safe place to turn—as the new documentary The Church and the First Estate painfully shows. The film follows the story of Adam Steed, who was told by both his Scout and church leaders to forgive his abuser and forget the abuse but went to the police instead. The Scoutmaster accused by Steed admitted to molesting 24 other boys, ultimately receiving five months in jail and 15 years’ parole. It boggles the mind.
All this was going on while the Scouts fought unsuccessful battles in court to keep barring openly gay men from serving in their ranks. Meanwhile, the adult Scouting executives were making out like bandits—in 2009, a Charity Navigator report showed that the CEO of BSA was one of the top five earners in the nonprofit space, taking home a cool $1,577,600 in annual salary. The long con of Scouting paid off, until it didn’t. The glut of allegations and evidence is overwhelming—by the BSA’s count, it faces 275 abuse lawsuits across the U.S., plus thousands more additional claims, above and beyond the ones it’s already settled to the tune of $150 million it has paid in settlements since 2017. Even with $1.4 billion in assets, the organization faces so many credible abuse claims that its insurance policies are refusing to pay out.
Though I didn’t have the language to express it in my youth, I discovered that the Boy Scouts of America was full of men like Bob Gates: self-righteous, well-scrubbed creeps who kept their external aura of civic virtue shiny, obscuring the grubby evil in the institutions and traditions they oversaw. Reading through the lawsuits against the organization, it becomes clear that the BSA was an organization by predators for predators, optimized to groom and produce more predators. We should learn lessons from the victimized children’s stories, about accountability and justice: Judging from this preemptive bankruptcy, I doubt we ever will.