This week, while the spotlights shine brightly on red carpets in Park City and Salt Lake City, one filmmaker is anticipating attention of a darker sort. During the Sundance Film Festival, Brian Knappenberger’s documentary “Church and the Fourth Estate” will screen just 3 miles from the epicenter of his searing expose about the Boy Scouts’ decades-long failure to address child sex abuse among its ranks and allegations that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was complicit in covering up thousands of victim reports.
The Sundance selection will screen at the Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City on Feb. 1, just a few blocks from the church’s global headquarters at Temple Square. But Knappenberger says he is prepared to handle the fallout. The director is a Sundance and Slamdance veteran whose self-defined specialty is speaking truth to power — especially when conflicts involve powerful billionaires trying to intimidate investigative reporters.
Knappenberger first displayed his keen ability to explore the ragged boundaries of social change and new technology in his Slamdance documentary “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists.”
He reappeared on the Sundance slate in 2014 with “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” about the controversial computer programmer’s efforts to defy attempts to limit public access to the internet, his arrest and eventual suicide.
In 2016, Knappenberger’s film “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” began as a tale about the incendiary trial, financed by arch-conservative Peter Thiel, that silenced the website Gawker. But as attacks on the media engulfed the presidential election that year, he enlarged the project to include several examples of well-financed blitzes on the free press.
When casting that net, Knappenberger came across an example in Idaho that fit the mold perfectly. An Idaho billionaire had purchased a series of full-page newspaper ads to discredit one of its reporters. But due to the roller coaster ride that ended in Donald Trump’s victory, and its timing just as Knappenberger was wrapping his film for Sundance, he set those notes aside.
The Idaho ads, however, kept nagging at Knappenberger. And, when he dug a little deeper, he decided the story merited its own documentary, one that has become more timely than he could have imagined.
In 2005, The Post Register in Idaho Falls published a series of articles about a local Boy Scout who had been sexually abused by a troop leader. The 14-year-old was told by his church leaders not to report the matter, that the perpetrator, who was also a church member, would be handled internally. But when the man was not removed from his post at the Scout camp, the victim went to the police. A subsequent investigation revealed the man had a decade-long rap sheet of multiple child molestation charges — and the church had been well aware of his background.
The Post Register’s series unleashed a wave of similar reports from other victims, some involving the same offender. In fact, as the reporter and his editor began to follow up on the issue they discovered an even bigger problem: The Boy Scouts organization and the closely connected Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had gone to great lengths to cover up the abuse.
Many in the community were incensed that the newspaper had made the case public. The local magnate who placed the ads that had captured Knappenberger’s attention claimed the articles were part of a personal agenda to smear both the Scouts and the church.
According to Knappenberger, the victim’s “strong moral compass” evidenced by his reporting of the abuse made the story even more compelling.
“I am so inspired by his courage. … It was amazing how much he told us and how forthcoming he was with these very painful experiences. I knew he captured the central part of the film.”
Knappenberger’s documentary focuses on the victim and on the reporter, both of whom experienced a vicious backlash in a town where the Boy Scouts and the church are considered pillars in the community.
In the meantime, while Knappenberger’s crew was busy filming the rugged Idaho landscape where the abuse took place, other abused Scouts across the country had begun coming out of the shadows.
A common theme ran through many of those cases: Victims claim they were told to keep their allegations quiet and say officials from both the Scouts and the church told them the cases would be handled internally.
Nevertheless, according to Knappenberger, “As we made this film, the number of cases now at 12,000 victims of sexual misconduct, 8,000 perpetrators (all involving Scout leaders), just kept going up. That is what is so alarming.” It’s unclear how many of those cases are also tied to the church.
According to Knappenberger’s research, the figures are significantly higher than the number of abuse cases reported within the Catholic Church. That, he says, is because Scout activities often take place outdoors, overnight, in remote places where there is little other adult supervision.
“It has been a problem, a big problem, since the beginning of the Boy Scouts, which has been around since 1910,” he said.
But, Knappenberger, a former Boy Scout himself, believes the organization may not be around much longer.
“I don’t think the Boy Scouts are an organization that deserves to be teaching any kind of moral leadership to kids,” he said. “It comes down to making the right choice, the moral choice, and when you fail that badly, you give up your right to be an arbiter of moral leadership.”
The church needs to take responsibility, too, Knappenberger contends.
“The Boy Scouts and the Mormon church are deeply connected historically,” he said. “What typically happened was that an abuser in the Boy Scouts would go to the bishop, the bishop would determine if that person had repented. If so, then they could go back into the position they were in and there was no need to go to the law or even to inform people around them about what the person had done.”
The film, which debuts in Sundance’s documentary shorts program, comes as the church and the Boy Scouts are unwinding their 110-year relationship. The divorce became official on Dec. 31, and the church plans to launch its own youth program this year. According to a joint statement from both organizations, it is an amicable separation. The statement, however, does not mention the nationwide allegations of child abuse or debates between the two organizations about the Boy Scouts’ recent decision to allow gay leaders.
In a separate but related issue, Knappenberger’s film may add some gravitas to a bill being introduced in the current session of Utah Legislature. H.B. 90 would require members of the clergy to report confessions of child abuse, even in the context of a religious setting. Currently, state law allows bishops and priests to claim clergy privilege as an exemption from the mandatory reporting required of educators and doctors.
With a critical eye, “Church and the Fourth Estate” takes viewers to the center of an unfolding controversy and underscores the media’s role in shedding light on the truth.