Monday, May 25, 2015

A Christian's Response to the Discovery of Abuse

Okay, so I haven't written about anything controversial on this here blog yet. That changes now, because I am all het up over something (and no, I don't know why I suddenly sound like an old-timey cowboy. I'll stop now.)

The Duggar family of TV fame has been forced to respond to allegations that one of their sons, Josh Duggar, molested several underage girls, including his own sisters. Josh Duggar has admitted the abuse and resigned from his position at Family Research Council. He and his parents have released statements, but since the statute of limitations in Arkansas is three years after the incident, he will face no criminal charges. Here is a thoughtful blog post about this story:

Really, I could just copy and paste that post with added underlines and capital letters and monosyllabic exclamations of agreement in parentheses throughout, but because I want to develop my ability to analyze situations and think through them clearly, here goes.

At the time the Duggars learned about the incidents, they handled the situation completely wrongly. And they are still approaching it in a way that is inappropriate--no, it is WRONG and--dare I say it--DANGEROUS.

Please allow me to elaborate. First, I understand as a parent and a church leader, how tempting it is to hide such a discovery rather than report it to the proper authorities. In our society, child molestation is arguably the worst crime a person can commit. They likely couldn't stand the thought of their son being labeled for all the world to see as a hideous monster (ironically, this is what is happening now that the truth has come out.) We all know that child molesters are at the bottom of the prison pecking order, below even imprisoned cops in the prisoners' minds.* In the Duggars' minds, all those years ago, given the evangelical culture they surrounded themselves with, they were doing the right thing.

Here's why they were wrong.

1. They hid the evidence of the abuse. 

The Duggars thought they were doing the right thing (although once you discover your 14-year-old son is sexually abusing young girls, you don't start off with a stern, "Don't do that again." What was next--GROUNDING him?) Eventually they sent him away in an effort to prevent further occurrences. However, even this action was inadequate and harmful.

It appears that despite their statement that they had sent Josh to a "program" where he received "counseling," they actually sent him to live with a family friend who needed help with doing some remodeling. Because that's how you cure a teenage child molester, with some good old-fashioned manual labor, am I right?

The Duggars are probably not completely lying (though I would argue they are being intentionally disingenuous, which amounts to the same thing.) In the evangelical Christian world, "counseling" doesn't always mean "a series of sessions with a trained professional." It can also mean "one talk with a 'wise' elder." (The quotation marks around "wise" are there because I obviously don't think this was wise.) This was likely their intention by having Josh talk with yet another family friend who was a state trooper. "Don't do that, it's a sin and if you keep doing it and your parents can't hide the evidence, you'll go to jail." Boom, done.

No, it was ILLEGAL. State troopers are required to report any evidence of child abuse to the proper authorities for investigation. The friend should have said to Jim Bob, "Nope, sorry, I now have to tell the state this happened. And how dare you ask me to cover it up?" Maybe the trooper's willingness to sweep the incident under the rug has something to do with the fact that he was deeply involved in (and later convicted of possessing) child pornography? 

(The irony. It burns. From a purely Christian perspective, the Duggars' "discernment of spirits" spiritual gift was an epic fail.)

It's an unfortunate example of a Christian pattern of hiding criminal behavior and saying we are dealing with it privately, when in fact there are reasons why it should NOT be dealt with secretly within the family and church. Also, there are plenty of examples in the Bible which make it clear what God thinks about people who sin and lie about it. Hint: they involve being struck down dead instantly. Sometimes I wish God still did that. I would be a vengeful God, which is probably why I'm not God.

2. Christians are not above the law.

A lot of non-Christians are (understandably) offended by the Duggars' use of the words "mercy" and "grace." This is what happens when Christians start throwing around spiritual words in a case like this, where a man is being forced to admit that he did wrong although he was never punished by the justice system. To these people--and I would think especially to victims of abuse--it sounds like Josh Duggar  is saying, "Yeah, I admit I violated those girls as a kid. But I told Jesus I'm sorry, and he's totally cool with it, so you should be, too!"

No, I am not cool with it or willing to let you off the hook, bro, and neither should any Christian.

I see it like this: there are spiritual and non-spiritual elements to every wrongdoing. As a Christian, do I believe that God's grace extends to anyone who sincerely asks for it? Absolutely.

