The Duggars Point to a Bigger Problem in the Church

Reality star Josh Duggar is at the center of a scandal this week after a tabloid uncovered the fact that he sexually assaulted five girls when he was 14 (some of the girls were his sisters).  No doubt, this has been the hardest week of Josh Duggar’s life, but I can’t imagine how much harder it has been for his victims.

Much of the controversy revolves around the response by Josh’s parents, who are conservative Christians.  They addressed the crime privately at first.  A year later, they told the elders of their church.  And four months after that, they told a family friend, who was a policeman, and he gave Josh “a very stern talk.”

If social media is any indicator, many Christians think the Duggars handled the situation appropriately.  These folks not only support the Duggars, they’re exasperated by those who demand accountability for the way the situation was handled.  And in all the discussing, there are a couple of areas where many of the Duggars’ defenders are particularly tone deaf.

1.  They don’t think what Josh Duggar did was that big of a deal.  

I was reading through some comments on Christianity Today‘s Facebook page, and noticed some commenters repeatedly arguing that the situation was over for everyone involved.  Along those lines, a woman named Melanie quite frankly said, “He did not rape them.  I read that he ‘fondled’ them in their sleep.  They all had therapy, and have healed, and apparently, have moved on.”

Although Melanie gets the facts wrong about what actually happened to the girls, she at least manages to come right out and essentially say what some folks are thinking: “He didn’t penetrate – he just touched their breasts and vaginas.  They’ll be okay.”

If this reflects your view, please understand how misguided this line of thinking is.  I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a number of people who have been sexually abused as children; and I can tell you this: regardless of how far the sexual contact with a child goes, it rattles victims to the core, oftentimes leaving the child to deal with years of shame and inner turmoil.

As I mentioned in my article, “The Right Time to Tell My Darkest Secret,” for 20 years, I couldn’t even put words to my experience with sexual abuse.  And even after I did, it took me 13 more years to heal.  This isn’t uncommon for survivors of sexual abuse; so please understand that regardless of whether someone’s experience with sexual assault involved penetration, we have an obligation to understand the deep damage it does and not marginalize it.

2.  We think it’s okay for churches to handle these things internally.

If you look at the timeline of what happened, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the Duggars, their policeman friend, and their church all thought it was appropriate to handle the matter privately.  Sadly enough, this is common.

According to former child abuse prosecutor Boz Tchividjian, he “often encounter[s] professing Christians who struggle with whether they should first report suspected child abuse to the civil authorities.”  He says there are still many churches that believe this kind of thing can be handled in-house, despite the existence of mandatory reporting laws.

This reminds me of the way inner-city communities have unofficial policies against snitching.  Even when everyone knows a crime has been committed, they don’t trust law enforcement to do its job, so everyone keeps quiet and leaves it up to the community to work it out.  Being a former criminal prosecutor myself, I get frustrated with anti-snitching policies in communities because they enable criminals and make victims even more vulnerable.  In my opinion, unofficial church policies that support hiding sexual crimes are no different.

If there’s any place in the world where children should feel safe, it ought to be within Christian families and churches.  And that’s why, whenever that trust is breached by sexual assault, we, of all people, should take it most seriously and be the first to report it to civil authorities.  Unfortunately though, the fact that we’re even having this discussion shows how far the church still has to go in this area.

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  1. Graeme Phillips

    Firstly, I am thankful that I cannot speak from experience about what it feels like to be on the receiving end of sexual molestation. However, I may have been missing some details here.

    Firstly, I am not aware of large numbers of people claiming Josh Duggar’s actions are not that big a deal, though he was 14 at the time and the statute of limitations has since expired. Fondling people is not one of my mistakes from my immaturity at the age of 14, though there are many others. This doesn’t diminish how his victims may have felt, but I have a certain reluctance to hold this against him this far down the line.

    Secondly, I may have been missing a trick here, but I recall the Duggar family sent him away for hard labour and a state trooper was waiting for him on his return. Though we can fault them for their precise sequence of steps, we cannot fault them for resorting to both internal and external discipline.

    My church’s sex offenders policy is that forgiveness is available in Christ as for any other sin, but that if someone is known to be past a sex offender (note the word past), the deal is they can fully participate in the life of the church, but they don’t attend things where large numbers of children congregate (i.e. Sunday School) and their names are known only to a few elders and the pastors.


    1. Your church’s policy of keeping the congregation from knowing who the former sex predators are is incredibly naïve. There is an extremely high recidivism rate among child sex predators. I hope families in your church are aware of this policy, because it endangers their children.



