On May 21, the gossip magazine In Touch published an explosive, career-crushing report about a beloved figure in the religious right: Josh Duggar, the oldest child of the ultra-conservative Christian family of TLC’s hit reality show 19 Kids and Counting, had, as a teenager, sexually abused five minor girls.
“Bombshell Duggar Police Report: Jim Bob Duggar Didn’t Report Son Josh’s Alleged Sex Offenses for More Than a Year,” blared the instantly viral online headline. The cover of the tabloid that would sell at supermarket checkouts across the country was even more lurid: “House of Horrors,” a reference to In Touch’s discovery that four of Josh’s victims were his younger sisters.
At the time of the In Touch revelations, Duggar was a 27-year-old married father of three with another on the way, and the executive director of a leading Christian right advocacy group, Family Research Council Action. He promptly admitted to acting “inexcusably” and resigned his post.
But a mystery remained at the heart of the tabloid drama. The Duggars’ explanations for how they handled their son’s confessions elided some crucial details, and Josh Duggar’s did as well. In a statement issued to People magazine just hours after the In Touch report was published, he said, “We spoke with the authorities where I confessed my wrongdoing, and my parents arranged for me and those affected by my actions to receive counseling.”
What Josh Duggar didn’t say—and what his parents and two of his sisters didn’t say in interviews with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly a few weeks later—was what, precisely, that counseling entailed. Although none of the Duggars has ever publicly identified it as such, the facility where Josh was sent in Little Rock is owned and operated by the Institute in Basic Life Principles, an insular and authoritarian evangelical homeschooling ministry whose charismatic founder, former followers say, sexually harassed female employees, blamed rape victims for provoking their attackers, and subjected young disciples to grueling physical labor for little or no pay.
Duggar’s father, Jim Bob Duggar, told Kelly in his June 4 interview, “We knew of a man who mentors young men, and he really helped young men who had made unwise choices in their lives to get straightened out, and he was running a little training center in Little Rock, Arkansas.”
But according to the 2006 police report obtained and published by In Touch, Josh’s mother Michelle Duggar admitted to police investigators that her son did not see a certified counselor there. The family told Kelly that after Josh’s training, they instituted “safeguards” to avoid further abuse, like locks on bedroom doors and not permitting the boys to be alone with their sisters. But the Duggars did not report the incidents to law enforcement.
In a separate interview with Kelly, Jessa Seewald, now 22, one of Josh’s younger sisters who admitted he touched them, said that “really the extent of it was mild inappropriate touching on fully clothed victims. Most of it while girls were sleeping.” Seewald and one of Josh’s other victims, his sister Jill Dillard, now 24, said they only knew about the touching because Josh had admitted it to his parents over a period between 2002 and 2003. Dillard told Kelly, “We didn’t even know about it until he went and confessed it to my parents and they shared it with us,” and Seewald added, “None of the victims were aware of what happened until Joshua confessed.”
“We’ve already forgiven Josh, we’ve already moved on,” said Dillard.
Josh Duggar and his parents did not to respond to interview requests or emailed questions.
By keeping Josh’s confession—and punishment—in a small, closed circle, the Duggars were acting in accordance with the teachings of IBLP’s founder, Bill Gothard, and the Advanced Training Institute, IBLP’s exclusive homeschooling program that provides curricula to parents, holds conferences, and offers missionary and work opportunities. The Duggars have belonged to ATI since 1992, when Josh was four, according to their own accounts on 19 Kids and Counting.
That hugely successful reality television series, which aired from 2008 until May 2015, depicts ATI conferences as wholesome family fun, with Jim Bob describing it as “an old style family camp” and “one of the best things we’ve done for our family.”
But that portrayal obscures a dark reality, about family sexual abuse and more, according to more than a dozen former ATI members who spoke to TPM and The Investigative Fund.
When Dixie Rose, now 44, who worked for IBLP in various capacities from 1988 until 1996, read that Josh Duggar had gotten counseling, “I literally laughed out loud, because I know what counseling is in that environment.” Counselors with secular training “were tainted by the world. They were going to give humanistic psychology answers rather than biblical answers.”
In IBLP seminars, girls were taught that boys were “almost unable to control their lust,” Rose said. “It was our responsibility to help them control it by dressing modestly. And if we didn’t, we just got what we had coming to us.”
