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.