Exposing Boy Scouts Sex Abuse Turned Into Battle of Press Freedom Against Powerful Interests

The film “Church and the Fourth Estate” tells the story of how the Boy Scouts tried to cover up a massive scandal of child sexual abuse.

On November 16, the U.S. passed a milestone: the end of a window of less than nine months in which nearly 92,700 people came forward with shocking sexual abuse claims against the Boy Scouts of America. By way of comparison, in the last 15 years there have been some 15,000 credible child sex abuse allegations reported against the Catholic Church.

The allegations of sexual abuse against the Boy Scouts include highly violent attacks. More than half of the claimants, according to Tim Kosnoff, an attorney who has spent years representing victims of child sexual abuse, described behavior that would constitute a Class A felony — “the most serious child sex offenses,” Kosnoff said. Cover-ups by Scout officials were frequent. Instead of informing authorities, the officials told the subjects of the allegations to quietly leave the organization. Many went on to join other troops, only to face more allegations of child abuse. The young people targeted by abuse were often told by Scouting officials not to tell their parents.

There are few historical comparisons to the large-scale moral and ethical failure of the Boy Scouts organization. Arriving at our present moment — which in some ways has begun a process of healing — has not been easy.

Take the case of Adam Steed, a young man I met while directing the short film “Church and the Fourth Estate,” and the journalist Peter Zuckerman. Theirs is a tale of a long struggle for accountability, a protracted battle against the massively influential forces of the Boy Scouts, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and monied interests that went to great lengths to defend those institutions. Ultimately, it became a story of grave abuses, a story about getting a public hearing about those abuses, and about the freedom of the press to report on a massive string of alleged crimes against powerful interests.

In 1997, while at a Boy Scout camp in Idaho, Steed was sexually abused by a Scout leader and Latter-day Saints mentor named Brad Stowell. (The Boy Scouts have historically been closely connected to the Church of Latter-day Saints, often known as the Mormon church.) When Steed sought to report the abuse, leadership at the camp failed to act, so the then-14-year-old boy took it on himself to call the police, who descended on the camp and arrested Stowell.

“That should be the end of the story,” Steed told me when I interviewed him, “where the good guys come in and fix it. But unfortunately, that was just the beginning.” Steed was shunned by people in his community and targeted by people in his school and church. Worse, Stowell, who confessed to molesting 24 boys and pleaded guilty to molesting two, was initially given a 150-day jail sentence — roughly one week for every boy he abused. Compounding things, the filings for a civil case relating to Stowell were erased from the public-access court docket — meaning that people could not get a full view into the events.

The full story would only come to light because of the work of Zuckerman, a reporter with the Idaho Falls Post Register. Acting on a tip, the paper sued for access to the court file and then published the story of Stowell and the Idaho camp in a series of investigative articles called “Scout’s Honor.”

The community of Idaho Falls was rattled — but some people saw the stories as an attack on cherished institutions.

“That should be the end of the story, where the good guys come in and fix it. But unfortunately, that was just the beginning.”

Billionaire Frank VanderSloot, one of the richest people in the state, funded a series of full-page ads in the Post Register. Taking aim at the “Scout’s Honor” series, the first VanderSloot ad was headlined “Responsible Journalism or Misleading Propaganda?”

The attacks in the ad kept coming. He called attention to Zuckerman’s sexual orientation, saying that Zuckerman “declared to the public that he is homosexual.” While saying it was “unfair to conclude” that Zuckerman was biased because he was gay, the ad raised the possibility that Zuckerman’s reporting was biased because of the Boy Scout’s opposition to gay Scout leaders and the Latter-day Saints’ opposition to gay marriage. (In court proceedings, VanderSloot adamantly denied that he ever intended to question Zuckerman’s reporting on the basis of his sexual orientation.)

The harassment against Zuckerman before and after the publication of VanderSloot’s ad was enormous. He said someone left notes at his house and that an anonymous caller threatened to “rape me with his handgun.” In a sworn deposition, Zuckerman said it was “one of the darkest periods of my life.” In the end, life in small-town Idaho Falls became untenable, and Zuckerman moved away.

