From Church and the Fourth Estate (2020), dir. Brian Knappenberger (all images courtesy Field of Vision)

Though not without their share of image problems, the Boy Scouts have long been considered as American as apple pie, baseball, and secret bombing campaigns. And it seems that it’s just as American to facilitate a space for uncontrolled abuse and manipulation, then spend massive amounts of money to scare the victims of that abuse and manipulation into staying quiet and unseen. Available now from Field of Vision alongside an investigative report at the Intercept, the short documentary Church and the Fourth Estate is a powerful and harrowing indictment of massive American institutions. Brian Knappenberger tackles a subject many filmmakers or journalists might be too daunted or intimidated to confront: the absolute plague of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse inflicted on Boy Scouts by pedophilic Scoutmasters. The number of legal cases against the organization is rising to the point where they stand to overshadow the Catholic Church’s similar scandal. But there’s another massive, well-organized religion involved in this: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, another deeply American organization that had been inseparable partners with the BSA for a century. 

Knappenberger’s brief investigation narrows its focus on one specific case, making clear that it’s only the tip of an iceberg. A thousand films and miniseries could be spun out from this subject matter, which deserves deep focus and serious reporting in multiple media forms, but it’s obviously a complicated topic. And as the film demonstrates, there are extremely powerful forces conspiring to keep these tragedies under lock and key — existing only in whispers, the repressed memories of survivors, and filing cabinets in Salt Lake City and BSA headquarters outside Dallas.

Poster for Church and the Fourth Estate

I imagine that Knappenberger gravitated toward this specific case because it is a rare instance of abuse within Scouting that has been thoroughly reported, examined, and tried in the public record. The film finds space both for sensitivity toward the victims and righteous anger toward corrupt institutions. It creates a safe space for Adam Steed — a former Boy Scout from Idaho Falls, Idaho who went public as a teen against a Scoutmaster who continually abused him and other boys — to share his pain and story, and to connect with other victims who are building up the strength to share their own trauma. The investigation into Steed’s case by the Idaho Falls Post Register was met with fierce pushback by moneyed interests connected both to the Boy Scouts and the LDS Church who were willing to defend their traditions at any cost. Their fierce propaganda campaign left even more victims in its wake — not just the boys already scarred, but also reporters and writers like the Post Register’s Brian Zuckerman, who was slandered and harassed for his reporting. Zuckerman quickly became the subject of local scandal and controversy, as his sexuality was specifically targeted and rumored about in order to discredit him in the eyes of Idaho Falls’ largely conservative, deeply Mormon population.

I find it hard not to respond so personally to this film because of my own life experience. I grew up as an active member of both the BSA and the LDS Church, though I never finished my Eagle Scout and strayed from the Mormon faith in my late teens. I feel immensely lucky that I never encountered traumatizing situations or overtly abusive Scoutmasters, and avoided what has been revealed as an epidemic. But Church and the Fourth Estate made me wonder what darkness might have been hidden from me, or what was harder to detect at a young age. Though the documentary implicates the LDS Church in its very title, it takes more of a shadowy backseat to Scouting. After all, the BSA is now bankrupt due to the many legal cases, whereas the Church’s endowment (funded by tax-free donations and the 10% tithe on income which all active members are required to pay to access the temples and participate in their ceremonies) is potentially in the hundreds of billions.

Toward the end of their existence, the Boy Scouts attempted something approaching a progressive rebrand, reversing policies restricting the participation of openly queer Scoutmasters and Scouts. Those regressive policies had been part of what pushed me away from the organization as I became older and began to question authority figures in my life. The Scouts then went a step further, ditching the explicit gendering entirely and welcoming people besides cis males for the first time in its history, renaming itself, somewhat blankly and blandly, the “BSA” — perhaps reflecting the organization’s diminishing sense of identity as the contradiction in such attempted diversification forced a reckoning with its roots in imperialist military hegemony and its hidden history of abuse. Scouting’s attempted change of heart led to the end of its longstanding relationship with the LDS Church, their biggest sponsor, partner, and defender. As BSA’s feelings toward queer people and women softened, the church’s heart grew harder, and it began to untangle its male youth programs from Scouting in 2017. 

As Steed points out, for many generations of men and boys, there’s no separating being a Boy Scout from being a young Mormon. They were one and the same for me as well; Scouting’s conservative ethics and emphasis on tradition, loyalty, and self-reliance easily bled into Mormonism’s adoration of the same principles. If the LDS Church had still been involved with the Scouts in recent years, as these cases increasingly came to light, it’s possible that the BSA might have had the financial and legal power to keep the more unseemly skeletons in the closet. (It’s also quite possible that the Latter-Day Saints might have wanted to part ways with the Scouts because they knew this storm was brewing.) Though Church and the Fourth Estate leaves many lingering questions about the complicity of the LDS Church, the film makes it undeniably clear that we’re only beginning to learn about a rot that festered for years within these institutions.

Church and the Fourth Estate is available to stream via Field of Vision.

Nadine Smith is a writer, DJ, and co-host of the podcast Hotbox the Cinema. Her work has appeared in publications like the New York Times Magazine, Pitchfork, the Outline, Bandcamp Daily, Observer, and...