Scouts Honor: The disturbing true story behind Netflix documentary
A new Netflix documentary titled Scouts Honor: The Secret Files of the Boy Scouts of America tells the shocking true story of a child sexual abuse cover-up reminiscent of the Catholic Church scandal – here’s the true story of the Confidential Files, Troop 137, the Dale Decision, and more.
In the opening scenes of Scouts Honor, wholesome archival footage plays out as a man named Doug Kennedy describes the images that come to mind when we think of The Boy Scouts of America. “It was mom, pop, and apple pie,” he says. “Memorial Day parades and the Scout troops would be holding the flag. It was America and patriotism.”
As the documentary continues, and as Kennedy has bravely spoken about in the past, viewers soon learn he was one of thousands of Boy Scouts abuse survivors who came forward as the crimes of the long-running institution came to light. It’s a bold and shocking opening scene, juxtaposing the brand image the BSA wants the world to see with the sinister truth: decades of abuse against its young members and an organization that actively buried the claims.
Brian Knappenberger’s poignant Netflix documentary gives voice to survivors, speaks with former employees, and focuses on files that expose a complex web of lies, while also questioning whether the BSA is now safe for children. Here’s the true story as detailed in Scouts Honor. Warning: Some may find this content distressing.
Scouts Honor: What is The Boys Scouts of America?
Let’s start at the beginning. The Boy Scouts of America is one of the largest scouting and youth organizations in the US, with around 110 million Americans having participated in BSA programs since it was founded in 1910.
The program aims to prepare young people for life by instilling values, leadership skills, and a sense of civic duty. BSA members, often called Scouts, participate in various activities and programs that emphasize character development, personal fitness, and community engagement.
There are various terms used to describe participants, including Cub Scouts, referring to members aged between seven and 10 years old. They typically take part in activities such as camping, crafts, and learning basic outdoor skills. Adult leaders, including Cubmasters and den leaders, guide and supervise the Cub Scouts.
Then there’s Boy Scouts, for those aged 11 through to 17. These Scouts work towards earning merit badges, which cover a wide range of skills and knowledge areas. Troops, led by a Scoutmaster, provide a supportive environment for Scouts to learn and grow.
Venturing is a co-ed program for young adults aged 14 to 20, focusing on high-adventure activities, leadership development, and personal growth. Finally, adult volunteers serve in various roles, including Scoutmasters, den leaders, committee members, and commissioners. They provide guidance, mentorship, and support to the youth members.
BSA’s core values include the Scout Oath and Scout Law, emphasizing principles like trustworthiness, loyalty, and community service. Through its structured programs and dedicated adult leaders, BSA helps young people become responsible, resourceful, and compassionate citizens.
This is the image the BSA wants to project. But in 2020, this came crashing down when more than 82,000 former members came forward with allegations of child sex abuse against the organization, spanning generations and decades of heinous assaults at the hands of those who were believed to be trusted Scout leaders.
Scouts Honor: Who is Detective Michael Johnson “Mike” Johnson?
Early on in Netflix’s Scouts Honor, we’re introduced to Detective Michael “Mike” Johnson, a Texas-based detective who investigated crimes against children for 16 years. Thanks to his extensive career in this field, he was hired by The Boy Scouts of America to join as its youth protection director in 2010, which he continued until 2020, when he came forward to bravely speak out against the organization and its widespread abuse.
Initially, Johnson was “excited” about the role, but as time went on he started to see safety issues, and grew aware that the organization was withholding information from him. “I thought I was going to work to keep kids safe in a major institution,” he says. “The Boy Scouts are, at the national level, maybe even at the council level, all about the brand.”
Echoing Kennedy’s earlier comments, he explains that the BSA conjures up images of “apple pie” and the “American flag,” adding: “They don’t like anything too negative that’s associated with the brand.”
When asked what the firm was telling him to say, Johnson replies: “That Boy Scouts of America is safe… the gold standard. That the Boy Scouts of America has a rigorous application screening process. That the Boy Scouts of America conducts criminal background checks on all of its leaders.”
Ultimately, Johnson was there to appease concerns about the institution – but when it came to taking action against child sex abuse, he was blocked at every corner. This became painfully clear when he went to see his then-boss and VP-level Jim Terry to ask for any standard-of-care type documents. Terry said he wasn’t aware of any, but when Johnson found the documents through his own contacts, he saw Terry’s name listed as one of the contributors.
Johnson was understandably “frustrated,” and felt they’d made an “organizational decision” to prevent him from getting the information he needed to safeguard kids. He also came up with an idea to create a hotline for child members to call and report abuse, but this was shut down by Steve McGowan, former Boy Scouts Of America general counsel.
Eventually, Johnson gave in, but right up until the day he left he was doing what he could to try and keep kids safe. As for why he came forward to speak out against the BSA, despite losing out on his severance pay and knowing he’d be going up against a company with deep pockets, Johnson responds: “To me, being silent knowing what I know is being complicit.”
