The Front against Child Sex Abuse Expands to the Family: Josh Duggar, the Duggars, and What Every Family Should Know about Incest

By Marci A. Hamilton
The Verdict
May 28, 2015

The war against child sex abuse received an infusion of weapons and power when the Boston Globe revealed the pattern of the cover-up by the Catholic hierarchy in 2001. With horror, the world witnessed secondhand the bishops shuffling pedophiles among parishes and fresh child victims. That same pattern has emerged in state after state, like Pennsylvania, where Philadelphia District Attorneys Lynne Abraham and Seth Williams put together thorough documentation in 2005 and 2011 Grand Jury Reports, and Minnesota, where statute of limitations reform has opened the door to the justice system that in turn has revealed the specifics of the cover-up. The unfolding story has also been told in Australia and Ireland.

These revelations painted a paradigm of adults letting children be abused by other adults. I call it “adult preferentialism.” As adults, we are persuaded that our interests (e.g., reputations and jobs and relationships) are much more important than the needs of children. We worry about the long-lasting effects on our reputations, but expect the kids to “get over it.” It is shocking when revealed, but that paradigm has played itself out in one venue after another since 2001, including (1) multiples of religious organizations from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the ultra-Orthodox Jews, and (2) sports programs from Penn State football to Olympic swimming and speedskating.

Then elite private schools like Poly Prep and Horace Mann came into the spotlight, as well as public schools. Horace Mann is in the news this week because a coalition of alumnae and experts like Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder, Charol Shakeshaft, and I banded together to find a way to make sure the serial abuse at Horace Mann and the institution’s hardhearted response did not happen at any other private schools. The Horace Mann Action Coalition issued a scathing report this week, replete with important guidelines for private schools.

The Irony Underlying All of these Revelations About Child Sex Abuse: Most Abuse Happens in the Home

While we learned about, discussed, and reacted to the abuse in all of these “safe” venues, the abuse that occurs the most remained unspoken: Incest. There was a time when all sex abuse discussions were taboo; that taboo has persisted with respect to family-on-family abuse. Incest is the last frontier for child sex abuse.

These victims are in many ways the most vulnerable, because they rely for the very roof over their heads and the food on their tables on family members who are either perpetrating the abuse or not rescuing them from it. Not to mention the love of family: We have a cultural expectation (for realists, a hope) that children are in safe, loving homes. That is obviously not true when a parent or both are alcoholics or drug addicts. But when the issue is child sex abuse, it usually remains undercover, often quite literally. The child does not understand this is not a normal childhood, suffers shame and humiliation, and the abuse persists right in front of the people closest to the victim.

The Duggar Moment of Public Education on the Reality of Incest

This week, the Duggar family of TLC reality show infamy became the vehicle for the public to start focusing on sibling (and other familial) incest. The Duggars are part of the Christian Patriarchy movement, which counsels that men are the heads of the household, birth control is prohibited, and women should bear as many children as their bodies can stand. In addition, they deliver pious instructions to their young people that suitors may not engage in intimacy—of any kind. (A “side hug”, however, is not considered intimate.)

In this context, Josh Duggar sexually abused five of his sisters. While that is bad enough, that was not the sole issue the public needs to examine. In addition, his father, Jim Bob, covered it up, and the family faith counseled the traditional, religious, and victim-shaming response to such crimes: Forgive and forget.

The hypocrisy of the Duggars’ no-intimacy-before-marriage message after Jim Bob and Michelle knew that their son had sexually abused his sisters in their home is breathtaking. I feel abidingly sad for these girls. The Duggar parents said show after show that girls who have intimate relations with boys before marriage are dirty and unattractive. It reminds me of the abused girls in ultra-Orthodox Jewish homes, where girls have been treated like damaged goods because they were abused. In both communities, girls are trained to believe that marriage is the highest goal, and purity is a pre-requisite to the best marriage. What is a girl to believe in that context?

Moreover, the “forgive and forget” theme is precisely the wrong message to victims, and to young perpetrators like Josh. Studies show that appropriate treatment of an abuser before he or she reaches age 18 radically increases the odds that the abuser will never do it again. The same is not true for youthful abusers who do not receive this treatment.

This was not the first brush this movement has had with sex abuse recently. Leader Bill Gothard was involved in sexual harassment misconduct that involved underage girls and had to step down. Rule of thumb: Male-dominated institutions where men are unaccountable (e.g., Catholic bishops, ultra-Orthodox rabbis, the prophets of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, and men in the Christian Patriarchy movement) mean more suffering for women and less safety for children.

From a public education perspective, the important moment in the Duggar scandal is this: It is the first time that major national media publicity has spotlighted revelations that a brother sexually abused multiple girls in his own family. This time, the focus has lasted long enough for the millions of family victims to hear that their abuse and suffering need not be secret forever. Finally, the public has been shown the reality that abuse happens in families, that they cover it up, that public declarations of “purity” can be false, and that the victims can remain voiceless and faceless as they have with the Duggars. I hope that this reality does not sit well with the public.

Every Victim Who Speaks Can and Often Does Embolden Another

One constant in these ongoing revelations and public education about child sex abuse has been that when one victim stands up or when the public learns about abuse in a new setting, other victims are often emboldened to step into the light from the shadow of shame and humiliation. They hear and see that we as a society blame the perpetrator and institution, not them. They deserve our sympathy and support, not the judgment they have unconsciously expected. In short, it was not their fault. They were kids.

While the Duggar girls have every right to choose when to speak about their abuse, if ever, other survivors are taking this moment to speak up. Accordingly, it is good to see the #CallThemOut social media movement; survivors are increasingly refusing to keep secret the abusers in the inner circles of their families and classrooms.

I expect that the Duggar disclosures will stir many among the millions of incest victims in the United States to step up. When they do, they may well protect the next generation of children, because the child abuser who starts with one family member not infrequently moves on to another, as Josh Duggar apparently did. This can go on sometimes for generations. Adult abusers don’t age out of their abusive tendencies, and they rarely disclose if they can avoid it.

Sadly, the justice system did nothing to redress what Josh Duggar did, in part due to the inadequacies of the Arkansas statute of limitations. A court has destroyed the records, and the report was made too late for prosecutors to go forward, according to them. Instead, the Duggar family profited from the secrets kept while Americans were misled into thinking that their “purity” was real.

What good can come of the Duggar story? We can’t help victims we cannot see. The paradigm of covering up abuse in religious and educational institutions can now be seen in the family. The public needed to hear this message, as well as the message that being righteously religious does not guarantee child safety.

I hope that many more will now be able to see the incest victims silently situated in their abuse and find ways to help them. It is on each and every one of us to ensure the safety of children across all faiths, cultures, jurisdictions, and, yes, even families.








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