Toby Willis’ Conviction Is the Latest in a String of Scandals to Hit the Christian Homeschool Community

I grew up believing that my community was immune from problems like sexual abuse, which, I believed, affected “the world” but not good evangelical homeschool families like my own. It’s not surprising that I ended up with this idea—evangelical leaders often centered homeschooling on protecting children, both from negative peer influences and from other forms of harm. These leaders painted a pretty picture of wholesome families and godly children, but the reality is far from simple.

This week, Toby Willis plead guilty to four counts of child rape. He was sentenced to forty years in prison. Willis’ arrest last September made a serious splash, and for good reason. Willis, a conservative evangelical, is the father of twelve homeschooled children. The family toured the country performing and even landed their own show on TLC before the bottom fell out of their picture-perfect image.

The Willis Clan

Toby Willis’ arrest and conviction follows on the heels of revelations two years ago that Josh Duggar of the TLC show 19 Kids and Counting had sexually molested four of his sisters as a teen—revelations that were themselves followed by news that Duggar, by then a husband and father himself, had been secretly hiring sex workers while posing as an upstanding family man.

These scandals haven’t only rocked homeschool megafamily TV celebrities; some of the biggest names in the homeschool leadership world have been involved in their own scandals as well. Three years ago it came out that Doug Phillips, a giant in the conservative Christian homeschool world, had sexually groomed and molested his family’s young nanny. Around the same time, dozens of women came forward to accuse fundamentalist homeschool superpower Bill Gothard of sexually harassing them when they were teens working for his organization.

Since these stories broke on the national stage, two sexual abuse scandals have rocked the local Christian homeschool community in which I grew up. What has been most difficult for me, in witnessing the aftermath of these cases, is how quickly people I knew and trusted growing up jumped to blame the victims and exonerate the accused offenders. This shocked me because part of me still believed the pretty story I grew up hearing—that we were safe, and protected from this kind of thing.

The truth is this: there is no perfect fairytale lifestyle that protects children from sexual abuse or other forms of mistreatment. Anyone who claims there is is lying. If we let our guard down and assume that families that put on a pretty public face—or families with an upstanding Christian reputation—are some how exempt, we risk letting warning signs go by unnoticed (as happened in Gothard’s case), or making it harder for victims to speak up out of concern that if they do, they won’t be believed.

It’s time to dispense with magical formulas.

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