A girl or woman who didn’t dress modestly and “cry out to God” is, in Gothard’s view, just as guilty of rape as the assailant—and any sexual assault within families should be kept within the family and ATI if at all possible. Another former follower, Mark*, who worked at IBLP in the 1990s, said he was not surprised by the revelation of sexual abuse within an ATI family, because he had been made aware of many similar instances during his time there.
About the Duggars, he added: “The only surprising thing was that they knew about this and still decided to do a TV show.”
When 14-year-old Josh first admitted to his father that he had sexually abused his sisters in March 2002, Jim Bob was running in the Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat, on a platform that included a call to make rape and incest capital crimes. Jim Bob ended up losing that bid by a significant margin, but a photo of the family campaigning together—Michelle and the girls in identical red dresses, the boys in identical khakis and red polos—led to national prominence for the Duggars.
In September 2003, just two months after Josh had returned from IBLP’s Little Rock Training Center, Michelle wrote an article for the widely read magazine Parents. Duggar’s piece described how her 16-person family managed their oversized brood—a buddy system, two deep freezers, a door-sized family activity schedule. She also emphasized their evangelical faith. Homeschooling, Duggar wrote, is “the best way to teach our Christian values.” The curriculum they chose, which Duggar did not identify by name, “emphasizes character—honesty, integrity, initiative, and responsibility.”
That article caught the eye of Eileen O’Neill, a Discovery executive the Hollywood broadsheet Variety has credited with having “turned TLC into a powerhouse.”
“I had just about finished my maternity leave and was reading, you know, [a] Working Mom magazine-type article,” O’Neill told Television Week in a 2009 interview. O’Neill, who announced her departure from Discovery Communications in February and did not respond to TPM’s interview requests, saw something special in “Michelle Duggar, who I think at that point had had 15 children, and we decided to do a one-up” (a one-time television special).
But Michelle Duggar was no “working mom.” IBLP teaches that wives should be submissive to the authority of their husbands, and dedicate themselves to being their husband’s “helpmate” and a devoted mother to as many children as God would bless them with.
Bill Gothard actively discouraged women from working outside the home. Women who finished his ATI curriculum were often encouraged to go work for him at IBLP—where sources who spoke to TPM described unrelenting and humiliating work conditions, often uncompensated. Since 2012, more than 30 women have come forward with allegations that Gothard subjected them to sexual harassment while working at IBLP over the years. For one woman, that harassment allegedly included Gothard’s own version of “counseling” for a childhood rape.
One former follower describes Gothard as a “very motivational speaker” who, some former followers would later allege, was also a micromanaging, controlling ideologue. Now 80 and never married, Gothard founded IBLP in 1961 in the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook, Illinois, near where he still lives. During the burgeoning culture wars, he captured the attention of conservative Christians who feared the secular world would tempt and despoil their children. Because he “used the Bible’s words in ways people hadn’t heard before,” said one former follower, “they thought it was revolutionary. They thought this was God’s will or God’s way to show them where they had been wrong for years.”
In her family, Gothard “was revered as this person who could not mess up, almost like a saint or a god,” said Joy Stillwell Simmons, now 39, who was part of ATI from the time she was eight until she was 29. “My mom would refer to him as a modern day Apostle Paul.”
Gothard first began teaching what became his 25-hour “Basic Seminar” in 1964. IBLP claims that more than 2.5 million people have taken the seminar, which promises “lasting answers to life’s challenges” based on the Bible, from helping a person overcome “feelings of inferiority” to having a healthy marriage to achieving “financial freedom.” The Basic Seminar is a prerequisite for joining ATI, which Gothard founded in 1984, riding the wave of the Christian homeschooling movement to build facilities in seven states. Although its revenues have shrunk over the past decade, real estate represents the bulk of the organization’s approximately $80 million in assets, according to its most recent available tax return.
Michelle Duggar has used the ATI curriculum—consisting of a series of “Wisdom Booklets”—to homeschool all of her children. Several members of the Duggar family, including Jim Bob and Michelle, Josh, and the four oldest sisters, Jana, Jill, Jessa, and Jinger, are frequent featured speakers at IBLP conferences. Most recently, Michelle, Jana, and Jinger spoke at an August 2015 conference called Commit, aimed at girls aged 12 to 17 and their mothers.
