A few days before Oprah was scheduled to host the Duggar family on her show in December 2006, her production company, Harpo Studios, received a very strange, anonymous email.
At the time, the Arkansas family was best known for starring in the 2004 documentary 14 Kids and Pregnant Again! and for espousing ultra-conservative Christian values, particularly during patriarch Jim Bob’s run for U.S. Senate in 2002. And yet, despite the family’s super clean public image, the email accused the Duggars’ eldest son, Josh, of molesting girls, and his parents, Michelle and Jim Bob, of covering up his actions.
“I think that you should know the truth before they make a complete fool of you and your show,” read the email. “They have been on TV before and come across as a perfect family, which couldn’t be further from the truth. They jump from show to show to receive gifts for their family and to make them look really good. Please consider this and confront them about their secret.”
Oprah did not end up confronting the Duggars about the allegations on her show (she canceled their appearance), but her studio did pass along the email to the Department of Human Services, who opened up a police investigation. Though the police filed a report, by that point, three years had passed since the crimes were committed, which meant that the statute of limitations had expired on prosecuting Josh. So nothing happened.
Well, not nothing: The Duggars went on to act exactly as the email predicted, starring in the incredibly popular TLC reality show, 19 Kids and Counting (formerly 17 and then 18 kids) starting in 2008. Oprah may have been spared from being made a “complete fool,” but TLC either didn’t receive a similar email, or they chose to ignore it.
And for a while, it paid off. 19 Kids and Counting was an incredible ratings success, often landing in Nielsen’s top 25 cable shows. While the Duggars faced criticism for their reactionary attitudes on things like birth control, abortions (which Michelle famously called a “baby Holocaust”) and gay marriage, they were also beloved by the Christian Right for their emphasis on family values. The Christian Reconstructionist group Vision Forum even named Michelle Duggar “Mother of the Year” in 2010 at its “Historic Baby Conference.”
All of this seemed very ironic, of course, when In Touch magazine broke the news in May this year about Josh’s actions, publishing a copy of the police report that had been filed in 2006. The report showed that when Josh was 14, he had molested at least five girls—four of them his own sisters, one a babysitter—between 2002 and 2003. Jim Bob and Michelle had known about his actions and had taken steps to get him help—albeit ones that many found inadequate.
Josh, they told police (and later Fox News), came to them in 2002 crying that he had “improperly touched” two of his sisters when they were sleeping. The Duggars tried to put “safeguards” in place, but Josh continued to fondle his sisters while they were asleep and awake, and after the third time it happened, the family consulted with the elders in their church, and decided to send him away to some sort of Christian clinic in Little Rock, Arkansas, from March to July 2003. What exactly that clinic was is not totally clear; the Duggars told Fox News in June that it was “a man who mentors young men, and he really helped young men who had made unwise choices in their lives to get straightened out.” They admitted that the man was not a licensed therapist, but said they strongly believe that ever since Josh returned from the facility, he stopped his inappropriate behavior.
When Josh came home, the Duggars brought him to the police station where he admitted what he had done to a police officer named Jim Hutchens. Hutchens gave Josh a “stern lecture,” but did not pursue any charges or write up a police report. Hutchens was later arrested in 2007 on child pornography charges, and is facing a 56-year sentence. Many found it quite suspicious that the officer who took the account just happened to be a pedophile, but the Duggars have since denied that they purposefully chose Hutchens.
The Duggars also told some family friends about the incident, one of whom wrote a letter about it, which was placed in a book. That letter is believed to be how the anonymous emailer found out about Josh’s history, leading him or her to contact Harpo studios and set off the official police investigation in 2006.
In Touch got its hands on the police report through the Freedom of Information Act, though it later came out that the report had been released illegally because Josh was a minor. In response to the news, TLC pulled all episodes of 19 Kids and Counting from the air.
With some notable exceptions, public reaction was swift and harsh. The Duggars’ intolerant attitude had always engendered a great deal of anger toward the family, and now that they had fallen, many lashed out against their perceived hypocrisy.
Examples of these were not hard to find. When Jim Bob ran for Senate in 2002, he wrote on his website that “rape and incest represent heinous crimes and as such should be treated as capital crimes.”
And just last year, Michelle Duggar lent her voice to a robocall against a civil rights proposal that would allow transgender people to use the proper bathroom, saying, “I don’t believe the citizens of Fayetteville would want males with past child predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls.”
In reaction, Josh, Michelle, and Jim Bob, and Josh’s wife, Anna, made lengthy statements on Facebook, and Josh quit his job at the conservative lobbying group Family Research Council.
In June, Jim Bob and Michelle went on Megyn Kelly’s Fox News show to tell their side of the story, but their cluelessness and attempts to minimize the severity of Josh’s actions—particularly Jim Bob’s line that “this was not rape or anything like that, this was like touching somebody over their clothes”—sparked even more anger.
Two of Josh’s sisters, Jill and Jessa, also defended him in a later interview that also aired on Fox News. “I do want to speak up in his defense against people who are calling him a child molester or a pedophile or a rapist,” said Jessa. “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 and he made some bad choices. But really, the extent of it was mild inappropriate touching, on fully clothed victims, most of it while girls were sleeping.”
The Duggars lost many of their sponsorship deals and advertisers, but TLC remained reluctant to cancel the show until this Thursday (perhaps due to the $25 million in ad revenue the show generated for the network). In a statement, they announced that they would no longer be filming the show, but that the events have “sparked a critical and important conversation about child protection,” which they are going to continue by producing a documentary about child abuse.
After the documentary, it’s not clear what the next step is for the Duggar family, which has lost both its public platform and pretty much all of its respect. Unsurprisingly, though, they are putting their faith in a higher power than the TV network, writing in a family statement on Thursday: “We know Who holds the future and are confident that He will work all things together for good.”