Child Abuse, the Church, and Matthew 18

As I have watched the media coverage of the Josh Duggar scandal, I have wondered what purpose God could have for allowing these events to be brought into the public eye at this late date, some 12 years later.   God must have had some greater goal in mind, something to outweigh the damage done to the victims by the media circus that has ensued.

While I abhor child abuse of any kind, I do have some sympathy for Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar.  It is never easy to learn that one of your children has committed a heinous crime.  Even when a child is grown, it’s a parent’s natural instinct to want to protect and shelter their children — even ones that have done horrible things.  I feel sympathy for Josh Duggar, too, as from reports it appears he may not have received counseling from a licensed therapist to address whatever issues may have caused him to harm others sexually.  All too often, sexual predators were abused themselves as children, and need therapy to address those scars as well.  While the efficacy of treatment for adult sex offenders is debated, the literature indicates that youthful sex offenders who receive professional treatment have far better outcomes than those who do not.

Of course, the vast majority of my sympathy goes to the five young women who are now reliving one of the worst times in their lives, and watching their personal tragedies being exploited to score political points.  There’s no doubt his sisters love Josh, and it must hurt them to see their brother targeted by an online lynch mob.  They love their parents as well, and even if Jim Bob and Michelle did not seek outside help as soon as they might have, it was better late than never.  Many families never do disclose abuse to outsiders, and the secret stays buried forever.  The parents should be commended for finally getting the courage to break the silence, even though the guilt for not doing so sooner will probably be with them the rest of their lives.

When the Duggars realized they could not handle this situation alone, they did what many families do when facing tragedy — they went to their church.

In recent decades, many churches have come under scrutiny for their mishandling of child sexual abuse allegations.  Some cases of abuse have been by religious functionaries, but in others (such as Warren Jeff’s first trial) the church protected members of their congregation who had engaged in child abuse. The majority of states have child maltreatment laws that name members of the clergy as “mandated reporters” of child abuse or neglect, in recognition of the pivotal role that churches play in our lives and families.  Most mainline Protestant denominations have exempted their clergy from any perceived duty to maintain confidentiality in matters involving the abuse or neglect of a child, and in 2013 the Southern Baptist Convention stated, “We remind all Southern Baptists of their legal and moral responsibility to report any accusations of child abuse to authorities in addition to implementing any appropriate church discipline or internal restoration processes.”

As the SBC resolution indicates, many churches have implemented church discipline procedures in their congregations, usually as set out in Matthew 18:15-17.  There are definite benefits, for not only the church and the congregation, but the sinner himself, that come from utilizing this process to restore a sinner to communion with their church.  Michelle Duggar has even spoke of using Matthew 18 to assist in dealing with sibling fights.

Unfortunately, some twist scripture to suggest this process must be used even in the case of child abuse or neglect, and even suggest that victims who first go to civil authorities before following the Matthew 18 process should apologize to their abusers.  According to the police report, the Duggar’s church decided to use church discipline to handle this matter and not report the abuse immediately to authorities, even though one of the church’s elders (Rev. Jim Holt, who ran against Blanche Lincoln in 2004, ran for Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas in 2006, and was defeated in the 2010 Senate primary by [mc_name name=’Sen. John Boozman (R-AR)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’B001236′ ]) was a mandated reporter of child abuse or neglect allegations.   Had the abuse been reported in a timely fashion to the Child Abuse Hotline as required by law (not to a pedophile who inspected car dealers) and Josh Duggar been ordered to receive treatment, he likely would have been sent to the Piney Ridge Treatment Center, where Rev. Jim Holt had himself served as chaplain.  He would also have been eligible to have his entire juvenile record sealed, and it’s unlikely these events would have ever been in the news.  Instead, Josh and his victims received questionable treatment at best from a group whose founder has been shamed for sexual indiscretions himself.

Using the Matthew 18 process to discipline church members even in child abuse cases is sadly not uncommon.  Even before this incident, organizations like “Recovering Grace” and “G.R.A.C.E.” (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) have been warning of the dangers inherent in trying to handle child abuse allegations “in-house” instead of immediately reporting suspicions of child abuse to civil authorities.  Indeed, even in 1 Peter and Romans 13:1-7, the Bible tells us that those civil authorities are “ministers of God” whose purpose is to punish evil deeds, and that those who are innocent should not fear the law.  It is not only un-Biblical to allow church discipline procedures to interfere, subvert, or take the place of law enforcement, it is also legally dangerous.  Churches can be sued for failure to report, and individual members of the clergy or others subject to mandated reporting requirements can face criminal penalties.  These warnings, however, have often fallen on deaf ears.

It is my hope that some good can come out of this personal tragedy for the Duggar family — it’s the least we owe these five young women for dragging their past into the media.  If we can learn from this incident, and ensure our churches do not inadvertently interfere with the legal process in the future, then maybe their suffering was not entirely in vain.