Gothard’s philosophy on sexual assault is detailed explicitly in his publications, including in the Wisdom Booklets. When a woman is attacked, one booklet reads, “She is to cry out for help. The victim who fails to do this is equally guilty with the attacker.” A document Gothard sent to ATI families, “Lessons from Moral Failures in a Family,” purports to be a teenage boy’s meditation on his sexual assault of his sisters, which he blames in part on his mother, for allowing his sisters to run naked after a bath and for asking him to change his sisters’ diapers, something that would not have occurred if the family “had only applied Levitical law.”
Wisdom Booklet No. 24 contains a section on why “God’s laws on nakedness begin with modesty in the home,” and that “God’s people are commanded not to ‘uncover the nakedness’ of those near of kin.” The Wisdom Booklet also says that “nakedness arouses insatiable lusts,” lusts that are “neither quenchable nor controllable.”
Of course, none of this was part of 19 Kids and Counting. Reality TV often revels in exposing the underbelly of fringe cultures, from polygamists to toddler beauty queens. But Discovery, TLC and Figure 8 Films, the show’s production company, were not making that kind of show. Instead, they marketed the family as cheerfully chaste fundamentalist Christians whose daily routines included organizing a pantry of canned goods for a family of 16, ordering food in Spanish at a Mexican restaurant, and getting a flat tire on their RV on the way to a homeschooling conference. Fans sought the recipe for the family’s notorious tater tot casserole. Audiences grieved with the family when their 19th child, Josie, was born prematurely and spent months in intensive care, and when Michelle miscarried what would have been their 20th.
The series promoted the sexual purity of Josh in particular. Early episodes chronicled his courtship with Anna Keller, whom he met at an ATI conference in 2006, and their pledge not to kiss until they were married. But Josh Duggar’s façade crumbled further just three months after the revelations of the child sexual abuse, when he admitted he had been unfaithful to Anna. He made that confession only after Gawker reported in August that Duggar had maintained an account with Ashley Madison, the site that connects people seeking to cheat on their spouses with sexual partners. Less than a week later, his mother revealed on her website that he had checked into an unspecified “long-term treatment center.”
If they continue to adhere to Gothard’s teachings, it is unlikely the young Duggars would consider divorce. Gothard has written extensively about the grounds for divorce, which in his view is almost always impermissible. As IBLP lays out in detail in Wisdom Booklet No. 26, “To allow for divorce and/or remarriage in the case of marital unfaithfulness” is the same as destroying Christ’s relationship with the Church, and the believer’s relationship with the law.
Former adherents describe a culture of fear surrounding Gothard’s insistence on unquestioning obedience to one’s husband, to one’s parents (in a woman’s case, until she is married), and to Gothard himself. Any deviation from the “umbrella of authority,” would allow “Satan to take a foothold in your life,” said a former follower, a belief that several former followers said kept them terrified and in line. In one version of his statement post-Ashley Madison, which he later modified, Josh Duggar blamed his troubles on allowing “Satan to build a fortress no one knew about.”
Gothard enticed followers with promises that his teachings would lead to great knowledge and achievement. ATI, Gothard has written, “was designed to train up world changers,” the heart of a grandiose vision that many former followers say intrigued them—at first. Gothard actively discouraged his followers from attending public school, college, or even medical school, instead urging them to address medical issues on a “spiritual level.” The Wisdom Booklets are a dizzying application of Gothard’s “principles” to every conceivable discipline—law, medicine, history, linguistics, math, science—all instilling the fundamental belief that one must discern and follow God’s will, not the dictates of the secular world, in every aspect of life, right down to, say, choosing a toothbrush. “As we commit the work of buying a toothbrush to Him,” one Wisdom Book advises, “He has promised to make His will known to us.”
The Wisdom Booklets were also designed to give ATI families a sense of godly superiority. The very first one, for example, suggests a family outing to a supermarket parking lot in order to “to develop the spiritual skill of ‘seeing’ people as Jesus saw them.” The booklet gives examples of how when one carefully observes strangers, one can perceive, for example, that a teenage boy had “low esteem of himself by the way he dressed and by his appearance,” or that his eyes and dress display “a spirit of rebellion toward authority.” Or one could discern “that the young woman walking toward the store has the attire of an immoral woman,” and that she needed “to overcome bitterness toward those who have wronged her.”
