The public outcry regarding the revelation that Josh Duggar, oldest son of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar of “19 Kids and Counting” fame, may have molested his younger sisters and other girls from his church more than a decade ago, has become deafening. While there is still some public support from the fans, TLC has for the time being yanked the show from its lineup. Fans of the show are crying discrimination against the Christian family, but the reality is it has nothing to do with discrimination. It has everything to do with context. It also has highlighted how dysfunctional some of the extreme religious factions can become.
Josh Duggar spent his days working at the Family Research Council, and was a vocal opponent to same sex marriage. Before November’s election, his mother, Michelle, made claims in robocalls sent to Arkansas voters that if the law passed that would allow transsexual or transgender people to use the public restroom of the sex to which they were transitioning, young girls might be exposed to pedophiles. Needless to say, the law did not pass. Now, most enlightened and educated individuals have long since accepted that same sex marriage is not the end of civilization as we know it, and transgendered folks are not sexually perverse. What even the enlightened and educated cannot accept, is someone molesting siblings, especially when they trust that person molesting them.
Hating those who are different, and advocating that those you hate are not entitled to the same rights and privileges you enjoy is why this matters in context. Josh Duggar and his family have made themselves famous by projecting a Christian and loving home environment where everyone looks out for each other, and the evils of the outside world are held at bay. They have warned of sexual perversion by those they don’t like and have sought to reduce the growing support for same sex marriage, because it’s condemned by their religious beliefs. Finding out that as many as five of his younger, vulnerable, and innocent sisters may have been molested by him shatters that illusion. To the ground. It also shines a very bright light on a key component that occurs in many abuse cases, and that’s isolationism.
The Duggar clan was wary of outside influences on its family. They eschewed television, even as they became famous because of it, and limited access to the outer world by the children. Under normal circumstances, a 14 or 15 year old boy might have his first girlfriend, and explore sexuality the way most teenagers have done. As parents, we always hope our children will wait to become sexually active, but know that may not happen. But while we hope their exploration waits until they are older, we never think their younger siblings may be at risk. Being home-schooled meant there were fewer others to notice changes or ask questions. It also meant there was likely little sex education going on, because the assumption was that they were removed from society enough it wouldn’t be a threat. They never considered the threat might come from within.
How this isolationism turns ugly is in light of disclosures that the parents of these molested girls knew what was happening. It wasn’t an isolated incident. Even after it was discovered, Josh continued to molest. Not only were there precious few others to ask if something was happening, there was no one else the girls could go to outside of the family or the church to try to figure out what was happening to them. How helpless they must have felt as this behavior continued.
Of equal concern, and evidence of the problems with extreme religious beliefs is the common thread of the subservience of women, and their relegation to a lesser status. These girls are used to help raise the constantly growing brood, that now includes grandchildren. They are cooks, and babysitters, and maids, and surrogate parents all too often. There are expectations of behavior, and looks, and familial control over them. As a result, what’s getting lost in the dialogue emanating from the Duggar camp in the midst of words used like “youthful indiscretion” or “he asked for and received forgiveness” and “it brought us closer to God” is that no one is talking about his victims. And make no mistake: The girls and sisters he abused over a multi-year period are the victims. Josh Duggar is the perpetrator. These girls were repeatedly violated, and no justice was ever meted out on their behalf.
As has been stated in numerous other news reports, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar claimed that Josh apologized for his acts, and was forgiven by those he molested. The problem with this is the onus is on the victim to make things right. Because extreme religious participants put the final authority of all human behaviors in God, by forgiving Josh his sisters were doing as God would want. Only He can mete out the justice called for. As far as the family is concerned, all is well because Josh was forgiven. But this just brings to light one more fundamental flaw with fringe religious groups.
Churches, like police departments, and universities, and the military, believe they can internally handle the problems that come up, no matter the severity. Make no mistake; Josh broke the law. Much of what he did fell under misdemeanor charges, but he also managed to participate in felonious behavior, too. There is a reason we have a court of law, and it’s so entities like the church cannot sweep away charges of wrongdoing. But that’s exactly what happened here. Even though he was a repeat offender, and had not only molested his own sisters but other girls in the church they attended, the elders agreed to handle it internally. The problem is it was never handled. He was sent out of town for manual labor, and hopefully to let the dust settle. Was he held accountable for his crimes? No. Were these just the youthful mistakes he claims they were? No. The first time was a mistake. The repetition indicates a pattern. It wasn’t a mistake. It was a calculated act he repeated numerous times.
Let’s not forget at its most base level what it was Josh Duggar did to those girls. He used places where they felt safe, and exploited that. He was in a position of trust, and authority with his younger sisters, and he abused that privilege. Taking places of comfort and safety and tarnishing them, as well as abusing his power, are the considerations that may haunt these girls in ways many of us may fail to recognize. They may have forgiven him, as their parents wanted done, but that doesn’t change how they feel. It doesn’t change what was done to them.
The entire Duggar family will feel the ramifications over this for a long time. And much of that stems from the fact that the molested girls were secondary to this whole mess. Because the men matter and the women are there to serve, the appearance is that it was more important to save Josh’s name than the well being of the girls he molested. And that’s just wrong. All along the way, there were ways to correct what happened. But when you isolate your children and only teach them what you want them to know; when you put the burden on the victim to make things right; when you treat half of your children as though they are inferior; and when you think you are only accountable to God, there will be problems. The Duggar Family is learning this the hard way.
Will they stop judging others as a result? Will their other daughters be given more autonomy over their own bodies and thoughts? Will this finally stop the perverse thrill of being on the outside looking in on this family? I can only hope the answer to those questions is a resounding “Yes!” as that may be the only way they save their public persona. Maybe the best thing for us, and them, is that they just fade quietly into the Arkansas sunset. We’ll see.