Netflix’s Scouts Honor: The Secret Files of the Boy Scouts of America is another harrowing, frustrating documentary that targets the Boy Scouts as another organization where child predators have been left to their own devices, literally out in the woods alone with children. 

This exhaustingly horrifying subject is hardly a new idea. It’s as poorly kept a secret as Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long reign of terror, so a gasp and hand over the mouth is hardly warranted at the mere idea, and films like Spotlight and Netflix’s own documentary Procession cover similarly hidden abuse in the Catholic Church. The lengths to which Boy Scout leadership went to cover up malfeasance certainly rivals that of the archdiocese and is no less upsetting.

Central to the story is retired police detective Michael Johnson, hired by the Boy Scouts as
“Youth Protection Director” and who became a whistleblower when he felt the organization didn’t do enough to protect children. Johnson quickly uncovered a veritable epidemic of child sexual abuse, then the great lengths taken to not expel or even punish those who committed the acts. 

Johnson also uncovered a “red flag list” (which higher-ups called “the Perversion List”) that circulated among executive leadership, which they kept private from lower levels of Scouting, including parents, where it would matter most. He found, much like the famous case of the Catholic Church, people caught abusing boys in one troop were left free to move to another town and sign back up, abusing several or, in some cases, dozens of boys each. 

As Johnson dug deeper, he found story after story where children were asked not to tell children about their abuse, where Scout leadership failed to do even the most basic of background checks and deflected blame when cases became public. This violated the Scouts’ own policies and procedures, and even as ad campaigns touted the organization’s “rigorous application process,” troop leaders and volunteers did not even have to show an ID in some instances.)

The hits keep coming, each one more devastating than the next. The man placed in charge of creating a document that laid out guidelines for protecting boys from sexual predation was himself convicted of possessing child pornography. 

In another particularly maddening exchange, Johnson recounts a story where dozens of cases of molestation were ignored despite a mountain of paperwork that was literally rubber-stamped. When confronted by Johnson, the man in charge denied knowing there was a concern about sexual abuse despite his signature on each complaint form. When asked why he didn’t read the cases, he said “there didn’t seem to be a need to.”

The film’s main voice from the Boy Scouts comes in the form of their head legal counsel, who comes off as particularly weaselly. He touts more recent changes in policy, offers the excuse that other organizations have also had cases of abuse and defends not pursuing charges against abusers as not wanting to defame people. He often bickers with Johnson, and it’s obvious the two are familiar with each other throughout the film. 

There are also interviews with victims who describe lives devoured by shame, self-harm, confusion and heartbreak. One told the story of Christopher Schultz, who committed suicide in the wake of his sexual abuse, apparently at the hands of a man known as Brother Edmund. When Schultz’s family pursued charges against Brother Edmund, who was a respected member of the church and community, he fled the state. Left behind, the Schultz family was ostracized, terrorized and threatened by people in the town. 

Director Brian Knappenberger finds success in casting a wide net early on, laying out the Boy Scouts’ infrastructure as an organization and showing how their collection of loosely affiliated troops allowed the central organization to more easily disavow knowledge of abusers as they continued their reign of terror.

Scouts Honor is one of those difficult-to-watch films that evokes anger, frustration and sadness at a stream of virtually sanctioned child abuse over decades. It’s a searing indictment of the Boy Scouts of America as a group, a strong portrait of a man who refused to allow abuse to go on unchecked and, perhaps most importantly, an outlet for the stories of people who were for years victimized by a system set up to harm them.