The supermarket parking lot assignment, said Mark, was “an exercise in judging,” part of the ATI mentality that “everyone else is wrong and we are elite.”
For some ATI graduates who went on to work at an IBLP facility, the culture of fear became very real. Gothard funneled the tenets of IBLP into “counseling” that ranged from blaming rape victims to sexual harassment. Long hours, humiliation, inappropriate touching—it was all justified by a philosophy that would leave some of its most ardent followers disillusioned and traumatized.
Leigh** had her first conversation with Gothard in 2006, at an ATI conference in Tennessee. Her family had belonged to ATI since she was 16, and she was homeschooled with its curriculum for her final year of high school. Now, at 21, she was preparing for what she hoped would be a thrilling project: a mission trip with IBLP to Romania. While her sister was chatting with Gothard, she approached him to express her excitement about her impending trip. But Gothard had another idea for this pretty and enthusiastic young woman with the soft blonde curls. Within a few minutes of meeting her, “he just kind of looked at me, and said, ‘How about you come work at headquarters?’” He said she could work directly with Romanian officials, teachers and students there.
Within a week at IBLP headquarters in Oak Brook, Leigh recalled, Gothard asked her to forgo her trip to Romania to stay and work for him. He told her he noticed “a sweet spirit about me,” she said, and “great potential.” He presented staying at headquarters as a wonderful opportunity.
But while working closely with Gothard there for the next three years, Leigh said he subjected her to “holding hands, playing footsies, stroking the hair and that type of unwanted physical affection.” At the time, she was in her early twenties and he was in his seventies. She said she traveled frequently with Gothard, including on a visit to the Duggar home in 2006, where he held her hand in the presence of Jim Bob and his daughter Jill.
Leigh was charged with helping to select potential recruits for an IBLP youth program, Journey to the Heart. She learned what kind of young people Gothard liked when he asked her to peruse a file of ATI family photos. “He said to look for girls that looked wholesome and had good charisma, like a good personality about them,” she said. “And yes, pictures he liked were of pretty girls.” Leigh said he also looked for girls who were troubled. His “whole sick approach,” Leigh said, was to pursue girls who “had issues” because he was looking for girls to “disciple” (mentor).
Leigh had been raped as a child, and Gothard “counseled” her personally about it. The “counseling,” she said, consisted of blaming her for being raped because she wasn’t wearing modest clothing, had “lustful thoughts,” and “didn’t cry out to God” to stop her rapist.
“He told me the sin—the pain I felt in my heart over the years—was because of my sin in it,” she said. “So he had me confess my sin for being raped as a child.”
“We just trusted him, I guess,” Leigh continued. “He would listen to my story, get physically close, get me to try to cry into his chest.” That made her uncomfortable, she said, but she “grew up believing he was infallible.”
Leigh recalled other instances of familial sexual abuse in ATI families that were brought to Gothard’s attention during the three years she worked for him between 2006 and 2009. “I would help him counsel girls who had been sexually abused by family members,” she said. “That was not an uncommon thing. He would counsel them with that [same] material, he would immediately send them home and never report the offenders [to authorities].” Mark said he knew others who had received that same “counseling,” including a girl who had been raped by her uncle when she was five.
IBLP did not respond to interview requests or emailed questions.
For women who were not hand-picked by Gothard to work closely with him, the daily routine at headquarters and IBLP training centers was grueling, humiliating, and often uncompensated. If Gothard didn’t like a woman’s hairstyle, or her stockings, he’d tell her to change them.
Joy Simmons was eight when her family joined ATI, and her parents employed a strict interpretation of Gothard’s teachings. With no television or public school, said Simmons, “my parents isolated me from everyone, from family, from anyone who did not believe Bill Gothard and Bill’s viewpoint. Bill had a list of rules and it was ever growing. And if you didn’t follow those rules, well, then, you weren’t following God.”
Simmons, who grew up in a single-wide mobile home in south Georgia, isolated and homeschooled in ATI materials from grade school, knew nearly nothing of the outside world. Starting in 1992 at age 17, and until 2005, she says she worked in various capacities at IBLP headquarters and training centers, at times working 100-hour weeks, occasionally for minimum wage and often for no pay.
