Last week we learned that Josh Duggar admitted to molesting five girls twelve years ago. InTouch Weekly broke the story, Josh offered his response to People Magazine, and the media is once again in a feeding frenzy over another Christian who has fallen.
Frankly, I’m not surprised that the media has rushed in. After all, the Duggars presented themselves as a model Christian family in their 19 Kids and Counting reality TV show.
Hoping to strike a sound balance that respects the Duggars and others who have weighed in on this moral crisis, I offer a basic case study that explores how cases like the Duggars need to be handled.
So what can we learn from this week’s revelation? A lot.
In my first batch of observations, I need to point out respectfully that the Duggars and their church elders failed to respond appropriately. They, like the rest of us Christians, are not above the law.
USA Today reported that Jim Bob Duggar waited more than a year before he contacted the police. As a father I understand that Jim Bob and his wife, Michelle, were in a horrible situation. You can hardly expect parents to turn their son into the authorities. It’s only natural that they wanted to protect Josh from harm, including the potential mismanagement of the situation by the authorities. Nevertheless, their failure to report this crime in a timely fashion, is where this train ran off the tracks.
By not reporting Josh to the authorities, the Duggars essentially blocked the victims from getting professional counseling. Let me explain.
By over-protecting Josh, Jim Bob and Michelle under-protected the five girls Josh molested. Stated differently, if Jim Bob and Michelle had secured the therapy the girls needed, the professional counselor serving the girls would have made a mandatory report to Child Protective Services that would have outed Josh.
News reports have indicated that four of the five girls were Josh’s sisters, so apparently the parents of the fifth girl kept the secret as well.
If the Duggars or their church elders had contacted me, I would have met them with compassion, and assured them that I would help them through what would prove to be a difficult journey.
I would have explained to the Duggars that as a mandatory reporter, I would make a timely report to CPS (that session, for example), and I would have invited them to be on the phone with me when I made the call.
I would have disclosed the facts as I understood them to the authorities, and the Duggars could have helped me clarify what had actually happened.
And before hanging up, I would have told the CPS professional that obviously the Duggars had taken the first step to remediate a difficult situation. Along with my affirmation of the Duggars for doing ‘the next right thing’, I would have commended the CPS worker for his or her professionalism, and asked them to include in their report that the Duggar family was already seeking professional counsel.
Before leaving this topic of mandatory reporting, I need to mention that depending on state laws in Arkansas, the church elders were probably mandatory reporters also. Mandatory reporting usually falls on any adult in a leadership position who gains knowledge or reasonable concern that a minor has been abused.
In the event the elders were not technically required by civil law to report their knowledge of Josh’s sins and crimes against five underage girls, I would have reminded them that they have a higher law to follow; a moral and ethical responsibility to work with God-appointed authorities.
InTouch reported the Duggars claimed they sent Josh to a “Christian program” for four months, and that the program consisted of hard work and counseling. Later Michelle admitted to the police that Josh was sent to work in a family friend’s remodeling business. Obviously, their arrangement was woefully inadequate and inappropriate.
Sexual abuse of a minor is one of life’s greatest wounds, and it requires utmost respect for the children affected by the perpetrator.
Back in my office, had I been with Jim Bob and Michelle, I would have advised them to think of a married couple, without children, that Josh could live with. I would have reminded them that by taking the necessary steps to rectify the situation and to prevent further harm, they would be demonstrating to CPS a responsible attitude.
In my experience of more than twenty-five years, I’ve found that CPS professionals appreciate the fact that my clients and I know what needs to happen and have already begun to make the right choices. Typically, the CPS professionals have been satisfied to learn that the offending party will be living with other family members or another couple that the parents trust.
I would have also explained to Josh that we weren’t going to throw him under the bus, but that his aggressive behaviors have serious and logical consequences that include protecting minors (some of whom were his sisters), and protecting himself from an environment where he might be triggered or tempted to act out.
So far the news coverage hasn’t mentioned if Josh was suffering with an addiction to pornography at the time he molested five girls. But, frankly, I suspect that he was.
In my experience, pornography is the catalyst that ignites this kind of behavior. And with the rapid influx of Internet pornography, I’ve seen a significant increase of incestuous sex abuse in conservative to moderate Christian families.
