Josh Duggar, star of TLC's hit television show 19 Kids and Counting, has now publicly confessed that he "acted inexcusably" when he forcefully molested multiple young girls over a decade ago. This revelation brings a murky problem into specific focus: Child molestation creates a powerful, invisible circle of secrecy that even the glaring national spotlight can't penetrate. For one, Josh Duggar was an outspoken leader of the Family Research Council, a conservative group that has vigorously campaigned against LGBT rights, ironically arguing that such freedoms jeopardize the safety of children. And then, seemingly every mundane detail of the goings-on of the Duggar family was watched by over three million viewers weekly. So while many are incredulous that this secret remained under wraps for twelve years, the reality is that it is just another example of the fortitude of the secrecy that envelops all acts of child sexual abuse.
It is therefore not surprising that the Duggars primarily relied on insulated church elders for Josh's "remediation." History has shown that religious organizations- across all faiths- have been complicit in the behavior of sexual predators by addressing child sexual abuse exclusively as a matter of sin rather than as a crime. Josh Duggar's father only reported the molestations to an Arkansas state trooper who was also a personal friend, so it is also not surprising that no official action was taken other than a "very stern talk." Now, the statute of limitations has expired.
We know that one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of eighteen. Secrecy is the oxygen of the ecosystem in which child predators thrive. Sadly, most children never reveal their traumatic experiences to anyone, even when asked. Less than 10 percent--only one in ten victims--ever report the crime. Therefore society is often powerless to protect vulnerable children or to deliver justice on behalf of the few among them who are brave enough to come forward. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, what often unfolds is one or more of the following scenarios: Adults don't believe the children; adults cover up the crime; or adults try to handle the allegation strictly within their family or within the hallowed walls of their faith based community. The reality is that very few perpetrators discipline themselves, and most continue their behavior until they're arrested. In fact, nearly 70 percent of child sex offenders have between one and nine victims, and 20 percent have ten to forty victims.
In 2009, David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, analyzed national sex crime data. He found that 35.8 percent of all child sexual abuse is committed by other juveniles, and when those offenders reach adulthood, they are far more likely than the general population to continuing molesting. In a nation that continues to be hyper-focused on "stranger danger," it is hard to get our minds around the fact that 93 percent of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker, and the vast majority of the perpetrators have no prior criminal history. The statistics make a compelling case for why childhood sexual abuse should not be investigated solely within a family or a faith community.
Beyond leaving sexual offenders free to prey on other children, what are the consequences of keeping child sexual abuse concealed? Studies show that abuse in childhood often results in severe lifetime consequences for its victims. A short list of the potential damage to survivors includes moderate to severe health and behavioral problems, drug and/or alcohol problems, and teenage promiscuity and pregnancy.
It takes enormous courage for a child to report sexual abuse inflicted upon them by a respected and trusted friend or family member, but this is the demographic of the lion's share of perpetrators. That's why, when a child offers the slightest hint of an intimate and frightening account, family members and friends need to both take the child seriously and insist on a thorough official investigation. There is no doubt the Duggars and law enforcement chose to tune out on this one, but the reality is that most families that discover sexual abuse within their clan conceal it--just not with three million viewers looking on.
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