Today Simmons lives in Georgia with her husband, also a former ATI member, and their three children. But as a young adult, Simmons was shunted between her family’s home and IBLP facilities. In keeping with Gothard’s teachings, she remained, as a single woman, under her parents’ “authority,” a circumstance echoed by other women who spoke with TPM. Even at 24, she had to ask permission to leave the house. At the time, her parents were living in rural Wisconsin and permitted her a short time to ride her bike on a nearby trail. One time, while out, she was sexually assaulted by a friend, also from an ATI family. After consulting with Gothard, her parents decided to send her to headquarters as an “encouragement case,” which she says was code for a person others should avoid as “rebellious.”
“There was never, Joy, what do you want?” said Simmons. “It was always, God wants this… and if you don’t like it, you need to submit and be broken.”
“People ask me why I stayed,” she said. “I was isolated with no one to help me leave. I was brainwashed into believing God would hurt me if I didn’t do everything I was told to do.”
For women, work at one of IBLP’s facilities involved the humiliation of carrying out Gothard’s peculiar demands, divided by gender. Gothard micromanaged the appearance of the Indianapolis Training Center, in particular—a former hotel converted into a conference center for IBLP seminars and a training ground for the children of ATI families referred for “counseling.” According to Mark, no outside cleaning or maintenance companies worked there. Instead, Gothard used ATI young adults, sent there to benefit from “an incredible opportunity” to be “trained” as a “leader,” according to Angela**, who says she worked for no pay at the Indianapolis center from 2004 through 2006, and now works as a public school teacher in Texas.
“Everything was marketed as a program to train your young people to be better,” said Angela. Once there, she discovered, “generally it was just their way of recruiting a workforce.”
Young women generally cleaned the common areas and the rooms where guests stayed; they prepared and served meals and cleaned up after; they did laundry. Men, on the other hand, typically performed maintenance tasks or drove vans. Gothard nitpicked about the training center’s appearance, requiring, for example, the regular polishing of brass fixtures. He didn’t like the appearance of fire extinguishers, so he insisted that wreaths be hung on the walls to cover them up.
His strangest and most onerous demand was that the young women get on their hands and knees and clean stains out of the carpets with a rag or a spoon.
“I knew that it was the bane of existence for a lot of these girls,” said Mark, who worked at the Indianapolis facility in the 1990s, including at one point as head of maintenance. “Their hands ached, their knees ached, their backs ached doing this.”
One day, Mark said, after he cleaned the carpets himself with an industrial cleaner, Gothard visited the center and was “livid” to see no girls cleaning it by hand. He ordered center leadership staff to round up some girls to start cleaning.
“It was something that [Gothard] just wanted to see,” Mark said. “He didn’t care that I would come at night and clean that carpet and get rid of all the spots. He wanted to see the girls on their hands and knees scrubbing with spoons.”
Over the past decade, Gothard’s abuse has begun to catch up with him. His ministry is on a downward trajectory, with families growing disaffected with his rigid demands, isolating ideology, exploitative labor practices, and a pattern of sexual harassment of young women, according to former followers. In 2005, according to IBLP’s tax returns, the ministry took in $1,186,809 in seminar fees, and $2,838,726 in home school tuition. By 2013, seminar fees had dropped to $79,777, and home school tuition to $740,496. During the time Leigh worked at headquarters, between 2006 and 2009, she said, enrollments were declining. She said Gothard was stressed about finances and was placing increasing pressure on staff to be more “godly.”
Yet in Discovery and TLC’s hands, the Duggars became the sanitized poster children for this insular, authoritarian, and increasingly discredited religious sect, packaged as innocuous for a mass television audience. And IBLP used the Duggars’ fame to promote its teachings. The Duggars, said Leigh, were Gothard’s “model ATI family,” and were “held up as ideal in the IBLP world.” Though IBLP hasn’t rebounded to its glory days, many recent enrollments were loyal viewers who’d been inspired by the show, according to Leigh, who has discussed the matter with recent staffers at IBLP headquarters. As depicted by TLC, the Duggars were a loving, virtuous family—and their biggest fans wanted to know their secret.
“People weren’t joining ATI in the past five years because of Bill Gothard,” said John Cornish, spokesman for the website Recovering Grace, which gathers and publishes former ATI members’ accounts of abuse by Gothard. “They were joining because they had seen the Duggars on TV and wanted to live like them.”
