The Future

The Boy Scouts deserves its bankruptcy badge

The once iconic American institution filed for bankruptcy following years of declining membership and catastrophic scandal.
The Future

The Boy Scouts deserves its bankruptcy badge

The once iconic American institution filed for bankruptcy following years of declining membership and catastrophic scandal.

For the most part, I liked being a Boy Scout. I learned how to go backpacking, to identify which snakes were dangerous and which ones were not, to tie a bowline knot behind my back, and how to build a roaring fire. I climbed a tall mountain at the Scouts’ Philmont Ranch in New Mexico with my troop, I canoed across the Adirondacks, and I also smoked weed for the first time on a Boy Scout rock climbing trip (the smoking came after the climbing, crouching behind a tent about 20 yards away from where the parents were sleeping). When I was required to organize a labor-intensive service project, I got a couple dozen friends to help me get rid of some disastrously overgrown yew bushes by the middle school at the end of my street. When I became an Eagle Scout in 2010, like my dad did 30 years earlier, it felt like it meant something.

When I was just starting out, at about 11 years old, I especially liked reading Boy’s Life magazine, skipping ahead to the “Scouts in Action” section — a recurring chronicle of Boy Scouts around my age who had used their scouting skills in moments of crisis, like a car crash or a forest fire. Although I never had such a moment of bravery, the things I learned in scouting made it seem like a credible fantasy. I felt this even more strongly because I lived in suburban New Jersey, and without Boy Scouts, I probably wouldn’t have gone camping more than once or twice in my life. Now, however, I am prepared, and to this day, I still keep a plastic arrowhead from Philmont on my keyring.

There were, of course, darker sides to scouting. Part of it is the natural consequence of teenage boys acting their age, primarily under the supervision of their dads, and part of it runs deeper, right down to the DNA of scouting itself. The founder of the international scouting “movement,” Sir Robert Baden Powell, was a known fascist sympathizer and admirer of Benito Mussolini. As late as 1937, he told colleagues, he hoped to link the international scouting movement with the Hitler Youth.

This social conservatism of scouting was an education of its own. I staffed a Boy Scout leadership training course for a couple summers in high school, a strange but fun program organized every year by the Northern New Jersey local council. One year, around 2007 or 2008, a colleague pointed out to me what he called the “Three G’s” of scouting. First, no girls. Second, no gays. And third, you had to believe in God. These were until quite recently, letter of the law rules for Boy Scouts. (The girls rule was repealed in 2017 in a naked attempt to juice flailing membership; a rule against adult gay leaders was scrapped in 2015; the BSA continues to discriminate against atheists).

I hadn’t really encountered any of this bigotry in my own troop or the other troops in my hometown, some of which had both gay scouts and scoutmasters, but it went a long way to explaining the clear reactionaries I’d meet higher up in the scouting bureaucracy. It was a world of scouting that I didn't know well, but simply knowing that it existed has darkened how I remember the time. What I didn’t know at all at the time, however, was just how much worse the reality was.

The bankruptcy filing does not signal the immediate dissolution of Boy Scouts, but it’s more than just legal procedure.

On Tuesday morning, the Boy Scouts of America’s national organization filed for bankruptcy. It followed years of declining membership and cascading scandals, most notably the thousands of alleged sexual assaults that took place in troops across the U.S. over several decades. I did not suffer sexual abuse in Scouts, and nor do I know of anyone who did, but the sheer scope of the catastrophe suggests that the BSA as we know it must end. The bankruptcy filing does not signal the immediate dissolution of Boy Scouts, but it’s more than just legal procedure: It’s a maneuver to “contain,” as The New York Timesputs it, the growing number of sexual abuse lawsuits being filed against the BSA.

Sexual abuse appears to have been endemic to scouting. For about seven decades, the organization kept internal “perversion files,” a collection that would ultimately reveal over 12,000 sexual abuse claims that have never been made fully public. Lawsuits and journalists have made a fraction of these files public, which researchers say almost surely understate the prevalence of the abuse. Reports of widespread sexual abuse committed by scouting volunteers — known as the Scoutmasters, they were most often the parents of boys in an individual troop — have been prevalent since at least the 1980s, with incidents discreetly settled out of court. A series investigative reports by the Washington Times  published in 1991 is notable both for its disturbing detail, and for the fact that it had little impact at the time.

