Leave No Trace: Child Sexual Abuse in Boy Scouts of America

Boys are the lifeblood of Boys Scouts of America (BSA), an organization that aims to teach boys how to make ethical and moral choices. Although this is the public mission statement of BSA, for many boys, that was not the case. Leave No Trace, a new film directed by Irene Taylor, shares the devastating truth of child sexual abuse committed by BSA scout leaders and mentors. Leave No Trace is available now on Hulu.

The film, produced by Vermillion Films, features survivors who have made the courageous decision to speak out against a powerful American institution. This riveting and powerful film also highlights the ”perversion files” of known and accused pedophiles from BSA in their ranks dating back to the early part of the 20th century, which were the only files attached to the case (as part of the discovery process) have been released. However, many of these files are still held in secrecy, documenting thousands of perpetrators that sexually abused boys in some of the most well-known, secluded camps and locations within the Boy Scouts.

In the film, survivors from around the nation share how the abuse affected them at the time and how it still affects them as adult survivors of child sexual abuse. Many of the survivors that shared their experiences also reflected on the values that BSA taught them, highlighting the leadership skills and bravery as well as the terrifying abuse that they were put through.

“I thought my family, my village, and my teachers knew what was happening to me. I was a child who was taught to trust adults. Surely people in my community would notice that something was wrong? I trusted that someone who cared about me would intervene,” Stuart Lord, former boy scout and Leave No Trace participant says. “They knew my predator. He was an English teacher at Yonkers High School, Yonkers, NY and Assistant Scout Troop Leader. My family and I trusted him…I knew what he was doing to me…and he told me that if I told anyone, he would kill me and I believed him.”

Survivors John Humphrey and Stuart Lord sat down with RAINN’s senior content writer and strategist, Sierra Scott, to discuss the experience of sharing their stories in Leave No Trace, how it has affected their healing journeys, and what they think institutions like the Boy Scouts of America can do to keep children safer.

Why did you decide to share your story publicly in Leave No Trace? How did participating affect your healing journey?

John Humphrey: I got involved with Peter Janci and Steve Crew (from the law firm Crewjanci.com) in 2017 and a group of survivors with the case at the Pingry School. That was a cathartic moment…to decide to get involved and let my family know. That then led to an article in the New York Times about the abuse during that time. I was in New York for a mediation and there were 21 of us. We were in a conference for a week and each went through a deposition. It was a bonding moment between those survivors - the sheer telling of your story was healing and l found myself leading many in the group. Later, I was asked to be on the Tort Claimant’s Committee (TCC) in the bankruptcy of the BSA. The nine men selected and elected me to be The Chairman of the TCC which started a whole new journey of interacting with more survivors.

John Humphrey on his healing journey: The process of telling your story is healing. The process of listening to others who experienced a similar situation and I realized that I wasn’t the only one. From there, your story gives others hope.

Stuart Lord: I was contacted by my attorney, Peter Janci who represents victims of sexual abuse and other crimes. He is featured in the documentary, Leave No Trace. Attorney Janci introduced me to the film’s director, Irene Taylor. The one important question I had for him was “why do you want me in the film?” He began to list the reasons. I knew in my heart why he wanted me in the film, but I wanted to see if he would be honest with me. If he was honest with me, I would agree to participate. Well, he told me that they wanted the film to be racially balanced with a diverse representation. He wanted to ensure that African American victims were represented in the film. This would help dispel the perception that African Americans are not involved in Scouting, so surely they could not have been affected by the scandal…That’s the perception. Attorney Janci wanted this story to be one of truth. The truth is that young white boys were not the only victims of sexual abuse by leaders of BSA. After hearing his truth, I agreed to participate. I believed that I had an obligation to all victims of sexual abuse to break my silence by participating in the documentary and sharing my experience.

Stuart Lord on his healing journey: Telling my story has been very liberating…Almost like a rebirth. I’ve noticed several positive changes since the premier of the film. I’ve received an outpouring of love and support from family and friends. Little Stuart from New Rochelle, New York, a city in Westchester County located along the Long Island Sound would have never imagined his tragedy and trauma becoming transformational. Without question, I have gained a few years in my life. I feel free…I don’t have that weight and burden of shame, guilt and fear on me anymore. Prior to the film, I slept 4-hours each night. Since the documentary’s debut, I have averaged about 7-hours of sleep a night. As a child, I was afraid of the dark and believed bad things happen at night. But telling my story, meant that I lifted that burden and am 10-years younger.

For many survivors, the experience of sexual abuse makes it hard to trust again. In cases of child sexual abuse, abuse by a scout leader, or by someone seen as a trusted figure and leader, it’s evident that this betrayal of trust can be shattering. What needs to happen in the Boy Scouts and other similar groups to ensure this type of abuse will never happen again?

John Humphrey: If the Boy Scouts of America follow the Youth Protection Procedures that we enhanced, there is hope. Holding these institutions accountable is more important than the reputation of the person or the organization itself. I don’t know if we will get there…because sweeping it aside does not mean it will go away. We have to have a conversation around this nationally where it doesn’t become this taboo subject…[because] the great lie that many organizations are living is that they think their reputations are more important than the life of a young child.

Stuart Lord: We need to have ongoing transparent conversations. We cannot and will not run from the truth about young boys that were and continue to be sexually abused. 1 in 6 boys before they turn 16 will be sexually abused and that number is a tragedy. Parents, guardians, and neighbors need to be vigilant; especially since children from single family homes are targets. We must have real conversations about sexual abuse and about good & bad and appropriate & inappropriate touches. All adults need to be armed and learn as much as they can about the warning signs of child sexual abuse. The fact that 82,000 boys in BSA were sexually abused is a horrifying! Scouting needs to pause and reorganize…they need to build a program that is genuinely safe for children. If they think they’ve done enough…They are wrong.

How was it for you to be connected with other survivors in the Boy Scouts? What was it like to speak to them for the first time and hear of their experiences?

John Humphrey: It was a healing process. The thing that people don’t realize about childhood male on boy’s sexual abuse is that it’s a seduction. Not only are you devastated about the acts that happened, but it's about the process of seduction that was non-violent. I call it the “guilt pie.” There are all these layers of guilt…like why didn’t I do something about it or why didn’t I say anything or help someone else? You ask yourself all of these questions with a mature mind which isn’t something you had when you were 11 or 12-years-old. It’s a kindred spirit and I’ve never been to combat, but there is a band of brothers of kindred spirits between warriors that is created. There is something about that connection that nobody else could understand what I went through except someone who went through it…to connect to others and give them hope is the way I see it.

Stuart Lord: We had an aha moment. This is the first time that I can say that I have been in the company of other alumni boy scouts who were abused. We all shared that moment where we said ‘ME TOO!’ For far too long, we shared a common thread…We didn’t tell anyone. This new awareness, our bond, and the unity that we share is indescribable. We experienced a pain and a tragedy and now we can say aloud, “I’ve been hurting.” We are men who were wounded as boys and who sometimes found ourselves hurting others. That's how we navigated in our pain, even in our current families and with our wives. Only we understand the total impact that this had in every aspect of our lives. The effects that the pedophiles had on our hearts and in our souls could only be understood by another survivor. For a moment it was like a long awaited dream…A connection that unleashed unconditional support from a stranger.

One of the many heartbreaking parts of this film is to see the far-reaching effects of sexual abuse not only on the survivor, but also their loved ones. What are the warning signs that parents and loved ones can look out for and how would you recommend offering support to a child if something does happen?

John Humphrey: It starts when your kids are young. You have to do the best you can to create an environment where your kids can tell you something even if something they did was wrong…and although it doesn’t exist in every family, if you have an open dialogue from a young age and you are actively engaged with your kids, when you see them withdraw or go to their room, you know there is something wrong. A lot of times, you may not be the best person to uncover it but I think you can point them to somebody who is trained like a counselor…they can create an environment where somebody can talk about it.

Stuart Lord: We have to acknowledge that all children are different and we all navigate trauma differently. Some of the signs that children may exhibit are: problems sleeping, being afraid of the dark, withdrawing from people, aggressive behaviors, spacing out, signs of self-harm, nightmares, sudden mood swings, rage, fear, and anger.

My predator lured me by giving: gifts, toys, and money. Surprisingly, no one asked where these things came from. There are also physical signs: body shaming, symptoms of depression and anxiety, and isolation. Parents and other adults should be aware of self-destructive behaviors, attempted suicide, and engaging in substance abuse of alcohol and drugs. When parents, guardians, teachers or any responsible adults notice any of these signs, they must begin asking questions and watching for patterns. I strongly suggest that parents start having conversations with children, let them know that they can share anything…Nothing is too bad or wrong...Let them know that there are people who hurt children. This is critical especially in the age of video games and social media where pedophiles target children pretending to be children. Parents talk to your children…More importantly, listen to them.