I also believe that God's grace has nothing to do with legal penalties. "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's," Jesus said, and I think that can extend beyond taxes into "OBEYING THE FREAKING LAW OF THE LAND." Fellow believers, WE ARE NOT ABOVE THE LAW. We may be free from the religious "law of sin and death," but that does not make us immune from the laws of the United States of America. Otherwise we could just rob a bank, repent, and say, "Oopsies! Oh well, I repented to God, so I don't have to give the money back or go to jail."

My father is a pastor, and I'm thankful that even years ago, he was light-years ahead of the Duggars. Upon learning that a member of his congregation was sexually abusing his child, my father prayed with him...but escorted him to the authorities to turn himself in, with the understanding that my dad was going to turn him in if he didn't do it himself.

Unfortunately, far too many pastors think the word "grace" is literally a get-out-of-jail-free card. It's like we're so invested in the idea of God's unlimited grace that we can't identify sinful behavior as also worthy of legal punishment. Some of our extended family had to leave a church because the pastor was allowing a convicted child molester to teach Sunday School.

Yeah. Let that sink in for a minute. And our family members (the wife is a survivor of sexual abuse) were told to leave because they were not forgiving enough to be okay with this.

Note to pastors everywhere: DO NOT DO THIS. If you do, you are guaranteeing that more children will be abused. You are creating a haven for the abuser.

tl;dr Just because God forgives someone, that does not mean that they are free from the consequences of their actions. Period.

3. As Christians, our responsibility is to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, and to provide proper treatment.

As a PK**, I know about another situation in which one of the children was discovered to have been molesting another one for years. The parents freaked out and first denied it ("Not in OUR family!" is a common denial response) and then swept it under the rug and pretended it didn't happen.

Just imagine how damaging that is to the victims of the abuse. They are being told in effect that they are lying, that their feelings and experiences don't matter. They are shown that the abuser's reputation is more important than their pain (because it affects the family reputation, and it's important to keep up the image of the "perfect" family. And in this case, the family's livelihood--being on TV pretending to be portraying a perfect family--is at stake.) So the victims are told to keep quiet. And because they are Christians, they are told to forgive their abuser.

There are a lot of things I could say, but this post is getting too long. So I'll just say this: forgiveness is not excusing an abuser, or allowing him to get away with his heinous behavior. This has happened far too often in the Church--because the Church is a hierarchical, male-dominated structure. The powerless victims--women and children--are often bullied into silence. And that, my fellow believers, should not be. Jesus said that anyone who harmed a "little one" would be better off if they hung a huge rock around their neck and drowned themselves. Sounds pretty definitive to me.

Maybe it's just my background in psychology, but my first reaction on hearing any story in which a minor child victimizes another is that both kids need serious therapy. Yes, the victim definitely does (which does not seem to have happened in the Duggar case, at least not for their girls--I don't know what action the other parents took). But so does the perpetrator, if there is to be any hope for prevention of recurrence. If a kid acts out sexually with other kids, it often means that they have been abused themselves, that they think sexual acts are "normal" because they have been exposed to sexuality at an age when they shouldn't be. On the other hand, a 14-year-old boy, feeling sexual desires for the first time, in a repressed subculture where such things aren't talked about openly, might very well do what Josh Duggar did without having being sexually abused himself. But no matter what, his actions were abnormal and wrong, and should be labeled as such.

Look, as a Christian I believe that we've all sinned and come short of the glory of God. And some days I'm super thankful that my shortcomings aren't being broadcast for the whole world to see.

(I also haven't chosen to put my family on TV as an example of a perfect Christian family. But I digress.)

I just believe it is time for Christians to stand up and call abuse wrong. And to let everyone know that it will not be excused and tolerated and allowed to flourish under cover of our churches. Does grace cover all our sins, even the very worst ones? Without a doubt. But make no mistake: the same Bible says, "Be sure your sins will find you out."

In the case of Josh Duggar, they certainly have. I just hate that the revelation took so many years, and that he will not receive the punishment he deserves, nor will there be measures taken to protect children who are left alone with him. In no possible world is this a good outcome.

*I have no idea if this is true or if I just got it from popular culture. It seems right that even murderers would look down on men who abuse children, though.

