When the news broke that former reality TV star Josh Duggar had been arrested for possession of child pornography, the common response was disgust, and rightfully so. It’s hard to imagine how someone could engage in such horrifying behavior, downloading files that a special agent described as being “in the top five worst of the worst that I’ve ever had to examine.” The Duggar situation may seem extreme, but for many survivors of sexual abuse, the circumstances are all too familiar.
In 2019, a Sexual Abuse Advisory Group commissioned by Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear released the Caring Well Study, the result of learning from hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse, church leaders, and national experts in this field. We helped write this report, and after spending months interviewing survivors of sexual abuse within Christian communities, we know that Josh Duggar’s situation is, sadly, not rare.
Adherents to a fundamentalist Christian tradition, the Duggars reportedly sought the help of elders in their church as they attempted to deal with Josh Duggar’s molestation of five younger women, including four of his sisters, when he was a teenager. In 2015, Duggar was linked to the Ashley Madison website scandal, after which he admitted to struggling with pornography and cheating on his wife. Now, six years later, Duggar has been arrested and charged with possession of child pornography, which he is accused of downloading in May of 2019.
Over the years, Duggar issued statements expressing regret for his conduct, using terms like confession, sin, and wrongdoing. He mentioned counseling, and his family said they received help from church leaders. Yet saying the right things does not indicate real change. Instead, far too often those who should protect victims instead protect perpetrators of abuse from real consequences, citing the perpetrator’s words of repentance as justification. In doing so, they not only neglect to care for the abused, they also set the abuser up for further opportunities to hurt the vulnerable around them.
Sadly, stories of repeated abuse happen too frequently in church contexts. Research cited in the Caring Well Report shows that sex offenders who were most committed to church throughout their lives accumulated the most and the youngest victims of all sex offenders, their involvement providing access to more victims. When churches do not have a plan to actively protect those within their community, sex offenders recognize the vulnerability and know how to exploit it. There are clear patterns to sexual abuse, and in our time listening to and counseling victims and churches we have learned that if an individual in your church is abusing someone, it is most likely not the first time they have done it. Without proper handling of the situation, it certainly will not be the last.
The good news is that the church doesn’t have to be a hiding place for abusers, but it will take courage and conviction to make necessary changes. Jesus modeled how to properly care for women, children, and the least of these (Matthew 18:6, John 4:26). How can we work to ensure that the vulnerable within our churches are able to hear the good news of our Savior while being protected from those seeking their harm?
Here are a few steps your church can take:
● Recognize that people in your church have experienced the trauma of abuse. One in three women and one in four men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact at some point in their lives.1 Even if the abuse did not occur in your context, the effects are long-lasting. The way you speak about abuse and even sex can either be healing or can renew old wounds. Seek to understand the experiences of survivors and allow that understanding to inform your words and actions.
● Form a team to care well. Identify men and women in your church who can serve on a team committed to protecting and caring for the children and adults in your care. Pastors, elders, women’s ministry leaders, youth leaders, professional counselors, medical professionals, and attorneys are all examples of people who may need to be included on a team. Go through the Caring Well Challenge with your team to ensure you are doing all you can to guard against abuse and that you are prepared to handle any disclosure of abuse with compassion and action.
● Call it what it is. Abuse is sin, but it’s also a crime. Churches will often try to minimize the negative perceptions around a situation by using language like “moral failure,” “lapse in judgment,” or “sexual impropriety.” None of these terms recognize that abuse is an act against another human being. The way we speak about it signals to survivors whether they are valued and signals to potential perpetrators whether they will be prosecuted.
● Value people above the institution. When abuse comes to light, some churches and leaders are more concerned with protecting the reputation of their ministry and the church than they are with protecting survivors of sexual abuse and preventing future victims. When abuse is disclosed within our congregations, immediate action must be taken to protect the victim and stop the abuse. The survivor must be our top priority. This could mean loss of membership and a decrease in ministry opportunities, but our fellowship with God requires us to walk in the light and keep nothing hidden in darkness (1 John 1).
It is always devastating to hear about another case of abuse in the news, especially one that involves professing Christians. But it does not have to be this way. Now is the time to take steps to love and protect those in our care.
 CDC, “Preventing Sexual Violence,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 1, 2019, http://www.cdc.gov/features/sexualviolence/
Catherine Parks is the author of four books, including Real and Empowered. She serves as an editor for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s Human Dignity channel.
Palmer Williams is an attorney specializing in human dignity issues and serves as a legal and policy advisor for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.