For John Humphrey, childhood used to mean having fun in the backyard of his home in New Jersey. “We had a rule that we couldn’t go any farther than the bell or the sound of my mother’s whistle,” he recalls. “I was always digging and playing.”
Then Humphrey went to a school that offered a Boy Scout programme. “I just loved the outdoors and this particular troop camped 12 months a year. It didn’t matter – winter, snow, ice, hot – I loved that part of it.”
Between the ages of 11 and 13, Humphrey was sexually abused by a Scout master more than 200 times. His hair fell out when he was 13 and he has been bald ever since. He buried the trauma for decades and did not break his silence from him until he was 55.
Humphrey’s is among the stories told in Leave No Trace, a documentary that investigates the century-long cover-up of sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). The film tells how, after more than 82,000 men stepped forward, the BSA filed for bankruptcy, leading to the biggest sexual abuse settlement in history.
In 1907 Robert Baden-Powell, a British military veteran, set up an experimental camp for 20 boys on Brownsea Island in Poole harbour, Dorset. The following year he wrote Scouting for Boys, said to be the fourth bestselling book of the 20th century after the Bible, the Qur’an and Mao’s Little Red Book. It spawned a movement complete with uniform, code and motto “Be Prepared” deriving from the author’s initials.
It also gave rise to imitators around the world. The BSA was founded in 1910 and a congressional charter in 1916 detailed scouting values of “patriotism, courage, self-reliance and kindred virtues”.
According to the BSA, about 130 million Americans have gone through its programs ranging from astronaut Neil Armstrong to President John F Kennedy to film director Steven Spielberg. Scouting became part of the fabric of American childhood, enshrined by the painter Norman Rockwell.
The film’s director, Irene Taylorspeaking by phone from Portland, Oregon, says: “The Boy Scouts, shortly after they came from England, became an American monopoly. They were put in a federal charter by our government, which pretty much cleared the playing field of competition.
“Boy Scouts is as American as apple pie and baseball. The narrative that we have constructed around scouting really needs a second look.”
As the organization, with the help of donations and tax breaks, grew bigger and richer and acquired vast tracts of land, it also attracted sexual predators. Taylor adds: “For as long as there have been Boy Scouts, there have been paedophiles trying to penetrate these very isolated experiences that boys are having in nature.
“The model of the Boy Scouts is one that has made it particularly vulnerable to paedophilia. On the one hand you have an organization that exists by isolating boys out in the wilderness, giving them wilderness experiences inside tents away from their parents.
“You also have an organization that’s very rank and file, that encourages loyalty and obedience, and when your volunteer Scout leader or troop leader who’s employed by the organization encourages you to do something, boys generally are willing to please.”
For decades this ultimate betrayal of parents’ trust got little attention. Taylor’s film includes interviews with six survivors, ranging from 13 to 72 years old, all but one of whom are speaking publicly about the experience and its aftermath for the first time.
One of them, Kris Yoxall, a Boy Scout from 2015 to 2017, shows his merit badges but also a hole in the wall of home in Lebanon, Oregon. He explains that he sometimes feels a need to punch things (“When you punch something solid, you feel your anger just kind of leave … I hate that I do it. I hate it a lot.”)
In an extraordinary moment, the film captures Yoxall telling his tearful, shocked parents details of the abuse he suffered for the first time. Their anguish is palpable. Kris hugs her mother and says: “You guys have done nothing wrong.” His father of her says ruefully: “We got manipulated. We got groomed. We got played hard.”
Another interviewee is Humphrey, now a 60-year-old IT consultant based in Dallas, Texas. He had shut off his memories of the Boy Scouts like many of his peers from him: the average age that an American man reckons with his own childhood sexual abuse is 52.
But one day he read a newspaper article about a classmate who had also been abused as a child. Humphrey made contact and they talked for three hours. Finally, he was ready to speak about his own experience of him.
“The first time was on a campout, invited into the big boys tent, as it were, and fondled,” he recalls now by phone. “I was the last drop-off after chapter meetings. He was my principal assistant. He was my soccer coach. He was my band coach.
“I’m from a working family and I think he saw the lack of my father being around as an opportunity to take advantage of me. For me, over a two- to three-year period, it was over 200 times, so it was pretty pervasive.”
He felt unable to tell his parents what was happening. “I never spoke to anybody about it until I was 55. It’s such a horrible thing and it’s coupled with a feeling of guilt.
