For more than a century, the Boy Scouts were a bastion of archetypal American iconography and values. “It’s apple pie, it’s baseball, it’s mom, it’s Fourth of July, it’s the American flag, it’s Norman Rockwell, it’s everything” says journalist and former scout Nigel Jaquiss in the new Hulu documentary Leave No Trace. Then in February of 2020, Boy Scouts of America (BSA) filed for bankruptcy in response to sexual abuse claims levied by more than 82,000 former scouts. It was a decisive blow to the organization, which was revealed to have been systematically covering up the abuse of the children in its care throughout its existence.
Directed by Peabody and Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated journalist Irene Taylor, Leave No Trace showcases the devastating consequences of unchecked sexual abuse in BSA through interviews with five survivors who were abused during their time as scouts, as well as archival footage, and a meticulous recounting of BSA’s history. The documentary also demonstrates the staggering scale and timeline of the organization’s coordinated cover-up effort through interviews with lawyers, historians, experts, and current and former BSA executives.
As the safety of children in the United States is imperiled by everything from formula shortages, to discriminatory and medically dubious legislation, to the ceaseless epidemic of gun violence, Leave No Trace is a timely indictment of the wreckage wrought by institutional disregard for the suffering of children.
A history of powerful allies
The Boy Scouts of America was founded in 1910 in response to fears that increasing urbanization and industrialization would produce a generation of men who were out of touch with nature and insufficiently hardy. The organization had powerful early allies, including Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, famed Americana artist Norman Rockwell, and the Mormon Church. As its membership grew, BSA used its relationships in government to secure a federal charter, allowing it to corner the market on boys’ scouting across the country.
With help from Rockwell’s commissioned art, which BSA carefully controlled, the organization crafted an idealized, virtuous version of boyhood and masculinity that saturated American culture. In 1960, John F. Kennedy became the first Boy Scout president, and when Neil Armstrong radioed from the moon in 1969, he made sure to include a special greeting for his fellow Eagle Scouts. The message was clear: BSA produced the very best Americans. As Jaquiss, also a producer of Leave No Trace, describes in the film, the organization told parents: “You can trust us. We know how to make your son a man. We will be good for your son.”
Survivors share their stories
A still from ‘Leave No Trace’
The survivors interviewed in Leave No Trace expound the qualities impressed upon them during their time with BSA, and how they contributed to their vulnerability: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
“Obedient,” says John Humphrey, a former scout who was abused for three years. “I think that’s the one that got a lot of scouts in trouble.” Humphrey is now the leader of the Torts Claimant Committee, which represents the interests of the various plaintiffs, many of whom have different lawyers, against BSA in the organization’s bankruptcy case.
“A boy scout is trustworthy, so I trusted everyone,” says Stuart Lord, a university president who joined BSA while living in foster care and was abused for eight years by multiple leaders and volunteers.
Those who share their stories in the film also describe the ongoing consequences of the abuse, and the shame, loneliness, rage, and sorrow they still carry with them today. Research demonstrates that men and boys who experience sexual victimization are likely to feel “disempowerment and emasculation,” leading to feelings of guilt, struggles with substance abuse, and the kind of lasting suffering masked with stoicism that can stunt a life before it’s had the chance to fully begin. One survivor interviewed in the documentary, 75-year-old Ron Kerman, describes the sense that he has never achieved his full potential: “I’ve lost jobs because sometimes people got in my face, and their authority got obnoxious to me [and] my rage got through.”
“It’s about figuring out how to move from victim to survivor,” says Humphrey of the coping and healing he and the other survivors he’s connected with are moving through today, “and that’s a very profound process. I don’t think you can put a price on that.”
The film also explores other landmark lawsuits against BSA, like that brought by Kerry Lewis, who sued BSA in 2010 for abuse he experienced as a scout, and James Dale, who was ousted from BSA and stripped of his Eagle Scout status for being gay.
Boy Scouts of America tracked abuse, but refused to pursue action
Leave No Trace is a timely indictment of the wreckage wrought by institutional disregard for the suffering of children
Leave No Trace paints the organization’s long roster of esteemed members and supporters as integral to sustaining the silence around the pervasive abuse endured by its young members. The documentary also makes it clear that despite claims to the contrary, the organization was aware of many abuse cases from early on, and endeavored to handle them quietly and without outside intervention.
In 1935, the New York Times published a story on the organization’s “red list”—an inventory of over 1,000 scout leaders accused of abuse and pedophilia. Peter Janci, an attorney representing many of the plaintiffs against BSA, says their case demonstrates that the list was deliberately kept from authorities—setting a precedent that would become standard operating procedure.
Over the years, BSA created “probation,” a status that rarely came with consequences of any kind and virtually never involved legal action. Leaders and volunteers accused of abuse would simply be logged and reshuffled through the system, in an effort reminiscent of the redistribution of clergy facing abuse accusations. Leave No Trace details BSA’s exhaustive “perversion files,” where information about perpetrators of abuse was collected, and never acted upon.
Leave No Trace leaves a powerful impression that denial continues to be BSA’s status quo. “There was just no awareness of the issues at that time,” BSA representative Rachel Rosenblatt tells Jaquiss when he asks how the organization responded to accusations as they piled up over the decades. As they saw the problem mounting, he asks, did BSA try to do more to protect the scouts? “Nobody was doing more,” Rosenblatt responds.
The case today
Today, the Boy Scouts of America has laid off more than half their staff due to losses from the bankruptcy filing. And yet, as the film points out, high-level executives continue to make top dollar, receiving above-average salaries for that sector. Jim Turley, the President of BSA from 2018 to 2019, emphasizes that BSA executives’ salaries were decided by an independent board. “I like to live my life out the windshield,” he says, offering the same benign smile in response to inquiries about his salary as he does when questioned about BSA’s handling of abuse, “not the rearview mirror.”
In February 2022, the survivors voted to accept BSA’s offered restitution. In March, with no more options left to stall, the organization paid out a $2.7 billion settlement. The money is meant to be split among the survivors according to the severity of the abuse they experienced, and is expected to grow as more survivors come forward.
Leave No Trace tells the story of what happened when the ubiquitous question, “Won’t someone think of the children?” was posed to the Boy Scouts of America, an institution whose driving mission, at surface level, has always been the care and wellbeing of kids. The question reverberated as 70 years’ worth of abuse allegations piled up and were buried. The answer, offered repeatedly by BSA over the years, and again by the organization’s representatives in Leave No Trace: “No.”
Jaquiss, who once traded oil, describes the Boy Scouts of America as “a commodity business, and the commodity is boys.” As for those whose experiences with the organization ultimately harmed them? “Collateral damage.”