Discovery/TLC declined an interview request, and declined to respond to emailed questions. Figure 8 Films did not respond to interview requests or emailed questions.
The very first Duggar special Discovery aired—2004’s 14 Children and Pregnant Again!—shows Michelle homeschooling the children with Wisdom Booklets.
After five specials aired between 2004 and 2007, the network announced it had signed the family to a regular series in 2008. “It’s official,” read a September 2008 press release from Discovery announcing the premiere of 17 Kids and Counting on TLC. “The Duggars are a true pop culture phenomenon.” The series, later called 18 Kids and Counting and then 19 Kids and Counting, became one of the network’s biggest hits. Including specials about the family that began airing in 2004, the Duggars produced more than 200 specials and regular programs, ultimately earning, according to People magazine, between $25,000 and $45,000 per episode.
In later episodes that aired in 2009, 2010 and 2011, the cameras accompanied the Duggars to ATI conferences. TLC often showed the Duggars socializing with other ATI families, including the Bateses, another supersized family that starred in a short-lived TLC reality show, The United Bates of America, in 2012. Gil Bates, the family patriarch, serves on the IBLP board. (TLC declined to comment on why the show lasted only one season.) One episode, which aired in August 2012, showed the Bateses attending an ATI conference in Big Sandy, Texas. The Duggars were there as well, and Gothard is visible in two camera shots. The Bateses now star in a new reality show, Bringing Up Bates, on the Up network.
In retrospect, the Duggars’ secret and IBLP’s troubles were hidden in plain sight.
In 2002, a local judge stopped ordering juvenile delinquents to IBLP’s Indianapolis Training Center following a local news investigation into abuse of youth sent for “counseling” there.
According to the 2006 Springdale, Arkansas police report, the Duggars had traveled to Chicago for an interview with The Oprah Winfrey Show in December 2006. Before the interview took place, the program had received an email from an unidentified person, accusing Josh of abusing his sisters and charging that “the parents have been hiding this secret for a long time.” The Oprah Winfrey Show interview was canceled—a major PR hit for TLC—and Harpo Studios, the show’s production company, faxed a copy of the email to Springdale human resources officials, prompting the police investigation. The Oprah Winfrey Network did not respond to interview requests or written questions. (In 2008, Discovery announced a joint venture with Oprah Winfrey to create the Oprah Winfrey Network, now part of the Discovery lineup of networks.)
In April 2007, Josh Duggar sued the Arkansas Department of Health, according to In Touch. Although the case was under seal, it was listed in the civil court docket for Washington County, Arkansas at least through May of this year.
Recovering Grace, founded by former ATI members, went live in July 2011. Over the next two and half years, the site published several disturbing accounts by former ATI members, but nothing seemed to touch the Duggars’ world. 19 Kids continued to portray the Duggars as a pious, happy, all-American family, and continued to show their commitment to ATI and its “character qualities”—though the show never appears to have mentioned Gothard by name.
In April 2012, Recovering Grace published a harrowing account of a woman who was repeatedly raped by her older brother as a child. She was sent away to a training center, she wrote, where Gothard allegedly told her parents not to contact the authorities. Three days later, Recovering Grace published its first allegation of sexual harassment by Gothard, titled “Exploited Innocence: Sexual Harassment at HQ.”
Over the next year, Recovering Grace continued to publish accounts of alleged sexual harassment by Gothard. Between 2012 and 2014 more than 30 women accused their mentor of sexual harassment, alleging a pattern of behavior that dated back to the 1970s. In June 2013, Recovering Grace issued a public “call to repentance” by Gothard.
By 2014, the evidence about Gothard became too much to bear for IBLP. In early February, Recovering Grace publicly called for Gothard to be “disqualified” from ministry, citing his female accusers and a “40-year pattern of moral failure, abuse of spiritual authority, and mishandling of Scripture.” By the end of the month, Gothard was on leave from IBLP; that March, he resigned. (None of the women have filed criminal charges against him or filed civil suits.) David Waller, Josh and Anna Duggar’s brother-in-law, wrote a letter explaining the resignation to ATI families, in his capacity as ATI’s administrative director. In the letter, he wrote, “Our mission has not changed and we remain committed to helping you disciple your children so that they also can advance God’s kingdom.”
