Since TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting first premiered in 2008, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar have amazed their less fecund audience members with their ability to “extreme parent” nine girls and 10 boys. For 10 seasons, viewers—either in admiration or guilty-pleasure gawking—have watched the large brood live their lives according to evangelical Christian values, which include the total submission of women, sexual purity, homeschooling, and adherence to a particular sect known as the Quiverfull movement, which (among other principles) eschews all forms of birth control.
But just two years before the show aired, according to a police report unearthed by In Touch, the family was involved with police in an investigation of their oldest son, Josh, for the alleged molestation of at least five underage girls—including his own sisters—starting in 2002 when he was around 14. A flurry of admissions and apologies followed the news yesterday, from Josh, his parents and his wife, and Josh resigned from his position as executive director of FRC Action, the lobbying arm of the evangelical Family Research Council. TLC announced Friday it was pulling the show off the air.
For those less acquainted with Quiverfull and the reports of alleged sexual abuse inside the movement by ex-fundamentalists, the allegations were shocking, and dulled the shine on a family that seemed to be perfect. For others, the allegations and Josh’s seeming admission and apology only confirm that the patriarchal religious movement can be both a breeding ground and hiding place for this type of crime.
The Duggars have come out in support of 27-year-old Josh, telling People magazine, “When Josh was a young teenager, he made some very bad mistakes, and we were shocked. We had tried to teach him right from wrong. That dark and difficult time caused us to seek God like never before.”
Though it’s never hit so close to home, the family has been embroiled in a similar controversy before. Bill Gothard—the 80-year-old, never-married founder of the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP) and the Advanced Training Institute (ATI), the homeschooling methods used and promoted by the Duggars—was accused of sexual harassment by over 30 women, allegations over which he later resigned and half-apologized for, but was never criminally charged. It was, in fact, during the Duggars’ annual trip to the ATI conference that Josh met his wife, Anna. The Duggars have been quiet on the accusations against Gothard, but are still very much adherents of his teachings and are scheduled to appear at an IBLP conference later this month.
And in November 2013, a longtime friend and mentor of the Duggars, Doug Phillips—then-president of Vision Forum Ministries, and perhaps most important, leader of the Duggars’ extreme fundamentalist sect, which awarded Michelle their “mother of the year” award—was accused of sexual assault by a woman he claimed to be his mistress. The alleged victim noted in her complaint that “Phillips’s patriarchal movement teaches that men are, and should be, in the absolute control of women.” Phillips, who has denied that their relationship was nonconsensual, was excommunicated from the church he founded. His civil case is still pending.
Though they circle the wagons when it comes to defense of their own, the Duggars have been outspoken advocates of protecting children when it’s a question of assault from the secular world. Last year, the Duggar matriarch recorded a robocall warning voters of Fayetteville, Arkansas, against a bill that would allow trans women to use the women’s bathroom.
“I doubt that Fayetteville parents would stand for a law that would endanger their daughters or allow them to be traumatized by a man joining them in their private space. We should never place the preference of an adult over the safety and innocence of a child,” she said. “I still believe that we are a society that puts women and children first…”
Within the Duggars’ religious ideology, “putting women and children first,” means putting them on a pedestal, policing and protecting them while stripping them of all autonomy.
Indeed, submission is the most important tenet in the Christian Patriarchy movement. “Men are to be leaders, teachers, initiators, protectors and providers,” former Quiverfull adherent, and now a vocal opponent, Vyckie Garrison explains on her blog. “Women are created to be ‘helpmeets’ to the men in authority over them (husbands, fathers, older brothers) ~ they are to be submissive and yielding.”
As Kathryn Joyce recounts in her book, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, even before marriage young women are taught that men will soon rule over them. In Joyce’s retelling, the wife of now-excommunicated pastor Doug Phillips asked a group of young women, “Are you ready to do the most vulnerable thing that a woman ever can do and submit yourself to a man, who you are going to have to follow in his faith, who is incredibly imperfect and is going to make mistakes? Can you do that? Can you call your husband ‘Lord’? If the answer is no, you shouldn’t get married.”
Michelle Duggar lives this principle, even trumpeting complete submission to her husband’s sexual desires—should she want it or not—as a secret to her happy marriage.
It’s not impossible to imagine how abuse might go unreported in a world in which women are told to submit to their fathers and brothers and husbands and taught to be ashamed of their own bodies.