RAINN does a lot of work illuminating child sexual abuse and its lingering effects. For example, RAINN just launched Redefining Resilience which is a learning series for survivors of child sexual abuse. In addition, many survivors, especially male survivors, don’t disclose their abuse until the age of 50 according to the film. How do you think our culture can create safe places for young boys and other children to get help? What do you think that should look like?

Stuart Lord: Men need to write more self-help and awareness books. Currently, I am working on my memoir titled Heart Warrior; which is expected to be published in 2023. I believe there is an opportunity for other men to tell their stories of sexual abuse and other traumas through: poetry, rap, and social media. Teachers, Parent Teacher Associations (PTA’s), athletic coaches, and governing bodies like local Boards of Education should receive annual training on the signs of sexual abuse. I believe that ALL adults who interact with children should undergo thorough background checks. We also need to realize this happens in every urban, suburban, and rural neighborhood…there is no neighborhood in our country that is not impacted by this tragedy. Having this conversation should be a given, just like the safe driving conversations we have with our children.

John Humphrey: When you think about BSA, it was a monopoly created by Teddy Roosevelt which essentially means that there was no competition, no transparency, and no oversight of its institution. I don’t know if it's that the punishment is not severe enough or there is no one asking the hard questions…how did certain institutions get away with this with no accountability? Our number one issue for the future of our country is the young people that we are developing are the future, and if we are allowing them to be abused, then they will never achieve their full potential…it’s a fundamental issue and I think if we have our elected officials begin to talk about it at our state and national level, then we begin to elevate the conversation. That’s my mission: to elevate the conversation and give people hope.

What has been most helpful in your healing?

Stuart Lord: 8-hour counseling sessions for a year and a half was helpful. Counseling allowed me to go deeper…this helped me. I am still in counseling and I had to have conversations with Little Stuart. Essentially, I had to meet with myself and talk with myself on a retreat and say to myself it wasn’t my fault. Who wouldn’t want to love a bright, young, African American that wanted to do something with his life? I was lovable and I needed love and I had guilt around that. I had to tell Little Stuart it wasn’t your fault and you were robbed of your childhood. You can move forward from that…I also did a ritual where I poured tea to my demons or my abusers. I talked to each of my 15 abusers and told them that they didn’t destroy me, that they didn’t take my joy away from me, and that they didn’t have the last word. I forgave them.

John Humphrey: Nature is God’s cathedral – it is a gift to people. If you want to be grounded, walk around barefoot in the dirt because that's where we came from. Being with people helped me and having times where I could get stronger by being outside helped. Having people there, not to just talk about it, but to watch the film makes you see what it does to people. It has a visible impact on the survivors. You get thoughts of immediate support and you realize that it's not just sharing your story with other survivors but also making the people you love aware that you went through it and that you want to do something about it. You get encouraged.

What is your message to survivors?

John Humphrey: The real process is going from victim to survivor to thriver. We can’t let these voices from our past dictate our future. I want to give people hope and that they can seek professional care and it's nothing to be embarrassed about. I want them to have hope that they can tell their story and that they can live a life just as fulfilling as it would've been had they not been abused. It is not an easy journey but it's possible. You can live a thriving life afterwards.

Stuart Lord: I think I would say, because I didn’t hear it, that it wasn’t my fault. This tragedy happened and I didn't ask for this tragedy. There is healing in breaking silence and people can tell their stories when they are ready. What happened to you is not your fault. You just have to come to understand that it's ok. It’s over. It's not your fault. You can be angry, sad, and you can have all these emotions. They are real and you don't have to be apologetic for it…we need to feel our feelings deeper. We are taught not to feel and to not to cry and to be a man. But we have to interrupt those messages. Be honest with yourself. Learn more about sexual abuse. Reach out for professional help. If you are in the Boy Scouts, you can get therapy. There are a lot of ways - contact RAINN or 1 in 6. No shame, fear, or guilt…Get the help you need now…YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

Leave No Trace is available on Hulu. To connect with the Leave No Trace healing and empowerment resources, please visit TheTreehouseProject.org. If you or someone you know has experienced child sexual abuse, it is never too late to get help and start healing. The National Sexual Assault Hotline has free, confidential, anonymous support 24/7. Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org to get help.

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