Scouts Honor: Who is Steve McGowan?
Steve McGowan served as the Boys Scouts of America’s general counsel from 2013 to 2022. He appears in Scouts Honor: The Secret Files of the Boy Scouts of America where he refutes claims about the organization as a whole and makes a controversial statement in response to the scale of the abuse.
In the documentary, Knappenberger refers to the fact that the BSA previously described the issue as “miniscule,” as well as highlighting the 82,000 people who came forward with allegations. “That was a lie,” he says. “That was a cover-up, right? The Boy Scouts lied about that being a problem.”
McGowan replies: “No, we didn’t. 82,000… over what period of time? And we don’t even know that that’s the number.” Perhaps realizing how that sounds, he adds: “But one is too many.”
The former general counsel also repeatedly uses the term “microcosm,” essentially suggesting the issue of abuse in the BSA is reflective of society as a whole. “Remember, the Boys Scouts of America did not abuse these kids,” he says. “We had some bad people that got in… just like school teachers and everybody else, there are bad people.”
McGowan insists the BSA is trying to make the situation right by putting safeguards in place. When told about his interview, Johnson says: “I don’t know how else to put it; he’s lying.” And when McGowan’s told about Johnson suggesting the BSA still isn’t safe for boys and girls, he says he’s “shocked” and “personally very disappointed.”
Scouts Honor: What are the Perversion Files / Confidential Files?
The Confidential Files – also known as the Perversion Files, the Red Flag List, and the Ineligible Volunteer File – refer to a set of internal documents maintained by the Boy Scouts of America over many decades. They have garnered significant attention and controversy in recent years after being made public, as they contain records of alleged abuse within the organization, and show officials focused more on keeping the files under lock and key rather than addressing the issue.
Investigative reporter Patrick Boyle was the driving force behind making the Confidential Files public. Speaking in Scouts Honor: The Secret Files of the Boy Scouts of America, he explains that he first read about a Scout leader who was convicted on abuse charges in 1987. Years later, he came across a story in his own newspaper about another case in Virginia, and as part of that lawsuit, the BSA had to turn over the Confidential Files to the boy’s lawyer.
Boyle decided to head over to Virginia to look at the files, and as he started reading through them, he found more than he ever imagined. He uncovered pages from Scouting magazine dating back to the 1920s where the Scouts had written about people kicked out under the headline: “Red flag this man.”
But the Confidential Files date back to the very start of Scouting in England circa 1908. Immediately, it caused issues, as the institution attracted predators. In the US, the company started what was initially called the Red Flag List, which Boyle explains evolved into the Ineligible Volunteer File, and then the Confidential Files, “and for good reason because they intended to keep everything confidential.”
At the time, Boyle didn’t know how many files there were. He had gotten hold of 231 of the original documents, supplemented with his own information. The BSA allegedly had this information “under lock and key at its national headquarters.”
When Boyle started reporting on the cases, he was told he was making a big deal out of nothing, receiving angry letters accusing him of smearing the company over a “miniscule” problem. But he refused to stop, eventually helping to make them public.
The release of these Confidential Files, especially in recent years, has led to lawsuits, investigations, and public scrutiny of The Boy Scouts of America’s handling of child abuse allegations. They have been instrumental in shedding light on the extent of the issue and the need for accountability and transparency within youth organizations.
Scouts Honor: What is Troop 137?
Troop 137 is one of many disturbing details shared in the Netflix documentary, referring to a unit of The Boy Scouts of America based in New Orleans, which Boyle said had become a “nightmare” for the organization as it was essentially a child sex ring.
“They literally recruited boys into this troop,” explains Boyle. “And they had sex parties at their houses, they took pictures of the boys naked, they traded pictures with pedophiles around the country.”
Richard Windman, who was a Boy Scout from 1972 to 1976, is a survivor of Troop 137. He describes how not only was he groomed by the Scout leaders, but his mom, a single parent, was too. The troop was run by four primary leaders: Tom Woodall, Lewis Sialle, Richard Halvorsen, and Harry Cramer. Windman explains that they would take the boys out to eat, buy them presents, take them camping, and let them stay over at their houses.
“The Boy Scouts of America should’ve never let a bunch of single men start a troop,” he says, before pointing out the various red flags that should have been caught: none of the leaders had children of their own, Windman wasn’t even old enough to be a Scout, the boys all came from single-parent households, and the men would have the boys stay in hotel rooms with them.
“Men would fly from out of town, from all over,” Windman says. “Mostly Western Europe, but all over the United States as well. And we were raped by them as well. We were sold to them, you know, rented out, whatever you want to call it. And they always took pictures and videos of us all the time.”
He continues: “They would bring you to hotels, primarily in the French Quarter. In fact, my mom dropped me off at the hotels a couple of times.” When asked what she thought was happening, Windman replies: “Just visiting a Scoutmaster from out of town.”