Young Duggars don’t “date,” they “court.” They don’t explore their emotional and physical attractions: those are sins. It’s not only premarital sex that’s prohibited, but also flirting or physical affection of any kind. In fact Jessa Duggar was the subject of much controversy last year when she “full frontal” hugged her fiancé following his marriage proposal instead of the “side hug” for which the family had become famous. Even the betrothed are sent on dates with chaperones. Jobs and college are discouraged for women because of the sexual dangers lurking in the secular world.
With so much attention focused on the the sexual dangers posed by strangers, little attention in the Quiverfull movement has been paid to charges of molestation or abuse from within. Women “faced with sexually predatory behavior from family members or trusted authority figures often find themselves in a no-man’s-land of confusion and trained submission, without the tools to identify or object to the behavior,” writes one former member on Recovering Grace.
Not only are women taught to guard their own sexual purity, it is ingrained that women are responsible for the purity of men. Their dress, their behavior, their inherent womanliness are all stumbling blocks for hapless men.
As a former child adherent to the Christian Patriarchy movement wrote: “I was told that if a man looked at my body and lusted that it was because I had worn clothing that was ‘defrauding.’ This may sound crazy but I took this very seriously. I didn’t want to cause my ‘brothers’ to stumble. The (false) guilt was ingrained and strong; I remember calling men and apologizing for what I wore around them.”
On modesty, Michelle Duggar echoed this sentiment on her show, telling viewers she learned after her conversion that “I needed to cover areas of myself so that I wasn’t causing others to be defrauded.”
And of course men are taught this, too: How female temptresses can lure them away from their God-prescribed paths. Even in his apology, Josh Duggar treats the possibility of any future revelations by his alleged victims as just obstacles to his bright future.
“Twelve years ago, as a young teenager, I acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret. I hurt others, including my family and close friends,” he sent to People in a statement. “I confessed this to my parents, who took several steps to help me address the situation. We spoke with the authorities where I confessed my wrongdoing, and my parents arranged for me and those affected by my actions to receive counseling. I understood that if I continued down this wrong road that I would end up ruining my life.”
As for his alleged victims, Josh tell People that he “sought forgiveness from those I had wronged” and we’re left with the impression that the girls, now women whose names have been redacted by reports to protect their anonymity, have granted it. But in a strict religion where forgiveness is expected and women and children are submissive, abuse is often glossed over and victims may rarely be made whole.
“Often we see in communities of faith that victims are admonished to be grace-like, offering instant forgiveness to their abuser as if it could be doled out like a trinket or candy,” writes Mary DeMuth, a sexual abuse survivor, in The Washington Post. “Instant forgiveness and ‘putting it behind you’ only delays the healing process, a journey that only begins by stating the awfulness of the violation.”
We can’t know how exactly the alleged awfulness—which, according to the police report, involved Josh “sneaking into” girls’ room at night and “touching” their “breasts and vaginal areas” and fondling others as they sat on the couch or stood in the laundry room—was handled, but it is clear that the response to molestation and incest allegations was to keep it secret, to deal with it within the religious and growing biological family.
According to the police report, after several victims came to Jim Bob Duggar to complain about Josh’s “inappropriate touching,” the family head went to the church elders, who agreed Josh should seek counseling. Handling accusations of sexual abuse within the Christian church is, of course, routine though hardly unique to the Christian Patriarchy.
Fearing proximity to “real” offenders, the Duggars instead sent Josh to stay with a family friend in Little Rock, where he did manual labor and read the Bible. Jim Bob told investigators in 2006 that upon Josh’s return four months later, all had been “resolved.”
Jim Bob Duggar did alert police roughly a year after the incident, taking Josh to a family friend who happened to be a state trooper, where the boy was given a “stern talk.” By the time police were made aware of the allegations in 2006, the three-year statute of limitations had already run out, so no charges against Josh were filed.
But repercussions are surely coming. Besides Josh’s resignation from his post at the FRC, fans of the TLC property are calling hypocrisy and asking the network to cancel the show. While TLC has yet to make an official announcement, it seems clear that the Duggars will no longer be able to present themselves as a mainstream, more-the-merrier Christian family while practicing a religion built on a patriarchal structure that leads to abuse against its women and acts as a refuge for their perpetrators.