The Duggar family has been in the spotlight for years as a leading example of a large, homeschooling, wholesome Christian family. From what started as intermittent specials on the Discovery Channel about their large—and growing—family has come a whole franchise: a regular show on TLC, books, speaking tours at conferences, and spin-off interest in their children as they begin adult lives.
The eldest son of the family, Josh, was an employee of FRC Action, an affiliate of the Family Research Council, a conservative lobby group founded by James Dobson that promotes traditional families.
Before this week, the Duggars appeared to have it all together. For followers of their incredibly popular show, “19 Kids and Counting,” as well as people who look up to them as parenting and religious gurus, this week has brought an incredible blow to that image.
Josh Duggar has admitted and apologized for abusing five younger girls, four of them family members, when he was in his teens. The molestation began before the TV show—something that leaves many people with very different feelings on the family they thought they knew and had watched grow up.
Commitment to a Distorted Organization
What happened in the Duggar family is tragic, and that tragedy has now compounded by the public attention to the case. The identities of the girls who were victimized are unfortunately too easy to deduce from the police report. How did this happen? How did a seemingly perfect family have a secret so dark, so destructive, and keep it hidden so long?
The Duggars have long been involved with ATI/IBLP (Advanced Training Institute/Institute for Basic Life Principles), an organization that caters to fundamentalist Christian families with a strong emphasis on home education and proper roles for men and women. This organization was founded and largely run until recently by Bill Gothard, who has himself been accused of inappropriately touching and harassing at least 30 women. Josh Duggar met his bride at an ATI conference, and the Duggars have turned to this organization in times of trouble with the children, their marriage—and reportedly turned after Josh molested his sisters.
Gothard and IBLP focus on a legalistic, patriarchal family organization that requires strict obedience to parents and authority. They also have some troubling views on sexual abuse and healing, including asking questions on how the victim may have been complicit and telling victims as they heal they will receive spiritual gifts and power. Abuse becomes a strengthener for the girls’ personal testimony and a way to point back to God.
There are some important lessons in the fall from grace of the Duggar family that are bigger than the actions of just a few people.
1. Abuse Prevention
There are some clear, simple, everyday steps parents can take to help keep their kids safe. Talk to your kids and help set guidelines about appropriate behavior and personal boundaries. Be watchful for signs that someone has an inappropriate interest in them, speak with them before there are problems, support them, and be prepared.
No parent wants to think about their children being impacted by this, and bringing it up can feel awkward. A difficult conversation is better than trying to pick up the pieces after abuse has happened. And sometimes even the best prevention isn’t enough to keep a first offense from occurring.
2. This Can Happen to Anyone
This can happen in seemingly healthy, normal families. There is not one type of family makeup that leads to sexual abuse. This isn’t just a function of famous families or families that have working parents or single-parent families.
3. Healing Is Possible
When abuse happens, it’s important to get help—real help—for all involved. Evidence-based treatment for both the abuser and the abused instead of judgement and condemnation and a push to immediately reconcile would have been more appropriate. The Duggars dropped the ball by not seeking counseling or treatment for their son but instead sending him off for “hard physical work” with a family friend and mentor.
4. On Abuse Histories
Sometimes people who abuse others were abused themselves. I don’t know if this was the case with Josh Duggar. There’s also a high correlation between suicide and people with a history of being sexually abused as children. Families rocked by abuse need to heal, both as individuals and as families.
5. Forgiveness Is Possible, But Requires Repentance
We have three statements so far. We’ve heard from Josh, himself, his parents, and his wife. We have not heard from his victims, and we never may—nor should we demand to. However, while we’ve heard that he was and is sorry for what he calls a mistake, that his parents felt this brought them closer to God, and that his wife finds him to be an amazing man, we haven’t heard about the fallout from his victims. That’s an important piece of this.
Confessing sin is an important part of Christianity, and forgiveness is present for even heinous sins. Prevaricating and calling a sin and abuse a mistake instead of owning the depth of his offense against these girls, now women, doesn’t lessen the impact of his actions or ultimately help anyone.
6. Don’t Shame Victims
Victims of sexual abuse are never at fault. These girls didn’t deserve this, and have hopefully had help and opportunity to process the hurts that were inflicted on them.
7. The Media Behaved Shamefully
This was an offense that happened when Josh was a minor. He was never convicted (by the time the police started investigating, the statute of limitations had run out and the detective who initially talked to Josh was a personal friend of Jim Bob and is currently in jail for child pornography). Not only has his offense been made public, but the victims are trying to maintain privacy, including asking for the police report to be destroyed.
This shouldn’t be something we condone or accept. Outing victims of crimes against them as children without their permission is wrong. Deciding that because someone is a celebrity of some minor status that their juvenile record is fair game is a troubling precedent.
When a celebrity family is exposed as less than perfect, the fallout is ugly. It’s no less damaging for non-famous families when things come crashing down and bad things happen, though. Our view of the Duggars is changed. The virtuous family that we’d been sold was a virtual figment of our imaginations. Reality TV has once again proved to be anything but. Real life has a messy way of resisting scene cuts and editing.
Instead we are left with an all-too-real family that has fallen short of their bubbly image. A man that grew up in front of the camera has had a troubling and dark past exposed. Women that had no choice in being abused continue to have no choice in becoming public fodder. If we try to find the good in this situation, it is that we have the opportunity to open conversations about what sexual abuse in families looks like. There isn’t a way to change what has happened, but there are ways to try to prevent things like this from happening again.