The hit US reality TV series 19 Kids and Counting, now in its 10th season, is built around the Duggar family, whose parents Jim Bob and Michelle have brought their many children up according to a strictly conservative religious ethic.
They don't allow their children to wear revealing clothing and practise 'chaperoned courtship' in which no physical contact is allowed. They are strict disciplinarians who have also become spokespeople for conservative causes such as the campaign against same-sex marriage, opposition to abortion and home-schooling children.
Now, however, one of the children – Josh Duggar, now married with three children – has been found to have molested five girls, reportedly some of his own sisters among them, when he was a teenager more than 10 years ago, in 2002-3. The case had expired under the statute of limitations by the time it was reported to the police in 2006 and the police report itself was ordered destroyed by a judge last week, though it has been widely leaked on the internet.
The revelations have caused the TLC network to pull the show. Yesterday a key sponsor, General Mills, pulled its advertising from future airings of the series saying it was "deeply saddened and troubled" by the situation, while petitions at Change.org have called on TLC to cancel the programme. Whether 19 Kids and Counting can survive is open to question. Josh Duggar himself has resigned from his position with the conservative Family Research Council.
However, the case has polarized commentators and indicates the cultural gap between the Duggars' conservative evangelical supporters and their critics, leading to claims that they have become a lightning-rod for wider issues – and both supporters and defenders are open to serious questions about their tactics.
In the wake of the revelations, statements on Facebook from Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, Josh and his wife Anna acknowledged Josh's wrongdoing but said that they believed it had been dealt with.
Jim Bob and Michelle wrote: "That dark and difficult time caused us to seek God like never before. Even though we would never choose to go through something so terrible, each one of our family members drew closer to God."
Josh wrote: "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 ... I sought forgiveness from those I had wronged and asked Christ to forgive me and come into my life. I would do anything to go back to those teen years and take different actions. In my life today, I am so very thankful for God's grace, mercy and redemption."
Anna wrote that she had known about the incidents for two years before he asked her to marry him and that Josh was "someone who had gone down a wrong path and had humbled himself before God and those whom he had offended".
The statements used exactly the right language to carry conviction for the Duggars' supporters, with many arguing that they demonstrated the key Christian values of repentance and forgiveness. Michael Seewald, father-in-law of Jessa Duggar, wrote on his blog: "Are the Duggars perfect in their interpretation of God's moral standards? No. But neither is anyone else." He added that Josh had "found forgiveness and cleansing from Jesus Christ".
The family also received high-profile support from Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister and a family friend. Huckabee wrote that "Those who have enjoyed revealing this long ago sins [sic] in order to discredit the Duggar family have actually revealed their own insensitive bloodthirst" and said that they had "dealt with it and were honest and open about it with the victims and the authorities."
Seewald began his post by saying: "There is blood in the water and the sharks are in a feeding frenzy. Finally, the Duggar family's opponents have found what they have been eagerly waiting for..." Certainly, critics of the family and of Josh Duggar are legion. Many focus on the perceived 'hypocrisy' of his working for an organisation which campaigns for 'traditional family values' and is opposed to same-sex marriage, the adoption of children by anyone other than heterosexual people, abortion, divorce and pornography.
Others focus on the deliberate impression given by 19 Kids and Counting of a happy and wholesome family life. They question the conduct of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar over the handling of the incidents in 2002-3 – they had refused to allow Josh to enter a legitimate treatment programme and sent him to stay with a family friend before having another friend, a policeman (who was later jailed for child pornography offences) give him a stern lecture. By the time an police investigation could be launched it was too late under Arkansas law.
Furthermore, the allegations were leaked to the Oprah Winfrey Show just before the Duggars were due to appear on it in 2006 and their appearance was immediately cancelled, leading many to question whether TLC could have been unaware of the issue.
Critics have been savage. Elaine Stewart-Matthew wrote on the Duggars' Facebook page, "They have the nerve to pass judgement on those who don't share their values but expect us to look the other way when their son turns out to be a disgusting pervert." Cheri Julius wrote: "There should be no statutes of limitation on molestation. The parents should be prosecuted as well for covering up what happened. They continually put the rest of their children in danger. The place he 'got help' was not for sex offenders." Elizabeth Wilson wrote: "HE ADMITTED TO MOLESTING 5 YOUNG GIRLS. The Duggars are the haters, they have repeatedly given hate speeches toward the gay community among others."
So is there any way back for the Duggars? Perhaps: but this is what their defenders are getting wrong.
1. They're minimising Josh Duggar's offences. They seem to be saying that because he 'repented', everything's OK. But you don't avoid paying the price for wrongdoing just by saying the right things.
2. They aren't talking about the victims. The focus is all on Josh and the Duggar family. Actually, five girls were involved too, and the impact on them is simply not known. They might have been deeply marked, or not at all, but it surely wasn't the senior Duggars' call to make.
3. They're angry and defensive. The Duggar family has been inspirational for a lot of conservative evangelicals and the temptation is to defend them to the hilt. That makes them blind to the real issues. Yes, some of their critics might be godless liberals who just want to give them a good kicking, but that doesn't mean they're wrong to criticise.
4. They aren't admitting that the senior Duggars got it wrong. They seem to have thought the problem wasn't a problem because they'd 'dealt with it'. But they sidestepped the law. If they'd done the right thing, they might not have had a TV show but they wouldn't be facing this firestorm.
5. They aren't seeing the issue clearly. It's not just about Josh. In the eyes of many people, the Duggars presented themselves as something they weren't. That's not something that's easy to get past.
And this is what the Duggars' attackers are getting wrong.
1. Some of them are driven by an irrelevant agenda. The Duggars are poster-children for everything liberal America hates: they're outspoken evangelical Christians and conservative right-wingers who don't believe in sexual permissiveness and are against homosexuality, abortion and gun control and are in favour of the death penalty. A lot of the critics are only too glad to see them take a tumble.
2. Some of them are angry because they think they've been betrayed. A lot of people looked up to the Duggars in a way that probably wasn't very healthy. This was an American family that really seemed to work and that had traditional values. Finding out that they weren't perfect hurt people, and that fuels the bitterness. Some people need to step back and dial it down.
3. We don't do the same things at the age of 14 as we do at the age of 27. Accusing Josh Duggar of having been a child molester might be true, but however inappropriate the Duggar parents' intervention was at the time of the offences, Josh Duggar seems to have lived a blameless life since then. People do change, and here's where Christians need to take the critics on: yes, grace works.
4. The attacks on the Duggars are making them martyrs, Josh especially. Yes, he did bad things. But intemperate language about him being a paedophile just doesn't carry conviction, and makes it even harder to focus on the victims.
In the end, what this saga tells us about a particular kind of reality TV is more important than what it tells us about sex crimes. The Duggar family has been endlessly fascinating for large swathes of the American population. Many viewers saw them as exemplifying the sort of family they would like to be part of, or at least admired them from a distance for their coping skills. Now the idol has been proven to have feet of clay. All idols do, of course; and perhaps this reminder is the one good thing that will come out of this sorry tale.
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