New readers may be interested in my previous writings on the Duggars, including Carefully Scripted Lives: My Concerns about the Duggars, written in February 2012 and An Open Letter to Duggar Defenders, written in August 2014.
When I first saw rumors circulating yesterday I didn’t pay any attention, because the accusations were vague and felt rehashed. Remember when the tabloids reported that Jessa Duggar had sex at the church immediately after her wedding, based on a word of an obviously satirical blogger who claimed to have been there? Yeah, I remember that too. There have been rumors circulating for years about Jim Bob blaming Josh for the loss of a political campaign, based on “sin in the camp,” so I thought it was probably just those rumors being rehashed in the way tabloids do.
What happened exactly? Answering this question is sensitive because of the need to protect the identity Josh’s victims. According to TMZ, one of Josh’s victims has asked to have the unredacted police documents destroyed to protect her identity—and even the redacted police report gives more than enough information to guess at the victims’ identities. This is a problem.
I’ve gone back and forth about whether I should blog about this. This is not a gossip blog. I blog about weighty issues, and when I do blog about scandals like this I try to do so in a way that makes larger points, rather than just scoring cheap shots. That said, I’ve decided to go ahead and blog about this for several reasons. For one thing, I want you to have a reliable place to get good information (there’s still incorrect information circling out there). For another thing, I do think there are larger points to be made here. I’ll start by summarizing the police report.
In December 2006, someone called a hotline and reported that Josh Duggar had sexually molested several girls three and a half years before. Around the same time, Harpo Studios faxed an email they had received informing them of the allegations (the Duggars had been slated to be on Oprah) to the Department of Human Services. It seems that at the time of the assaults a family friend wrote a letter about what happened and put it in a book, and that book was loaned out years later and the letter discovered, and the person who discovered it wanted to disclose the information.
Jim Bob was called in and interviewed. He stated that Josh had sexually molested several girls over the course of a year. Jim Bob knew of this beginning in March 2002, when Josh was 14. Josh’s victims were children younger than him, and in some cases significantly so. For an entire year Jim Bob knew what was happening, but did not go to the police or seek treatment or outside intervention. In March 2003, with the incidents of molestation still occurring, Jim Bob said he and the elders at his church, to whom he had gone for advice, agreed that Josh should enter a treatment program.
But when one of the elders at Jim Bob’s church suggested sending Josh to a legitimate treatment program, Jim Bob demurred, reasoning that Josh would likely be exposed to more serious offenders and that that was not appropriate for the nature of his offense. So instead of sending Josh to an actual treatment program, Jim Bob sent him to Little Rock for four months to help a family friend with some remodeling.
When Josh returned in July 2003, Jim Bob took Josh to speak with a state trooper he knew personally about what had happened. The trooper gave Josh “a very stern talk” but didn’t file a report, reportedly reasoning that nothing needed to be done because Josh had already gone through a treatment program. Except of course that helping a family friend in Little Rock do some remodeling is not a treatment program. (The trooper who spoke with Josh was later convicted of child pornography.)
After interviewing the victims and other witnesses (all of whom corroborated Jim Bob’s story), police closed the case. Why? Because in Arkansas the statute of limitations for sexual assault is three years, and they were unable to find any evidence of any act of molestation or assault within the last three years. At this time Josh was 18. Police ascertained that Josh had at least five victims from at least two families.
I don’t know whether Josh has molested any children since 2003. I know very little about the science behind sexual molestation that occurs while the perpetrator is still a minor. There are some things I do know, though.
1. Sexual abuse should always always always be reported to the authorities immediately, even when the perpetrator is a minor. Jim Bob did not report what happened for well over a year, and when he finally did, he went to a trooper who was a family friend. This is a serious serious problem. The case of Zion and Glenda Dutro presents an especially hideous example of how badly reporting to cops who are personal acquaintances can go wrong (click through at your own risk). Don’t do this!
2. Professional counselors and treatment programs are a must in cases involving sexual abuse. Talking to your elders or doing manual labor for a couple of months does not constitute counseling or a treatment program. Josh told People that both he and his victims received counseling. But given that his parents stated in 2006 that the only treatment he received was several months of manual labor, I’m highly skeptical that his victims received any actual counseling themselves. I know of a large Christian homeschooling family where incest was discovered between two of the sons, partly as a result of a complete lack of sex education, and both were shamed for what happened, nothing was reported, and no counseling was received. This is a problem.3. It is not okay to conceal a history of child molestation from parents of other children a perpetrator has regular contact with. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe in protecting the identity of victims. But if someone is an offender against children, they have the potential to reoffend. People should not leave children alone with a person with a history of molesting children, and that means they need to know that a person has a history of molesting children. While Jim Bob told the elders at the family’s church about what had happened, neither they nor the elders notified the church members more generally. This is bad, as it put other children at risk.
4. Handling child molestation as “sin” rather than addressing the psychology behind it is a serious problem. In their statements to People, the Duggars spoke of Josh’s past wrongdoing as “past teenage mistakes” and spoke of growing closer to God through it. But it appears that Josh never had legitimate counseling or treatment to work through his problem. Some sexual things are normal for a teen to do—say, masturbating—but other sexual things are not typical behavior—say, molesting children—and those things need to be addressed professionally rather than simply as “sin” issues. Failing to do so places other children at risk.
5. In too many cases, church elders fail to report sexual abuse to the proper authorities. We’ve seen this before, again, and again, and again. It is not clear from the police report whether Jim Bob spoke with his church’s elders about the incidents of molestation first in March 2003 or whether he spoke with them earlier as well. But even if he only spoke with them in March 2003, they still failed to immediately report the incidents to the authorities as they should have. According to Jim Bob, the elders agreed that he should report the situation to the authorities once Josh returned from the remodeling project in Little Rock, and one of the elders went with him when he did so. This was both too late (they should have reported it immediately) and too little (the report was made to a trooper who was a friend).
6. Local police and state troopers need to take sexual molestation seriously and follow the law with regards to reporting it. The trooper Jim Bob and Josh spoke with was a mandatory reporter and should by law have filed a report and launched an investigation. He failed to do so, and as a result the statute of limitations ran out before any action could be taken. This particular trooper was later convicted of child abuse, spent time in prison, then reoffended and is now back in prison. This was a serious, serious law enforcement fail.
7. Good sex education is very important. I don’t know for sure what sort of sex education Josh Duggar received, but I do know that children homeschooled through the Christian program the Duggars used with Josh (ATI) are generally woefully uneducated when it comes to sex. Parents who avoid more comprehensive sex education often see themselves as trying to avoid awakening children’s sexuality too early, but these efforts can end very very badly because leaving children completely ignorant about sex can be a serious problem.
8. The good Christian family aura can hide underlying problems. If I had a dollar for every time someone has praised the Duggars for being a perfect example of a good Christian family, I’d be rich. Sweet smiles and matching clothes can cover up a lot and make people assume that things are more perfect than they are. I know what it’s like to force a smile for family pictures people later ooo and ahh over, even as I’m crying inside. We need to remember that.
9. Sheltering children from the world doesn’t work. For years now, I have seen commenters across the internet praise the Duggars for raising godly children away from the materialism and sexualization of the modern world. Sorry guys, it doesn’t work like that. Please stop promoting the Duggars’ lifestyle by claiming that it has protected these children from the evils of the world! It hasn’t.
10. Homeschooling can limit children’s ability to report abuse. Children who attend school have contact with teachers, counselors, and other adults they can go to for help, or for advice about problems in their home situations. Both Josh and his victims were homeschooled, which almost certainly limited the number of trusted adults they could go to for help, especially given that their social activities appear to have revolved around their church and other likeminded families who probably also believed in dealing with such problems in-house. According to the police report, some of the victims did try to get help. It’s just that their avenues for obtaining said help were sadly limited.
I still feel weird about posting this because of the gossipy angle so much of the media is giving it. So, I’d like to make a suggestion. When you see people talking about this story, whether on facebook or in person or in a comment section, steer the conversation toward the more substantive issues. Let’s use the attention the tabloids and other news sources are giving this story to educate the public about the problems with dealing with sexual molestation in house, the importance of sex education, and the dangers of judging the character of a family by outward appearances alone.
And while you’re at it, please remind people to protect the identities of the victims.
For further reading, see: