Sunday night, TLC aired an hourlong, commercial-free documentary about child sex abuse called Breaking the Silence. It looked like a good-faith move on the part of a network that’s been been struggling with the P.R. fallout around 19 Kids and Counting: The Duggar family of the popular TLC series had spent years presenting themselves as a wholesome Christian clan, while hiding the fact that their eldest son, Josh, had been caught molesting underage girls, including his own sisters. His parents didn’t report the offenses for more than a year, and instead of seeking help for Josh, they had a family friend give him “a very stern talk.” (That family friend, Arkansas state trooper Jim Hutchens, will likely spend the rest of his life in prison for possessing child pornography.)
TLC canceled 19 Kids and Counting after this revelation, and this film—which centers mostly around an activist named Erin Merryn—doubles a kind of public apology for TLC’s part in the Duggar debacle. A few of the Duggars even make an appearance: Matriarch Michelle Duggar and daughters Jessa Seewald and Jill Dillard, both of whom Josh victimized, appear briefly in the documentary, speaking to the camera after a seminar about sex abuse prevention. You’d expect that, in this context, they might grapple with how Michelle and Jim Bob’s handling of Josh’s behavior is a textbook example of how not to deal with sex abuse. So what did they have to say?
“I feel like this should be a discussion people are having, even regularly,” Seewald says. “I think that it shouldn’t be a taboo subject, that we should be bringing awareness to child sexual abuse and talking about this.”
So … great? Oh wait, here’s Michelle Duggar!
“I was so glad that my girls and I were able to do this together and that we could just be a support and encouragement to each other to be able to gain more information about this important topic,” Michelle Duggar says.
Michelle is glad! So very glad for this opportunity to … well, we’re not sure.
If we had to guess, though, the real opportunity here is for the Duggars to spin themselves as concerned citizens shining a light on a terrible problem—the same terrible problem they concealed and denied, even to themselves, for the better part of a decade. It’s particularly disturbing to see two of Josh Duggar’s victims being deployed for clean-up duty on their family’s reputation, while Josh and father Jim Bob—who appeared to be calling the shots in the cover-up of Josh’s behavior—stay out of sight.
It’s even more of a shame when everyone else involved in the documentary sincerely cares about this issue and are fighting for policy solutions. Merryn, for instance, fights to pass laws that require schools to implement sex abuse prevention programs that educate students and teachers on what sex abuse is and how to spot it. This is serious, useful information. It doesn’t need to be mixed up with the Duggar family’s five-point plan for getting America to start giving them money again.