Strict religious institutions with power have often had a terrifying relationship with child abuse, but this week saw an even more insidious case with the revelation that Josh Duggar (of TLC show 19 Kids and Counting) molested five young girls when he was around 14 years old, including two of his own sisters.
Rather than being supportive of these young victims of sexual abuse, the Duggar family’s response has been to rally around their eldest son and discount the abuse done to their daughters, claiming it was ‘nothing like rape’ but was instead ‘just inappropriate touching over the clothes’.
The Duggars are notoriously members of a strict branch of Christianity known as the Independent Baptist Church. They preach strict morality which discourages birth control (hence the 19 children), and encourages both a strict patriarchal society and a culture in which the girls ‘save themselves’ for marriage. This same set of rules is applied less harshly, if ever, to the boys.
Similarly, the Catholic Church has long battled reports of rampant child abuse and the cover up of such cases, to the detriment of children’s safety. Far from doing their utmost to end the abuse of children the church has instead opted to decry gay men and trans people as paedophiles.
After Ireland’s historic victory in legalising marriage equality many leaders of the Catholic Church spoke out against the ruling as an immoral act against the ‘sanctity of marriage’.
And Michelle Duggar recently spoke out against a law that would allow trans people to alert the council if they felt they had been discriminated against during issues of housing or employment. Their home state of Arkansas has some of the strictest anti-LGBT laws in the USA.
The blindness and unwillingness of some Christians to confront child abuse within their own community has left a permanent mark upon Christianity’s image. Abusive priests are frequently moved to another parish, rather than have them reported to police; Josh Duggar has received outpourings of support from people who claim to have forgiven him whilst no such support has been given to his young victims. And yet the Duggars and others have plenty of time and resources to rally against the basic human rights of members of the LGBT community.
What is it that allows religious groups to deny their culpability in the abuse of children? Is it the patriarchal nature of most religions? The Duggars have made it clear that theirs is a family where the men comes first and the women, even those who are victims of sexual abuse, come last.
Is it religious extremists abusing the community spirit of religion in order to hide their crimes?
Is it that children are the most vulnerable in society and the most likely to keep quiet about the crimes of powerful members of the community?
Most likely it is all of these factors that combine to create a society where a family is torn apart – not by their son’s molestations of his own sisters, but by their daughters revealing this trauma.
Why these stories are so damaging is that they tell children that their traumas don’t matter. They tell them that the people who abuse them are more important than they are. They tell them that they cannot trust adults in charge. And this is the most insidious and damaging aspect of it all.