“I call it a guilty pie. You feel guilty because you didn’t step up and tell somebody – who would you have told? You didn’t look out for your other buddies that you knew were in the same boat. The human brain is an amazing thing so, when you can’t reconcile something, you just suppress it.”
humphrey’s abuser, Thad Alton, committed more offenses elsewhere and was eventually arrested and imprisoned, but he is now living in New York as a registered sex offender. Humphrey has forgiven him but has no desire to meet him. He is still living with consequences that last a lifetime.
“As an adult, I had to deal with a lot of therapy, a lot of trying to understand why certain stimuli make me angry. I have zero patience when it comes to authority. I have a hair trigger if I get pushed around or if I see bullying. That made me crazy even in high school: I always stuck up for the little guy and taught my boys to stick up for the little guy.
“I’ve run through a few jobs that because rather than face a difficult thing I just quit or I was working for a jerk and told them to buzz off and I walked out the door. So it’s been expensive.”
But Humphrey is far from alone. He was stunned to learn the prevalence of sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts. I have found new purpose by leading the Official Tort Claimants’ Committee (TCC)which enables survivors from all 50 states to speak with one voice.
“I believe that we can help survivors by helping them understand that they don’t have to be victims,” he says. “They don’t have to crawl into a hole and feel sorry for themselves and be unproductive no matter how horrific it was. There are tools and people and relationships that can help people survive.
“You’re never cured, it never goes away, but you can manage just like any other difficult thing that people have in their lives. My hope is that we raise the conversations and that our congressmen and women would get engaged in providing more oversight to these types of organisations. I hope that I can speak and write and give hope to those who are in despair.”
In recent years more than 82,000 people came forward with sex abuse claims against Scout leaders and volunteers – dwarfing the total in the Catholic church. In February 2020, the BSA sought bankruptcy protection to stave off a flood of lawsuits.
A judge in Delaware is now weighing whether to confirm the BSA’s reorganization plan, which calls for the organization and its 250 local councils to contribute $2.6bn in cash and property to a fund for abuse victims. The compensation would be distributed in different amounts based on the severity of individual cases.
Humphrey reflects: “You have all of the debtors agreeing and the Boy Scouts agreeing to the structure of a plan. I’m very hopeful. It’s going to be a closure for a lot of men but, if she doesn’t approve it, it could probably drive some people to crisis.”
The BSA claims to have learned lessons from its terrible past and to have reformed. But Humphrey, who never allowed his own children to join the Boy Scouts, remains skeptical.
“They think they put this behind them and it’s over and they never have to talk about sexual abuse again. I’m a business guy and I understand business and I know what it takes to turn an organization around. Their culture has been so inbred over the years.
“We live in a world where learning to be in the outdoors and enjoying the outdoors in a safe environment could be a very important thing, especially for urban kids, but they got to do a lot more to really protect children. They say they’re sorry but a lot of survivors think it’s an empty sorrow.”
He adds: “The Boy Scouts are in trouble. They have a leadership challenge. They have a mission challenge and they have a credibility problem now that’s lasted 80 years.”
Indeed, even in 1935 the New York Times reported that BSA described keeping files on hundreds of “degenerates” who had served as Scout leaders. A lawsuit in Oregon in 2010 forced some of these so-called “perversion files” files to be made public. But the BSA refuses to release tens of thousands more.
Humphrey says: “We have an epidemic in the United States around childhood sexual abuse and we don’t understand why men want to have sex with little boys.
“These files are really a treasure trove. It’s probably the best data that there is to real hardcore analysis and they still haven’t released the rest of those files. I’m hoping our legislators get engaged and wake up like they just did with gun control. That didn’t take very long. why? Sexual abuse is a silent killer.”
Taylor, the director, agrees, expressing hope that the film will put pressure on the BSA to release the outstanding files which offer an unrivaled societal database on the issue. She says: “The perversion files that we talk about in this film show a dramatic and remarkable and informative map of how the paedophile’s mind works.
“We get demographic data on these people and social scientists can start to create barriers as we move forward on how to keep paedophiles out of organizations like this and how to train families and communities to protect children from adult men who want to have sex with them. .”
Oscar-nominated Taylor, 52, whose sons were Boy Scouts, also believes that her film can make a positive impact by ending the silence and helping survivors to connect with one another.
“What we hear over and over again are that survivors of sexual abuse have a record player in their head that’s just going on and on and on and they never can shut it off. The men in our film tell us that what happened to them has cost them jobs, it’s cost them marriages, it has cost them drug and alcohol abuse.
“The silver lining is that the six survivors who are in our film now have one another and they now realize that their experiences are not an anomaly. They’ve found each other and I think what we’re going to see more and more is Boy Scout survivors coming together to share their experiences and find healing through it. Sometimes the public forum of a film and film presentation can offer that.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism