Abuse Happens in Progressive Churches, Too: The Duggar Scandal and the Failure of Self-Critical Reflection

Abuse Happens in Progressive Churches, Too: The Duggar Scandal and the Failure of Self-Critical Reflection May 28, 2015

Creative Commons Copyright by Michael Caven (Flickr) photo cropped

Now is the time to talk about abuse in the church.
Now, when you are tired of talking about it. Now, when you’ve moved on to the next social media buzz. Now, when you think you’ve exhausted every possible angle of it.

That’s because now is the time where we get to decide whether we will change or whether this was just another distraction, another voyeuristic foray of using tragedy to score political or cultural points.

Now is the time to stop pointing fingers at the far away.

One of the most frustrating elements of the progressive response to the horrendous Duggar scandal is the unspoken insinuation that this kind of abuse only occurs or is much more likely to occur in fundamentalist, conservative, or patriarchal churches.

It been a way for liberals and progressives to tut-tut in the wake of tragedy rather than engage in critical self-reflection of our own institutions. While some social and theological elements certainly can exacerbate in terrible ways abuse, the sobering truth is that any institution — religious or secular, conservative or liberal — that includes or ministers to children can find itself in the midst of an abuse scandal. Institutions and their leaders must remain vigilant at all times and must not succumb to the self-satisfied notion that this kind of scandal is something more likely to happen in those churches over there, among those conservatives, or  with those homeschoolers. With a one in four women and one in six men were sexually abused, it’s clear that abuse isn’t just happening in conservative spaces. 

For example, read this story about an Episcopal school and the similarities of admission without repercussion that allowed for more victims. 

Look around your parish. Regardless of how progressive it is, that statistic is true for the people in your pews and for the people leading. There is a pastoral responsibility, as a result, to know the warning signs of abuse, to understand the effects of abuse, and to be aware of the ways in which abusers exploit systems to gain trust and access to potential victims.

That’s why the single most hospitable thing any church can do for young families is to get their workers, leadership, and clergy trained in the prevention of child abuse so that churches can become the safe spaces they truly should be. This is especially true as we enter into summer, the season of Vacation Bible School and youth camps.

And after spending several hours renewing my training this past week, I’ve become convinced that progressive Christians, by and large, have fumbled an opportunity to truly lead in the aftermath of the Duggar scandal.

1. Get educated. No, reading about it on the internet isn’t enough. It’s a start, but you need real training and, if it’s been awhile, you might need a refresher. Many, if not all, mainline churches require these types of programs. But if you attend a nondenominational church or one that has no firm policies on this, find a training and get educated. Call a local mainline church and ask to join one of their trainings.

2. Train others. Here is where I think many churches, especially among the mainline, have failed. We have a unique opportunity to educate and to lead in order to make more churches safe, not just our own. With consciousness high about the prevalence of child abuse, we might do better than tsk-tsking others. Reach out to the local church community, the ministerial association, or interfaith groups in order to offer city- or county-wide trainings. Work hand-in-hand with local government agencies and nonprofits to create trainings for all churches. Advocate for legislation that requires proof of training for any organization that wants to rent public property for events or camps. Many mainline churches have the benefit of a centralized hierarchy that requires these types of trainings. Let’s put that to use in our communities and be leaders. (I know some may be already doing this)

3. Take action. During a training course, you will learn how institutions and systems are exploited and manipulated. You’ll learn to spot warning signs and red flags of potential abusers. You’ll learn how to structure events involving children and youth better. You’ll learn how to respond to victims appropriately and in a way that doesn’t do additional harm. And if you’re training doesn’t teach these things, then by all means, find another one and talk to your ecclesiastical superiors about improving the training.

4. Revisit your own policies. Perhaps you’ve already been trained. Now is a good time to refresh your memory and the memories of your church governing board about these policies. Create or revisit the action plan and steps if abuse is reported or suspected. Update your policies. Check to see whose training might have lapsed and might need to renew it. And remind each other to follow the policies. Even if they seem cumbersome. Even if they are inconvenient.

5. Talk about it in your church. Remember those statistics? Someone in your church has experienced abuse or is being abused. Consider bringing in trained experts to lead a support group. Talk about abuse, its consequences, and how it is NEVER okay. Push back against notions of redemptive suffering that can silence victims or encourage them to see their abuse as part of God’s will or teaching. Post signs at Sunday school and nursery doors notifying that visitors that all workers, paid or volunteer, have been trained in the prevention of abuse. Silence can an abuser’s accomplice.

These are not all-inclusive, but a starting point to suggest how churches might do better to protect the children in their care and communities.


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  • Chuck Bryant

    The difference being that progressive churches aren’t the ones typically pointing fingers accusing gays of the wrongdoings that occur with the congregation.

    • That’s an extremely good point.

      Having said that, however, I think that one can’t generalize too much in terms of traditionalist / conservative churches as a whole. A number of evangelical churches completely reject the horrible ‘gays are inherent pedophiles’, ‘gays are inherent drug addicts’, etc tropes while at the same time holding to the traditionalist Christian teachings on most things (Christ being literally divine, heaven being a real, physical place, abortion being wrong, etc).

  • Timothy Weston

    This begs the question: Why does it grab headlines in more conservative churches?

    • Eric Boersma

      I don’t think it does grab headlines in more conservative churches. If we look at someone not considered conservative with similar allegations in the past, I think somebody like Kobe Bryant is a good test case – his case was huge for months when he was accused of rape. Far longer than Josh Duggar’s situation is going to be in the public eye.

      Progressive church leaders don’t seem to have the overbearing need to become famous that hallmarks a lot of conservative church leaders today. People who are famous are more visible, and the way they screw up is more visible, too.

      There’s an entire sub question here about why conservative church leaders are famous – Mike Huckabee shouldn’t be anyone’s religious leader, nor should Jim Bob Duggar. Conservative christians should be asking themselves a lot of questions coming out of this situation, not the least of which is “Why is my criteria for leader best summed up as ‘that person is on TV and says nice things about Jesus’?” and “Why when someone I consider a leader does something horrendous do I reflexively defend their actions even though they’re repulsive?”.

      • gimpi1

        I think there’s also the “preachy” factor. I generally find more conservative groups more pushy about the need for everyone to adopt their standards and manner of living. Often anything outside of a very narrow range of actions is considered “sin.” Things like women working outside the home or making their own decisions, couples platonically dating, higher education, watching TV or listening to popular music, women wearing pants or skirts above the knee or low necklines, the list goes on and on, are all sinful acts to be eliminated.

        When someone takes it upon themselves to not only adopt an (apparently) bizarrely strict code of behavior, but to insist that it’s the only virtuous way to live – and they fail very publicly to not only live up to their own code, but society’s much looser standards – people will cry foul. It smacks of hypocrisy and double-standards.

    • CroneEver

      Because in the Duggar case, the Duggars have been a reality TV show broadcast every week, not counting reruns, for SEVEN YEARS. For seven years, they marketed themselves their exemplary Christianity, family values, and sexual purity. For seven years, they made frequent appearances/speeches of both a religious and political nature in order to combat LGBT and other perceived sexual impurities, especially in their home state of Arkansas. Thus, when the news broke of what Josh Duggar’s child molestation and incest, combined with a long, long coverup, your darned straight it made headlines. And should have.

      • Timothy Weston

        You answered what I was thinking. Thanks!

      • Lark62

        Yes. They have marketed their religion by saying “these choices make our children safer” when in fact all of their choices – isolation, suppression of normal sexual feelings, blaming girls for the sexual feelings of men, and the rest – serve to increase the risk of abuse.

    • I think at heart it’s the money and political power factor.

      If the Governor of State X or the CEO of Company Y gets arrested for cocaine usage, say, then it will make far more headlines than if some small business guy somewhere gets caught for the same thing. Or somebody that’s just a nobody in a state legislature.

  • ZitherZather

    Good advice for all.

    Hopefully, fundamentalists can get past step 1. They usually frown on “education” as “worldly.”

  • Elizabeth 44

    “Safeguarding God’s Children” and “Safeguarding God’s People” are used by the Episcopal church. You might check with your local Episcopal Diocese for the training materials. Both the Episcopal Dioceses of Idaho and Olympia (WA) require both every three years.

    • As an Episcopal priest, I endorse this recommendation 🙂

  • Eric Boersma

    I agree with the vast majority of this article. I’m going to be surfacing it for our lead team at my church to raise ideas on how we can become more proactive in leading the way in our community to help with this kind of thing.

    I do disagree with the idea that abuse within mainline churches and abuse within hyper-fundamentalist sects like the ones the Duggars belonged to are the same, though. Looking at the material put out by ATI that was likely used as part of the process of working through this abuse within the Duggar household, it’s clear that material was made by an abuser, presented to other abusers, used to justify and cover up abuse in order to enable further abuse.

    It’s clearly folly to suggest that abuse doesn’t touch every organization. It is sadly far too common in our society for people to be abused, which means that it lives everywhere, even in the pew next to me and you. There’s a huge difference between how we handle that abuse, though, and whether the systems we’ve put in place in our practices are enabling or discouraging abuse.

    • I think the ATI material is atrocious. But the cover-up and the failure to protect children even after disclosure unfortunately is disturbingly common. And, honestly, it’s only been since the RCC scandal that many mainline churches have gotten serious about this stuff, too. And that’s too their credit, of course, that they’ve done anything. You are right that having these preventive policies is protective and should be applauded! But we also need to not use these policies as something we check off and say we’re so much better or we’ve met a certain requirement.

      Then I run across stories like the one from Episcopal Academy in Pennsylvania (updated in the post) in which a teacher told the headmaster about the abuse and he was allowed to remain apparently. Its pattern of authorities being alerted but nothing being done echoes to an extent the Duggar scandal.

      For me both stories are a startling reminder not to take anything for granted in our churches. They tend to be targets for abusers looking for victims. That’s why I’m more interested in calling even mainline churches to look at our own churches in the wake of this rather than spending our energy exclusively on criticizing the Duggars (who are rightfully being criticized!)

      I am looking for research that links religious demographics to abuse statistically rather than anecdotally. If you run across any, please shoot me a link.

      • Eric Boersma


        There’s a bit in there from an insurance agent in 2010 who offers sexual abuse coverage to large organizations, and per their numbers (and I’d expect them to have ones as good as anyone), they tend to see similar rates between all denominations.

        So, that’s definitely a data point in favor of your thesis, I’d say.

  • gimpi1

    One advantage I would imagine that progressive congregations have is that they don’t seem to have the distrust of professionals – counselors, child-protective services or doctors – that often seems to run rampant in more conservative congregations. The biggest problem I have with the Duggar situation (or, for that matter, the priest-abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic church) is the cover-up. In the Duggar case, that happened, at least in part, because everyone was afraid to turn to “the world” in the form of counseling or treatment. That fear of everyone outside of your own group runs deep in many conservative Evangelical groups. I don’t see as much of it in progressive ones.

  • Lark62

    This is good, and applies to any group made up of human beings.

    If you don’t believe the need for training and prevention, go to Google and type in the words “youth pastor news”. The result will turn your stomach.

  • I forget who said this, but I think it’s pretty true that (paraphrasing): “At the end of the day, getting away with abuse is about power. Power gaps. Power distance.” When one looks at major abuse scandals outside of religious institutions, such as Jimmy Saville’s crimes and his relationship to the upper parts of British society, a common thread is that the power dynmaics between abuser and victim, even before they meet, are often huge. It’s important that churches of all creeds are able to get over that by having clear, distinct rules and going through these 1-5 steps.

  • AnneG

    May I ask where you get the one in four and one in six statistics? I can’t find that information anywhere.

  • ron_goodman

    Abuse might happen in progressive churches too, but there’s much more to be concerned about in the cultish patriarchal world of the Duggars than just the potential for child abuse. It’s too bad that that’s what it took to force people to take a serious look.

  • bex

    it’s powerful men syndrome, not all men of power (fame,wealth,there position in a group) are going to act badly, but a higher proportion than would normally do, will.

  • Jennifer P

    Many progressive churches already reject Biblical morality regarding sexual behavior. So abuse of children is not seen as the horrible thing it is in orthodox churches. Further, progressive churches are mostly Protestant, and Protestant Churches tend to be less structured than, for example, Catholic Churches. Abuse in Protestant Church occurs at about the same rate as in Catholic Churches. But there is no bishop to go after.