Hate-watching the Duggar scandal: Feeding bottomless appetites for hypocrisy, schadenfreude and shame

UPDATED: An In Touch story of "inappropriate" behavior by Josh Duggar at 17 becomes a tabloid sensation

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 21, 2015 3:31AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Brian Frank)
(Reuters/Brian Frank)

It was a kind of jackpot for the hate watchers when America's ongoing perverse fascination with epic breeders the Duggar family took a particularly prurient turn this week. But let's put the pitchforks down and keep the schadenfreude in check for a minute.

A report first published in In Touch says that over ten years ago, a then 17 year-old Josh Duggar was "brought into the Arkansas State Police by his father, Jim Bob, who said he caught him leaving a young girl’s bedroom and 'learned something inappropriate happened.'" Sources who say they've seen the report claim that "the charge being pursued while Josh was a minor was sexual assault in the fourth degree." In a strange twist, the state trooper who initially was brought in to take the report allegedly "never followed up" and was later convicted on child porn charges. The statute of limitations on the case has long expired. Sgt. Darrel Hignite, who In Touch identifies as the lead investigator in the case, says now only that "I can’t comment or discuss [this case] because of the sensitive nature and because it involved a juvenile."

The overheated chops licking over allegations involving a family so eager to campaign against gay rights and reproductive choice, one so heavily self-identified as espousing a rigidly wholesome version of Christianity, began immediately. The headlines — from the Daily Mail to the Frisky to Towleroad -- quickly seized on the possibility that openly anti marriage equality  father of three, who's an executive director for the reliably gross Family Research Council, "Might Be A Child Molester." 

Rumors about Josh have circulated online for several years, in part because of the family's involvement in a Christian boot camp-type facility called ALERT, and questions of whether Josh had been "sent away" there. And it's not as if a vehemently Christian public figure behaving in a morally reprehensible way would be completely unheard of. It's pretty much all but expected.

However, while the InTouch allegations may indeed be thoroughly fact-checked and appropriately sourced, let's also remember this information is coming from the people who earlier this year featured a revoltingly altered cover image and unverified quotes from "a source" about Bruce Jenner's then-unconfirmed gender transition. Let's remember two years ago, when parent company Bauer media settled a $50 million lawsuit that Tom Cruise slapped on them after claims he'd "abandoned" daughter Suri.

More significantly, let's remember that there is a lot of room for ambiguity in words like "young girl" and "inappropriate." That could mean anything from sexual abuse to something involving two consenting teenagers, and a pre-television fame father who wanted to punish his eldest child. From the sound of it, Jim Bob himself did not witness anything, and the girl allegedly involved has not spoken up. Under Arkansas law, sexual assault in the fourth degree can be just about anything — it's defined as "sexual contact with another person, not the person’s spouse, who is less than sixteen (16) years of age." And it's a misdemeanor.

While there's maybe a small measure of satisfaction in imagining a self-righteous family being exposed as hypocrites, there's ultimately nothing gratifying to be found in the borderline gleeful, gotcha-style excitement now swirling over the In Touch report. Either Josh Duggar actually did something wrong over a decade ago and got away with it, or a trivial incident has been blown wildly out of proportion. Either way, it's a story with nothing in it to feel good about. Nothing at all.

UPDATE: On Thursday, In Touch followed up its story with new details culled from Springdale, Arkansas police reports obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. The 33 pages of material include accusations of "multiple sex offenses — including forcible fondling — against five minors," going back to 2002.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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