      1. Graeme Phillips

        My church has been in existence in some form for getting on for 400 years and has been running a Sunday School (currently the biggest in our city) for probably almost as long. It has also published a book on best practice for how to run a Sunday School, covering various aspects of maintaining discipline amongst both children and staff (I will supply the title).

        We have weaknesses as a church, but naïveté about these issues is not one of them.

        Lots of thought to express on this issue, but I will take this offline, as there is too much to say.


  2. Brandie

    Hi Joshua, I did watch and read your post about telling your secret. As someone who dearly loves numerous survivors of sexual abuse and who has seen it mishandled and appropriately handled both inside and outside of the church I appllaud you for breaking the silence on your behalf and on behalf of the issue of mishandling abuse situations inside of the church. I wanted to make a few comments based on my personal experience with being in close proximity to far more of these situations than I can even believe-I assure you I never remained silent in the situations I became aware of and in all actuality the mishandling of sexual abuse situations and sexual fornication situations in my home church became a major factor in my deciding to leave as I could not respect leadership who couldn’t do better on those situations than what they had done-we can’t afford a lack of leadership or ignorance in areas that are of that much importance. First of all as a prosecutor you know that the court of social media is not an appropriate court-as no one in it has the refined facts. As the church we are supposed to set a good example for the lost world and should be held to a higher standard but I assure you this in not a church problem this is a society problem-across the board society has epically failed to appropriately address sexual abuse and what actions to take to report it, prevent it, and provide therapy for both the victims and perpetrators. It’s an old school mentality that does nothing but allow perpetrators to continue. Once sexual abuse is exposed silence is agreement and a sin period. However…I once asked a victim of horrific repeated sexual abuse who speaks publicly about her abuse and her path to healing from it, whose mother was the assistant chief of police and who went ballistic when she found out about her daughters abuse and made it into a legal situation did that bring her some sense of justice or peace or whatever-her response surprised me-she said it actually made it much worse. She said the publicity of it, everyone becoming aware was just as bad. I think for some survivors whose abuse was never taken to police they believe that it would have been so much better and made things so much more right-but that has not proven to be true. We have to prosecute the abusers, we have to expose them to protect the public but we must, must protect the victims from any further trauma or victimization. The In Touch reporters did not have justice in their hearts when they published this story-I will go so far as to say they have violated the victims as much as Josh ever did-and that every blog post on the subject no matter how well intentioned is a further explotation of them. It’s so out there now that there’s not a shelter in the world for those girls except Jesus. As a conservative female I can only imagine the horror they feel as they try to absorb that every person on the planet now knows their secret not because they told it on their own terms but because as they had already so horrificly experienced someone reached across the barrier of decency and violated and exposed them all over again. While everyone is glaring at the Duggers who though flawed did attempt to do something the In “Touch” MOLESTERS are just counting their cash and looking for their next victim. Josh Dugger is facing the music and again answering for his crimes.


  3. Sally Henderson

    I agree. The “In Touch” team made this worse for the victims, and showed no consideration for them at all.


  4. […] As Joshua stressed last week, it’s essential to report child sex abuse.  You can’t solve this type of problem on your own—you need to get a professional involved, and if you work with children in any capacity, you are required by law to report any reasonable suspicion of child sexual abuse.  As Christian adults, we also need to put our own fears, discomfort, and reputation aside to fight this dark evil.  By working with professionals trained to deal with child sex abuse, you are more likely to best protect the interests of the child, follow the legal and best protocol available, and help the child and all involved receive the assistance and healing they need. […]


  5. jandjcreative2013

    it’s idolatry, when you LOVE your children more than God you will fail to do what is required. it’s understandable no one wants their child to go to jail. but if jail is where God is calling me or them to go, go they must bc it causes the whole church and community to be defiled unfortunately this is easy say hard to do. imagine the diggers or anyone’s whose a prominent Christian ‘role model’s what Josh did was Very costly to their cause to push large families and Christian values on tv. however God cares not..we constantly sacrifice our children on the altar of success bc it cost of punishment seems entirely too high. but unfortunately as Christian we must serve Christ even if it means putting before your own children. no one is perfect, but I’d bet ppl who have more respect for the diggers had they turned their son in. but I wouldn’t judge bc that is a very very hard decision and one I’m sure many parents would have a hard time doing. saving self or putting Christ first.


  6. jandjcreative2013

    duggers sorry, #autocorrect so no one is condoning abuse but put yourself in their shoes. I mean it’s Very easy to be self righteous and say what we would never do, but we aren’t in their situations. I’ve known ppl who would throw their children to the wolves if it was the right one is immune.


  7. […] The Duggars Point to a Bigger Problem in the Church […]


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