**Preacher's Kid, for you godless heathens out there (just kidding! I love godless heathens! Some of my best friends are godless heathens! Please don't yell at me!)



  1. This. Is. Brilliant.

    Thank you so much for writing this. I love your perspective (and your humour, "I would be a vengeful God, which is probably why I'm not God" - ha. I cracked up.)

    Also, as a godless heathen, I had no idea what "PK" stood for and was grateful for the explanatory footnote.

  2. Thank you! I'm thankful for all the awesome "godless heathens" in my world. Y'all help me remember that not everybody knows the Christian lingo--which in this case is important so Christians remember that we need to stand for what's right rather than robotically following the "automatic forgiveness" idea.

  3. I love you SO MUCH for writing this. Actually, I've been so glad (although completely unsurprised) about how my Christian friends have approached this issue, even though I know it's not fair to expect all Christians to speak up against the whacksack-of-crazy ones. I just CAN'T EVEN with the people saying "he was just a child himself" and "oh, like YOUR family is so perfect" and "if you would just read the Bible yourselves you'd see why you have no right to judge him." Like you said, render unto freaking Caesar (or whatever. :)) I have no problem at all with people of faith. I have BIG problems with people who use the banner of faith to justify hatred and hypocrisy. What would they be saying if he'd molested young boys instead? GAH, sorry, I will stop now. You rock.

  4. Fantastic perspective, Alison - I think you have really helped me clarify my own thoughts as to why, exactly, what they did just isn't right. The whole thing just makes me so sad - I feel for those girls. I hope now that the news is out, there will be help for them.

  5. OK. I accept several of your points as entirely legit, and I agree with them. It's absolutely true that when you choose to put your family life into the public eye like they did, you are accepting the fact that nothing you do, or have done, is private. And if we agree on that, then everything I say after this would be irrelevant if not for that significant error on the Duggar's part - particularly considering they had something they wanted to remain private.

    There are a couple of disagreements I have. For one, I see some potentially errant assumptions. For example, the idea that they were putting themselves out there as a "perfect family". While I don't share the Duggar's uber-conservative convictions, I do understand where they are coming from. They would claim, actually, the opposite - that they are imperfect moral beings that require faith, grace, and strict moral boundaries in order to avoid moral failure.

    And I have issues with the Monday morning QBing of the parenting that is being done. I do volunteer work with the juvenile court in my county. I understand what happens when parents report their child's sexual misbhavior into the legal system - and it's not all good. The moment a parent reports, they lose ALL control over what will happen to their child offender and their children-victims. The state essentially takes over the entire family. There is a continuum of sexually deviant behavior of adolescents that begins on the mild end with things like inapproapriate touching and goes to the severe end with things like violent, forced rape. Everything on that continuum is serious, but 85-90% of offenders on the mild end never re-offend, while the recitivism on the severe end is much higher. Certainly a parent should report things on the severe end, but knowing what I know, a parent would be a fool to report things on the mild end. The Duggars took parental action, took some steps to protect their daughters, and consulted with a few people like a state trooper friend. It didn't work. They then took him out of the home and sent him to a mentor. Regardless of what any of us think about that, it appeared to work. They say he came back a changed kid, but more importantly, there were no more reported offences after that (12 years and running). However, once he felt like his son had overcome his problems, his father made him go to the state police and report. The random trooper that took his statement chewed Josh out, but did not initiate an investigation as the law requires. The parents did everything I would have done, it appears to have worked, and it's hard for me to see where they acted unreasonably.

    In addition, it's very hard to say that they were "covering up" when they involved the number of people they involved. When the trooper's report was discovered, a full investigation was conducted. There were no legal charges (statute of limitations had run out), but DHS reportedly commended the family for how they handled the problem. Since no restrictions were placed or any action taken by DHS on the family, offender, or victims, this would indicate that they felt Josh was rehabilitated and the girls safe. If so, what else would you expect the parents to do? If your answer is "report immediately", then I think this is an example where it is very easy for us to tell another family to turn their family over to the system, but a completely different thing if we had to decide whether to do the same. I wouldn't - for this type and degree of problem - not in a million years. I don't think anyone that is familiar with the system would either, and neither would most of the people who condemn the Duggars for not doing it. It's something to chew on.