Eventually, Windman bravely told a doctor about the rape, and he promised to handle it and ensure he’d be safe. The doctor called the police, who raided the houses and put an end to Troop 137. What’s shocking is that Windman reveals he’s never once received an apology or an attempt to make amends from the BSA.
Scouts Honor: What was the Dale Decision?
The Dale Decision was a legal battle that reached the United States Supreme Court in 2000 and ultimately led to The Boy Scouts of America being able to ban gay men from becoming Scout leaders.
This shocking revelation arrives in the documentary in the context of the BSA’s connection to various religions, including the Catholic, Mormon, Islamic, and Jewish churches. Religion would become the foundation of Scouting for decades, and were essentially “stakeholders” in the business.
Boyle explains: “Religious leaders were on the board of directors of the Boy Scouts. If you think of Boy Scouts as a corporation, these church leaders that are on the board of directors are essentially their investors.” The relationship was particularly close with the Church of Latter Day Saints, whose followers would all go through Scouting.
There was a huge issue of homophobia among numerous religions, however, with the documentary enquiring whether this permeated the BSA’s foundations. Things came to a head with the Dale v. Boy Scouts of America case, which revolved around James Dale, a former Eagle Scout and assistant Scoutmaster who was expelled from the BSA in 1990 when the organization learned that he was gay and a gay rights advocate.
Dale sued the BSA, claiming that his expulsion violated New Jersey’s anti-discrimination law, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Boy Scouts of America. The majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, held that the BSA’s status as a private organization allowed it to exclude members or leaders who did not adhere to its “expressive message” or core values, even if such exclusions were based on sexual orientation and homophobia.
While being questioned about the Dale Decision, McGowan puts his hands up and says: “I wasn’t there or part of the decision… I can’t tell you what happened in 1990, 2000, whenever.” He adds: “I think that it reflected the values of the organization at the time, which have changed, as have society’s values.”
McGowan goes on to address the implied pressure and influence of the Mormon church, stating: “At the time of the change, there was no pressure being exerted on us at all,” although he admits they were concerned about all of their constituents.
Whether this is true or not, four years after the ban on gay Scout leaders was lifted in 2015, the Church of Latter Day Saints cut ties with the BSA and is no longer affiliated with its program.
Scouts Honor: Is The Boy Scouts of America still going and is it safe for children?
The Boy Scouts of America is a functioning organization, despite its 2020 bankruptcy filing, but as for whether it’s now safe for boys and girls is up for debate. One person who gives it a hard no is Detective Johnson.
“Boy Scouts wants society to think that sexual abuse in The Boy Scouts of America is all in the past,” he says. “Look at the numbers because there are a lot more 40, 30, 20 years ago. But what they’re not telling you is that it takes a man, not as a boy, a man, at least 20 years – and again, ‘if’ they tell anybody about it.”
Johnson goes on to highlight that there’s been no congressional statewide investigation into what happened, including the 82,000 plus allegations of abuse about the BSA. Adding to this, Kennedy notes: “The only way this isn’t going to continue to happen is if someone steps forward and says, ‘We need to investigate this.’”
In February 2020, The Boy Scouts of America filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US, which was primarily a response to the mounting legal claims and lawsuits related to sexual abuse allegations against the organization and its leaders. As is explored in the documentary, the controversy surrounding this bankruptcy filing stems from concerns that it could potentially allow the BSA to avoid paying full compensation to victims of sexual abuse.
Ultimately, the BSA reached a settlement plan that included establishing a compensation fund for survivors, but the process and outcomes remain contentious and raise questions about how institutions handle allegations of abuse and the legal responsibilities they bear. At the end of Scouts Honor, it states that most survivors still don’t know how much they will be compensated or when.
Many of those interviewed in the documentary emphasize that the call to action isn’t for Scouting to end – far from it. Instead, they are calling for officials to step in, address what happened, offer retribution to survivors, and put in proper safeguards to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.
“Whether it’s a congressman, senator, president that’s willing to have the courage to say, ‘Let’s figure out what happened here, because by understanding it, we can prevent it,’” continues Kennedy. “And I use the word ‘courage’ very, very specifically, because part of the Boy Scouts charter that’s authorized by congress lays out that they’re responsible for teaching patriotism and courage.”
Scouts Honor: The Secret Files of the Boy Scouts of America is available to stream on Netflix now, and you can check out more of our documentaries coverage below:
The Lucie Blackman Case | The Isabella Nardoni Case | Where is Natalia Grace? | Who are the Duggars? | Victim/Suspect explained | Missing Dead or Alive explained | True story behind The Playing Card Killer | True story behind Take Care of Maya | HBO’s Burden of Proof explained | How to watch David Fuller: Monster in the Morgue | How to watch the Hart family murders documentary | True story of The Deepest Breath | True story of Last Call