A court case in Oregon in 2010, the year I became an Eagle Scout, marked a sea change, as previously private files came into public view. Lawsuits and reporters forced the BSA to publicly defend the practice of keeping secret files, saying they were used to “help us to pro­tect youth” as part of a “broad­er Youth Pro­tec­tion pro­gram.” A Los Angeles Times  investigation into the files that prompted this statement found that “in at least 50 cases, the Boy Scouts expelled suspected abusers, only to discover later that they had reentered the program and were accused of molesting again.” The publicization of the list, and the work of legal advocacy groups like Abused in Scouting, in turn sharply increased the number of reports of abuse and people willing to file lawsuits against the BSA. The group now represents about 2,000 clients.

Filing for bankruptcy protection is a well-worn path for organizations in the BSA’s position. Catholic churches and U.S. Gymnastics have pursued similar measures, which can put a hard cap on the number of abuse claims that can be filed by the bankruptcy deadline. In the filing itself, the BSA cited legal liabilities between $100 million and $500 million; the organization currently owns between $1 billion and $3 billion in assets, the sum total of its expansive property holdings, which include its administrative center in Irving, Texas and hundreds of miles of famously pristine ranchland in New Mexico. The hundreds of local “councils” (semi-autonomous divisions of the BSA with financial independence) that actually do most of the work of running the organization are, for now, unaffected by the filing.

This past December, the Mormon church announced that it was withdrawing 400,000 boys from the Boy Scouts, and moving them into its own youth service program.

The news of bankruptcy may not be totally unexpected, as recent revisions to the statutes of limitations in places like New Jersey and New York have greatly expanded the number of victims who may now choose to pursue legal action. It’s difficult to see how the BSA can survive the scandal even through bankruptcy. This past December, the Mormon church announced that it was withdrawing 400,000 boys, like the ones from Boy’s Life, from the Boy Scouts and moving them into its own youth service program. This would shrink the size of the Boy Scouts, already dwindling in number from a 1972 peak, by about a fifth.

Of my many, mostly positive, memories of scouting, a few have come back to me in the past couple days. Fellow Eagle Scout Clay Risen, in The New York Times,  argues that while the BSA must die, “Scouting is a valuable, even vital idea.”

Spending time in nature and organizing kids around basic ideas of self-reliance and the obligations of community are, as abstract concepts, perfectly fine. But what I have trouble seeing is what a reconstituted scouting movement in the U.S. would look like. At its heyday, scouting had drifted significantly from whatever fascist orientation Sir Baden-Powell may have hoped it would one day take. There’s a reason that Steven Spielbierg felt comfortable putting young Indiana Jones in a Boy Scout uniform in The Last Crusade, which came out in 1989. Being a Boy Scout certainly wasn’t cool, but it gestured at the kind of purity of spirit that Americans, when they think of themselves as Americans, like to imagine that they possess.

These days, however, the closest political analogue to the case advanced by Risen is in the language of “national service,” which comes from the mouths of Pete Buttigieg, Hillary Clinton, and other centrist politicians who like taking photos with the American flag. It is not a radical revision of the conditions that enabled both the previous genuine and imagined unity that the Boy Scouts of America conjured. It’s cheap labor in the form of a quasi-draft, a gesture toward the sense of a common good without the decency of actual social democracy.

My fear is that a reconstituted scouting project in this mold will be weak and piecemeal, susceptible to precisely the kinds of ideological pressures and abuses that wrecked the last one. Such an institution wouldn’t fully capture the magic of civic obligation that its proponents are hoping for. That would require a society more cohesive than the one we have — one that doesn’t wave off such malpractice for decades, until the evidence is finally forced into the light.

Noah Kulwin is the Future Editor of The Outline.