And yet VanderSloot followed: Later, after Zuckerman suggested on cable news that Vandersloot “outed” him in the series of adverts, the billionaire sued the reporter. It became a lengthy battle that ended with Zuckerman conceding in an affidavit that he had discussed his sexual orientation in public before VanderSloot’s ads; that he had been the subject of attacks before and after those ads ran; and that VanderSloot did not intend to cause people to harass Zuckerman.

VanderSloot’s attacks on the press did not end with Zuckerman. Mother Jones magazine reported about donations from VanderSloot’s company to Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, noting that VanderSloot was one of Romney’s national financial chairs. VanderSloot sued the publication, the author of the article, and the magazine’s then-co-editor-in-chief for saying that he “outed” Zuckerman, as well as a magazine employee for describing VanderSloot in a tweet as “gay bashing.”

Eventually, a judge granted a summary judgment in favor of Mother Jones, but the suit cost the magazine and its insurers $2.5 million in legal fees. (The Press Defense Fund, now known as the Press Freedom Defense Fund — which is part of First Look Media, The Intercept’s parent company — helped cover Mother Jones’s legal fees.) Zuckerman, in the affidavit that was part of his settlement, disclaimed the label: “Taking out ads critical of someone’s reporting is not gay bashing in my mind.”

It was an all-out attack on the press: using a deep wallet and the court system to go after journalists who dared to cover the Boy Scout scandal and VanderSloot’s intervention in it.

VanderSloot would eventually soften his tune on the Boy Scout scandal, including conceding that there was a cover-up. After speaking with several of the abused, he published another ad that said, “We never intended to cause additional pain to the victims. For that we are truly sorry.” But the effects of his efforts still matter and could continue to cause harm. Publicly questioning accounts of cover-ups of sexual abuse — especially in widely distributed media, something that the powerful have greater access to — can make survivors more scared to come forward.

Meanwhile, Zuckerman and the team at the Post Register never received any requests for corrections on their “Scout’s Honor” series. Zuckerman won a Livingston Award, the largest all-media, general reporting prize in American journalism. The reporting was essential for blowing open the enormous scandal at the Boy Scouts — so enormous that Zuckerman, at the time, could not have possibly known how huge it would be.

There was always a wholesome glow of Americana and promise surrounding the Boy Scouts, but soon a darker, parallel history of child abuse and cover-ups stretching back to the organization’s founding would come to light. The media dug up early news reports — some as far back as 1935 — documenting the Scout’s internal files of “degenerates.” Though incomplete because some were destroyed, they contained the names of nearly 5,000 perpetrators who were expelled from the Boy Scouts in all 50 states on suspicion of sexual abuse. The pattern will be familiar: Incidents were kept quiet, police were kept out of it, and parents were kept in the dark.

“Everyone wants to know if the Boy Scouts are going to survive. But the real question is, should they survive?”

On February 18, citing nearly 300 lawsuits in state and federal courts across the country, the Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy. Revenue has collapsed. And the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose membership constituted nearly a fifth of the Scouts, broke away to start its own youth groups, called Vanguard.

The Boy Scouts may yet survive. Its 1960s insurance policies did not include exclusions for child sex abuse or aggregate limits.

Whatever happens to the organization, what its collapse means for the more than 92,700 survivors who came forward is tough to say. (In “Church and the Fourth Estate,” we reported that more than 82,000 survivors had come forward, but the number grew between the close of production and its release.)

This much, though, is clear: Their sagas were largely preventable. The Boy Scouts made it almost certain that thousands of people would continue to be abused, its actions made sure the pain would continue. Thousands of people have suffered in silence or were made to somehow believe that it was their fault. Now, month by month, an organization that has held itself up as a moral and ethical leader is being destroyed by an awful truth.

“Everyone wants to know if the Boy Scouts are going to survive,” Kosnoff, the lawyer, told me. “But the real question is, should they survive?”

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