It’s taken me weeks to gather my thoughts about the molestation scandal involving Joshua Duggar, of the TV famous Duggar family. This is a serious matter which is why I did not just dash off a blog post as soon as the scandal broke.
Let me begin by saying that I feel terrible for the entire Duggar family. Discovering that your children have been sexually abused or that your child abused other children is horrible. I expect it was also painful for them to see it splashed around TV and magazine covers and have everyone weighing in. That being said, that does not excuse the abuse that happened nor the way it was wrongly handled.
I’m not anti-Duggar. I’m not against large families. I’m not against homeschooling. In fact, I was homeschooled for most of my life and would certainly consider that option for my own children if I am blessed with children someday. I even believe many things that would make some people label me a fundamentalist Christian. I am not part of any anti-Christian agenda. I’m a member of the body of Christ. I’m also not a victim of sexual abuse. It’s precisely because of all these things that I am speaking up.
Some of the reactions to the Duggar scandal have really upset me. Circling the wagons and defending “our own” if that means minimizing or dismissing abuse of any kind (mental/spiritual/physical/sexual) is unacceptable. And it isn’t Godly.
Reaction to this scandal as well as other church abuse scandals Boz Tchividjian recently said, “My prayer is that one day churches will be the place offenders feel the least safe knowing that the church is vigilantly watching over its children and won’t hesitate to report suspected abuse to the God-ordained authorities. I think Jesus requires nothing less of us.”
That is my prayer as well. But so far, it isn’t the case, because there is far too much ignorance, naivete and willful blindness in the church when it comes to abuse. And all too often there is a culture that keeps abusers safe rather than protecting victims.
I watched part one of the FNC interview (as well as some of the second part) with Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar. What I hoped I would hear was that they were sorry and that they realized they made the wrong choice by not contacting the police right away, by not getting all of their children professional counseling immediately and by choosing to try to deal with the problem in house. Instead I heard excuses, rationalizations and other things that troubled me deeply.
The interview was heartbreaking, depressing and infuriating. I have no doubt that they were heartbroken and shocked when they learned what Josh had done to some of his sisters and a babysitter. Yes, the fact that Josh came to them himself and confessed could have been a sign of repentance and it is good thing that Josh was changed by God. But none of that excuses their failure to handle this crime the right way. That’s right, this wasn’t just a sin issue. It was a crime. To be sure, Jim Bob and Michelle were wrong to not report Josh right away.
Too many Christians think that just because something is a sin it only needs to be dealt with by God or the church. That is not true when a sin is also a crime. There are civil consequences to pay. No one would argue someone who committed armed robbery shouldn’t be arrested or serve time just because they asked God to forgive them for that sin? Then why do people insist God’s forgiveness is enough and civil punishment isn’t necessary in the case of abuse?
Another troubling element throughout the interview was the minimizing language they used to talk about the “bad choices” Josh made. To me, the language indicated Jim Bob and Michelle either still don’t understand the seriousness of molestation and sexual abuse or they refuse to acknowledge it.
Early in the interview Jim Bob made it sound like Josh was just curious about girls bodies. Normal teenage boy curiosity does not involve molesting siblings. This is a deviant behavior. Even scarier Jim Bob said they spoke with other friends who said they had “similar” things happen, as if it was a normal occurrence.
“It was a very difficult situation,” Jim Bob said. “But as we talked to other parents and different ones since then, a lot of families have said that they have had similar things that happened in their families.”
That hints at the terrifying possibility that molestation is normal among their circles. There is a serious, serious problem here.
Another example of Jim Bob’s minimizing the abuse was his claim that the “improper touching” happened while the girls were asleep, which he further minimized by pointing out that it wasn’t rape. Just because it wasn’t one of the most vile forms of abuse there is doesn’t mean it wasn’t a abusive and, in fact, a crime. Another defense came from Michelle who said that it happened when the girls were too young to understand it. Later Jim Bob admitted that some of them were away when it happened.
Those are excuses. Rationalizations. By that same logic a person isn’t a sexual abuse victims if they’re asleep or too young. So a perv could do whatever he or she wants to an infant or extremely young child and it’s no big deal because they can’t understand it. NO. That’s unacceptable. Child abuse is so horrific because often children too young to understand what’s going on are being taken advantage of. Their innocence is being stolen.
Whether awake, asleep, young and ignorant or old enough to comprehend — ALL those girls were victimized. Even more shocking to me was that one of Josh’s sisters was actually critical of people calling her brother a child molester. The denial is running deep.
But what sent me absolutely reeling was Michelle’s claim that their daughters have been victimized more by the news attention since the scandal broke than by molestation. One of the daughters said the same thing. But I still find it difficult to believe.
Sadly, none of the rationalizations or denials are surprising. As sinners hiding our sin is second nature. Confessing it, repenting of it and accepting the consequences is hard.
The Theology Angle
If you actually understand the theology the Duggars are a part of some of the story begins to make a lot more sense. I’m not saying their theology caused the problem. Cause and effect is very difficult to prove and I’m not going there.
However, I do believe the dangerous and unbiblical views and culture of the Christian “patriarchy” movement likely contributed to the problem. And these are views Christians need to be made aware of for their own protection.
The Duggars are part of Advanced Training Institute (ATI), founded by Bill Gothard. At least two dozen women have accused Gothard of sexual harassment or abuse. The Duggars also had a “close relationship” with Doug Phillips Vision Forum, according to Christian Post. A sex scandal forced Phillips to resign and Vision Forum to shut down in 2013. These groups share viewpoints about men and women that I (and many others) would refer to as patriarchy. The atmosphere the groups cultivate are authoritarian, patriarchal and oppressive.
Raw Story ran a piece written by Wende Benner, a former ATI member and writer at Homeschoolers Anonymous. In it Benner shows how ATI teaches and counsels about sexual abuse and puts the responsibility for abuse on the victim, demands that they forgive the abuser and not allow any bitterness to spring up, further compounding the shame and increasing the fear and preventing true healing.
Micah J. Murray also grew up what he refers to as Gothard’s “cult.” His family used ATI curriculum beginning in first grade. He also spent two years living and volunteering at a Training Center. He writes, “During my two years working at the Cult center after highschool, I saw a system of absolute authoritarianism – designed to protect ‘leaders’ and silence ‘rebellion’. I saw an organization built on the ‘special insights’ and the idiosyncratic whims of an old man with way too much money and power.” His post also links to the document that shows how ATI counselors were trained to handle sexual abuse so you can see for yourself how they are taught to treat the issue in a way that protects perpetrators and harms victims.
Theologically, the teachings are also unsound and rely on extreme Bible-twisting (such as the “wives submit to your husbands” passages) and heaps tons of additional rules on top (especially rules for modesty and purity).
Benner writes, “This toxic system of beliefs originated with Bill Gothard, a man who had to resign from his own ministry last year when faced with dozens of allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. Even though Michelle and Jim Bob were aware of this, they still continued to use these teaching in their home and promote them using their fame. They also continued to speak and teach at the annual ATI family conferences. They have failed to see how their own system of belief has contributed to the devastation in their own family and in the ministry they promote.”
I think trying to blame ATI for causing the abuse would be going too far, but I think it is clear that the teaching promoted by ATI fosters an environment that re-victimizes rather than protects sexual assault victims and protects abusers and that must be part of this conversation. I think it also helps explain how the Duggars might not comprehend the seriousness of sexual abuse and how to handle it.
Janet Mefferd: Questions, Questions: What I would have asked the Duggars
Recovering Grace (former Gothard/ATI members expose IBLP and ATI)