I Am an Eagle Scout. Is Scouting Worth Saving? Not Under the Boy Scouts of America | Opinion

I am an Eagle Scout. Scouting very much changed my life. During the 1960s, I hiked and camped in summer and winter and ultimately achieved the highest rank available in the program, an accomplishment that reflected positively on my troop and leaders and gave me a certain cachet.

But now, the Boy Scouts of America, the national governing body of the Boy Scouts, has filed for bankruptcy after failing to settle a landslide of lawsuits alleging sexual abuse under its programs. The more than 100-year-old organization said last week it hopes to move forward, but enrollment is spiraling, sponsors are leaving and the devastating sexual abuse scandal is unfortunately only one of the reasons for its decline.

Is scouting worth saving? Yes. But not as it exists under the leadership of the Boy Scouts of America. The national organization has proved itself, over the course of many decades, unable or unwilling to protect children from sexual predators. Meanwhile, its increasing politicization has betrayed the Boy Scouts' founding values and made far too many families feel alienated or unwelcome.

Many of my scout leaders were seasoned World War II and Korean War veterans. They taught us to speak up for others, as well as ourselves. My patrol looked forward to our annual big trip away from home. One year, we hiked throughout New York state to Niagara Falls and Canada. Another summer, we visited the beach. It was the first time many of us had seen the ocean.

Scouts earned travel money doing chores, followed by building budgets and menus. We learned to manage expenses and were encouraged to lead, as well as make the occasional mistake along the way.

My scouting experience also included access to a living library. Besides studying and completing projects for the merit badge program, I sat down and talked with experts: doctors, judges, airline pilots and engineers. These studies opened my young eyes to the reality that little was beyond my reach if I planned and worked hard.

Perhaps the biggest lessons I learned came straight from the founder of the Boy Scouts movement, Robert Baden-Powell, who once said, "In scouting, a boy is encouraged to educate himself instead of being instructed." He also said, "We must change boys from a 'what can I get' to a 'what can I give' attitude." Personal responsibility and service to others were ingrained in every successful scout.

Yet, even before my time as a scout, sexual abuse plagued the Boy Scouts, and the national organization's handling of the problem defied our founding values. Going back to at least the 1940s, the Boy Scouts of America kept "perversion files" of suspected child molesters, and in 2012 it was forced by court order to release thousands of pages of documents. These files—and leadership—clearly failed to keep predators at bay.

"We grew up always told that you'll follow exactly what your church leaders teach you, and if you don't do it, you could lose everything," Adam Steed, who was sexually abused by his Mormon mentor and scout leader, recounted in the new documentary Church and the Fourth Estate. "We were taught that if a church leader does something wrong, you're supposed to follow them anyway and that God would take care of it."

That kind of blind obedience was not something I learned as a Boy Scout and is not to be found in scout law. Yet until 2018, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the biggest sponsor of Boy Scout troops in the United States.

Leaders of the Boy Scouts of America have forgotten that their actual constituency is not the sponsors of their troops but the young boys in their local organizations. The national organization has further tarnished what it means to be a scout by embracing the politics of its top conservative sponsors and choosing a side in the social turmoil that divides this country.

Boy Scouts uniform
A Boy Scout uniform hangs in a store at the Marin Council of the Boy Scouts of America on July 27, 2015, in San Rafael, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty

In July 2017, the Boy Scouts of America allowed President Donald Trump to address nearly 40,000 young scouts at a jamboree. Many of the national organization's religious and conservative partners approved of the Trump performance. But the backlash was immediate from families who weren't looking to involve their children in a political organization and didn't necessarily want them listening to Trump's lies or hateful agenda: "Done with scouts after you felt the need to have my kid listen to a liar stroke his ego," one parent wrote.

With its decision to align the Boy Scouts with Trump, national leadership forgot another powerful Baden-Powell quote. "A fisherman does not bait his hook with food he likes. He uses food the fish likes," the founder said. "So, with boys."

Generation Z is the least religious generation. It is diverse and largely liberal. These young people have little to no difficulty relating to women (one of the reasons why the Mormon Church finally cut ties with the Boy Scouts of America was its decision to admit girls), the gay community and questioning authority. These characteristics don't match what has become of the Boy Scouts under the leadership of the Boy Scouts of America.

Yet some local troops are thriving. That is thanks to strong local leadership and the community getting involved and realizing the important contribution scouting can make at the ground level in a child's life. This proud Eagle Scout hopes scouting, in some form, is preserved. It is obviously needed. But leadership matters. And the Boy Scouts of America is not fit to lead.

Hal Donahue is a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force. He served throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East, on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and with the British Royal Air Force. Following retirement, he was employed as a vice president of several major energy companies, and he currently works as a freelance journalist. Donahue and his wife of more than 50 years, Marg, reside in Great Falls, Virginia.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.