Gothard declined to be interviewed for this article, and did not respond to emailed questions. His website includes a statement that “God is my witness that I have never kissed a girl, nor touched any young lady in a sensual way. However, I do understand in a much deeper way how these young ladies feel and how my insensitivity caused them to feel the way they do. I have deeply repented before the Lord for offending some of the very ones whom I have dedicated my life to serve. I do want to continue pursuing reconciliation in a Biblical way.”
Meanwhile, 19 Kids and Counting continued to be a hit. While Gothard’s resignation rocked the evangelical world, it had no apparent impact on the portrayal of the Duggars on television. Their fame had made the family, and Josh in particular, celebrities of the Christian right, rubbing elbows with prominent Republicans. In 2013, Josh became executive director of FRC Action at age 25. The family stumped for Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign in 2012 and was supporting Mike Huckabee’s 2016 bid as recently as May 2015.
As the Recovering Grace revelations became public and Gothard resigned, the Duggars did not cut ties with IBLP. In February 2012, the Duggars attended the wedding when Anna Duggar’s sister Priscilla married David Waller, the ATI administrator. Gothard gave a ten-minute speech at the wedding (though his appearance was not included in the 19 Kids episode that aired in August). Other episodes that season followed Josh and Anna as they attended a baby shower for Priscilla in Chicago.
Just a year before the abuse revelations broke, Josh Duggar spoke at a May 2014 ATI conference, extolling the importance of living “a life of holiness” for the sake of one’s children. His siblings, he said, looked up to him as the oldest: “I had a greater influence on my younger siblings than my parents did in so many ways,” he said. He hinted vaguely at his past, saying that when he was 15 his father “got me connected with some people who were really solid that would spiritually guide me” toward a “path of righteousness.”
One of the Bates daughters, Erin Bates, married Chad Paine, whose father, Stephen, continues to serve on the IBLP board, in November 2013. According to the Bateses’ own blog, Gothard gave the opening prayer.
TLC documented the wedding in an episode of 19 Kids and Counting titled “Wedding Bells” that aired on April 15, 2014, about a month after Gothard resigned. In the episode, Chad describes how he and Erin met because they were both involved with the same “ministry,” but he does not identify it. Gothard is briefly visible in a shot of the wedding ceremony itself, on the altar near the bride and groom.
That fall, 19 Kids continued to be a ratings bonanza for TLC. The two-hour special showing Jill Duggar’s wedding to Derick Diller “was its highest rated show to date, beating Sons of Anarchy and landing more than 4 million viewers,” according to ETOnline.
Even after the avalanche of attention—and condemnation—following the In Touch report, in the eyes of many Gothard devotees, Josh had merely committed a forgivable offense by a child. As for Discovery and TLC, the network reacted by airing a commercial free special on childhood sexual abuse at the end of August, which focused on preventing abuse by mitigating opportunities for adults to abuse children, such as leaving children alone in the care of a relative, rather than on addressing the behavior of abusers. Michelle Duggar, Jessa Seewald, and Jill Dillard all appeared in the program without any acknowledgement of the abuse in their own family.
Josh Duggar’s sister Jessa Duggar Seewald, who was nine or 10 years old when the abuse took place, said in the June interview on Fox News that “in Josh’s case he was a boy, young boy in puberty and a little too curious about girls and that got him into some trouble.”
Robert Norvell, who ran an IBLP training center in Eagle Mountain, Arkansas, for 12 years, said the Duggars had contacted him in 2003 about sending Josh to his facility. Jim Bob “just told me that Josh was having some struggles and just wondered if I could take him for a while,” but he turned them down because his facility was full.
Norvell said he did not know about the sexual abuse until the May 2015 In Touch report. But he dismissed the abuse as insignificant, pointing to Gothard’s teachings. “What you’re hearing about Josh is a stupid thing that a little boy did,” Norvell said. “In the seminar, Bill [Gothard] calls it a natural curiosity. Had it been as traumatic as they make it out to be, the sisters would have been bitter, and the sisters are not bitter. I know the whole family.”
As for Norvell, he hasn’t lost his faith in Gothard, who he considers a friend. His seminars, he said, “changed my life.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Sarah Posner is a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches. Her reporting and commentary on religion and politics has also appeared in the Atlantic, Al Jazeera America, Politico, the Washington Post, Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The Nation, and many other publications. Contact the author at [email protected].
*not his real name
**not her real name