Like so many of us, I’ve found myself glued to the Josh Duggar story. I’m not usually drawn into media frenzies, but this one hits entirely too close to home. Many people are shocked and outraged that a family and church community would become aware of sexual abuse occurring and do nothing about it except pray for forgiveness and redemption. I, on the other hand, don’t find this the least bit surprising or shocking. In fact, it’s common practice among many fundamentalist Christian communities. I know because I grew up in one.
Jim and Michelle Duggar did exactly what they’d been taught to do when they discovered their son was molesting children— they went to the elders in their church for guidance. In their eyes, they were being accountable. From there, they went on to work with Josh to ask for forgiveness from his sins and be reconciled to Christ. According to Josh, this is exactly what occurred. He found Christ. He apologized to his victims and like any good Christian girls have been brought up to do, his victims forgave him.
For those of us who grew up in households like the Duggars, this is what we are taught. We are taught from a very young age that we are not of this world and therefore, a different code of ethics and morals governs our daily living. Namely, the word of God is our judge. It doesn’t matter what the world has to say about our actions, only what God has to say about them. The problem with this is that in these homes men are the rulers with women and children holding a very distant second place. Men have working partnerships with God and this often times results in distorted truths about scripture used to justify wrong and sometimes criminal behavior.
Most of my friends from early childhood were from church and I often played with two cousins, Carrie and Sarah, on a farm owned by their grandfather. They were my age and we had a blast whenever they visited or during our stints at Bible camp. Their grandfather, Rick, was an elder in our church. It came to light that Rick had been sexually abusing Carrie and Sarah. I’m not sure how it came to light because I was too young to pay attention to those details. What I do remember is that a meeting was called at the church with all of the elders, including my own father, to counsel Rick. The elders led Rick to repentance and all was forgiven. His granddaughters continued to visit him on his farm and I continued to go there as well. He moved throughout our congregation and among children as if nothing ever happened.
Nobody ever reported him. Nobody ever called the police. Nobody spoke of it again except as a demonstration of how we must forgive other people no matter what they’ve done. Jesus forgives our sins and we, therefore, must forgive others.
As an adult, people often ask me why I never let anyone know what was going on in my own home. The answer is simple— it wouldn’t have mattered and I knew that. My father’s abuse would have been dealt with in the same way in which Rick’s abusive behavior was dealt with. Besides, it was deeply ingrained in my head that I had to forgive other people no matter what they did to me.
It’s taken me many years and lots of therapy to understand that forgiveness does not mean acceptance. Forgiveness does not mean that I have to give someone permission to keep hurting me. I am not a bad Christian if I stand up against the abuse of children. I am not a bad Christian if I report child molesters to authorities and work towards their punishment because children need to be protected. Being a Christian doesn’t mean we allow children to be abused and do nothing about it.
See, incest is not a sin—it’s a sickness. It is an evil corroding thread that destroys everyone’s life it touches. It’s an insidious disease that doesn’t go away and can’t be ignored. It can be forgiven, but it doesn’t have to be tolerated and it shouldn’t.
–Elizabeth Garrison is a clinical psychologist specializing in traumatic stress in children and the author of the bestselling memoir, Wounds of the Father: A True Story of Child Abuse, Betrayal, and Redemption.