Had I found that Josh struggled with sex or porn addiction, I would targeted this condition for extensive treatment that addressed the whole person – body, mind, and spirit. I would have attempted to discern where he was in his faith. If not yet a Christian, I would have shared with him the good news that Christ redeems. Had Josh expressed faith in Christ, I would asked if he had learned to place an equal amount of faith in the Holy Spirit. I would have wanted him to see that Christians can sin just like non-Christians whenever we forget our dependency on the Comforter who helps us to abide in Christ.
As a professional therapist I would have also given him a personality test, the MMPI-A, hoping to learn more about his personality.
In all of this work with Josh, whether he had been exposed and/or addicted to pornography or not, I would have wanted to show him that his behaviors were “just the tip of the iceberg,” and that we must get beneath the surface of his behaviors to overcome the drivers.
I’ve read that Josh apologized to his victims, and that they forgave him. As a Christian, I know this is an important step in the healing process.
However, perpetrators of sexual abuse rarely realize the gravity and magnitude of their sins and crimes. In fact, one of the treatment goals for the perpetrator is the developmental acquisition of victim empathy. In most cases, it takes considerable time for the perpetrator to really own what he has done, and to be ready to offer genuine restitution.
So if I had been serving Josh in brief intensive therapy, I would have helped him explore the gravity of his behaviors. I would have also walked him through a four step self-examination where he evalutated his behaviors, thoughts, emotions, and desires. Then I would have taken him through my Trauma Matrix™ so that he could begin to think about how he had injured his victims not only behaviorally, but psychologically and spiritually as well.
In separate sessions with the girls and their parents, I would have provided a safe place where they could begin to explore the gravity of their wounds. I would have reminded them that they weren’t to blame for Josh’s behaviors. Most likely I would have had to work hard to persuade them to open up because victims don’t want to cause trouble for their perpetrators and/or families.
As separate sessions with Josh and his victims continued, I would have helped him write a letter of apology where he accepted full responsibility for his actions, and I would have waited for a time when I felt the victims where ready to receive his letter.
I would have given the victims time to process Josh’s letter with their parents. Without rushing them through a list of dos and don’ts, I would have helped them think about how they wanted to respond, individually and collectively. We would have talked about the importance of forgiveness, and what it means. Eventually, I would have encouraged them to write letters to Josh where they vented their feelings, frustrations, and concerns. And, hopefully, each would have offered her forgiveness.
Finally, I would have reminded all parties that forgiveness extended and received does not equal trust. I would have pointed out that unconditional love is truly a Christian virtue, but that loving unconditionally doesn’t mean that it is wise to live unconditionally in relationship to a perpetrator.
Sadly, the Duggars have compromised their witness for Christ over the last twelve years. Josh’s behaviors and his parents’ failure to respond appropriately is forgivable, but their credibility is gone for the foreseeable future.
By hiding Josh’s active sins and by adding Jim Bob’s and Michelle’s passive sins to the mix, they not only compromised their standing in the Christian community, but they betrayed numerous individuals in the conservative movement.
Take for example, Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council. I doubt that FRC would have hired Josh had he told them the truth about his past mistakes.
In all of this, I’m reminded of the recovery adage that we’d all do well to remember, “We’re only as sick as our secrets.”
My heart goes out to the Duggars, and to anyone directly effected by what has happened. None of us dare feel “holier than thou” or pretend that we’re perfect.
I hope the Duggars, and any other families involved, will get the help they so desperately need. I hope their church leaders will get educated on how they can still be a part of the solution, if they’re willing to learn what they need to do and not do.
For this moment, the secular media will do what it does: wring out every ounce of news possible. This is a sensational case. Once again, many in the secular community will highlight the hypocrisy in our Christian community.
As one who loves Christ, I hope we will meet the secular community with his humility. Our larger Christian community has considerable moments of hypocrisy. In fact, the legalism and moralism we’re known for compromises our collective witness for Christ. We still have much to learn, both as Christians and as people.
Josh is not the first Christian to fall into serious sexual sins, and he certainly won’t be the last. Now we’re left to ask ourselves; are we ready to humble ourselves and seek the transformation in the Spirit that is our spiritual birthright in Christ? Or will we keep on repeating the same mistakes, hoping for different results?