Organization Duggar family linked to enabled sexual abuse, former members claim

Organization Duggar family linked to enabled sexual abuse, former members claim

Former “19 Kids and Counting” star Josh Duggar was arrested last month for allegedly possessing child pornography.

It’s just the latest dark episode for the ex-TLC reality show personality. The son of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar has also been accused of molesting four of his sisters as well as another girl when he was a teenager, cheating on his wife and having a porn addiction. 

These allegations are shocking, especially in light of the Duggar’s ultrareligious upbringing. But people familiar with the family’s particular sect of fundamentalist Christianity, the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), claim it has played a role in enabling abuse by Duggar and others.

The conservative family is linked to IBLP, an organization that produces religious seminars. Michelle and Jim Bob were expected to speak at an IBLP conference before their son’s arrest. The many Duggar children were home-schooled using a faith-based program called Advanced Training Institute (ATI), created by IBLP founder Bill Gothard. Gothard even ran the facility that counseled a teenage Josh when he admitted to abusing his sisters. Although Gothard stepped down from IBLP in 2014 after being accused of sexual harassment himself, he continued to work with families, including the Duggars. Gothard has denied the sexual harassment claims against him. 


“A lot of abuse occurred,” because of the group’s teachings, Lara Smith, a former ATI member, told The Post. “With [abusers like] Josh, the whole environment set him up for success in his disgustingness.”

Josh Duggar was arrested last month for allegedly receiving and possessing child pornography.

Josh Duggar was arrested last month for allegedly receiving and possessing child pornography.
(Kris Connor/Getty Images)

Growing up outside of Houston, Smith’s Southern Baptist parents started using ATI and attending IBLP seminars when she was 12. Soon, she was traveling to “serve” at training centers in Oklahoma, Indianapolis and Michigan. Later, when she was 17, she claims she was sexually assaulted by a staffer at one of the centers. 

IBLP and ATI did not respond to requests for comment.

After his April arrest, Duggar pleaded not guilty to both charges. “In this country, no one can stop prosecutors from charging a crime. But when you’re accused, you can fight back in the courtroom — and that is exactly what Josh intends to do,” his lawyers, who did not respond to The Post’s request for comment, said in a statement at the time.

“We were taught our bodies don’t belong to us. They belong to God. And so in that realm, anything that happens, God wants it to happen,” Smith, 35, said, of the lessons she learned through ATI and IBLP.

While Heather Heath wasn’t abused, she heard from fellow members who had been. As a teen, she traveled from Connecticut to Oklahoma after her parents started utilizing ATI when she was 9, although she had always been home-schooled.


Both Heath and Smith consider ATI and IBLP to be a cult. ATI blends traditional school subjects like math and science with Christianity, and indoctrinates students with the fundamentals of IBLP.

At the training centers, according to both Smith and Heath, the girls would attend “wisdom searches,” a form of Bible study. In addition to discussing verses and insights they had from God, they would also reveal their sins, including sexual assault. “If we had been assaulted, we had to confess what we did that brought the assault on us,” Heath said.

She remembered when a fellow teen confessed during one of these sessions that her older brother had abused her. It was such a common experience, that Heath, now a medic, said she was told she “wouldn’t understand,” because she didn’t have an older brother that she could “tempt.”  

“She was like, ‘No good Christian man will marry me because I’m not a virgin,’ ” Heath, now 33, recalled the girl saying. “I was like, ‘No, it is not not your fault if someone else hurt you.’ And then I got locked in my room to pray about that, because I was wrong.” 

Many of IBLP’s teachings may discourage victims from reporting their abuse outside their family due to the group’s ideological hierarchy known as the “Umbrella of Protection.” God is above all else, then pastors, then fathers, then mothers, then children. “As long as you’re under [your] umbrella, the rain” — sin and temptation from the devil — “can’t touch you,” said Heath.

The philosophy has far-reaching consequences: Disobeying your parents or husband or pastor can harm you for life. “Every decision we encounter in life was basically a heaven-or-hell decision,” said Smith. 


Surprisingly, the organization did have a protocol for counseling sexual abuse: a chart published in 2013 by Recovering Grace, a resource for ex-followers of IBLP and ATI, that the site claims was distributed at ATI counseling seminars for more than a decade.

Josh Duggar's wife Anna is currently pregnant with their seventh child.

Josh Duggar’s wife Anna is currently pregnant with their seventh child.
(Kris Connor/Getty Images)

It explains how group leaders should help those who have experienced sexual assault: The onus for the attack is put on the victim for “defrauding” the abuser. “Immodest dress, indecent exposure, being out from protection of our parents,” are all reasons that God “let it happen,” it reads.

One marriage guide for women even includes a portion on what to do if your husband “ever sexually handles your children,” author Debi Pearl, a minister whose books were sold by IBLP, wrote in “Created To Be His Help Meet.”

Although wives should testify and pray their husbands “get 20 years in prison,” they should also “visit him there, be an encouragement to him… let him see the children three to four times a year.”

In girls’ Bible study, Smith said she was told, “You need to be very careful what you do, what you say, what you wear, how you act, because at any moment, you could trigger a boy, basically.” 

“There’s absolutely no personal responsibility for the boys,” she said.


It’s because of these teachings that Smith didn’t speak out when a staff member at an IBLP training center sexually assaulted her. 

She was around 17 at the time, and a 21-year-old maintenance staffer climbed into her bed in the middle of the night.

“I was asleep, and suddenly he’s in my bed making out with me,” she recalled. It became a pattern: The man would come into her room every night, since he had a master key for his maintenance job.

“We didn’t have sex, but we did everything else,” said Smith. “I didn’t have the capacity to say, ‘Hey, I don’t like it.’ ” 


When she returned home from the center, she and her father surprisingly received a call from Gothard, who’s “basically God,” said Smith. She assumes her friend had told one of the leaders about the incidents.

Josh Duggar was was granted release by a federal judge on May 6.

Josh Duggar was was granted release by a federal judge on May 6.
(Washington Co. Sheriff’s Office)

Although she was expecting to be reprimanded, instead, “[Gothard] wanted the dirty details. He started asking the creepiest questions, he was like, ‘What time did he kiss you?’ and ‘What time did he put his hands here?’ and ‘Did he do this to you?,’ ” Smith remembered, calling it “gross.”

Gothard, now 86, did not respond to The Post’s requests for comment.

She and her parents never spoke about the assault again, and her assailant never received any form of punishment. 

Both Smith and Heath left IBLP in early adulthood. Smith’s parents have also left, as has Heath’s mother, although her father still follows the teachings. But while they’re no longer with the group, they still feel its effects on their adult lives. 


“I dated a guy for four years because I didn’t think I was allowed to say, ‘No, I don’t want to go out with you,’ ” said Heath. Now a mom of 5-year-old twins, she plans to release a book this summer about her experience with ATI called “Lovingly Abused,” and is looking for a publisher. 

“My sense of bodily autonomy is still really messed up,” said Smith. Both she and Heath have amassed strong followings on TikTok and Instagram, where they use their platform to connect with other IBLP survivors, and tell their stories about the organization.

“To this day, there’s people like me who aren’t totally convinced we were abused. But we were.”

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