On Wednesday night the Duggar parents sat down with Fox News' Megyn Kelly for an emotional interview punctuated by tears, efforts to downplay the abuse that took place in their home, and claims that they're being victimized by the media. The stars of TLC's 19 Kids and Counting told Kelly that 12 years ago, their 14-year-old son Josh came crying to them, saying he had touched several of their daughters. "We were just devastated, I don't think any parent is prepared for trauma like that," Michelle Duggar said. "I think we had one ray of hope in that Josh had a tender conscience, and he was the one that came and shared on his own." Josh told his parents he was curious about girls and had touched some of his sisters over their clothes while they were sleeping. None of the girls, according to the parents, were aware of the touching.
The Duggars told Kelly they tried to deal with the unsettling revelation in-house first, claiming they did the best they could under the circumstances: They punished him, watched him, took him to work so he wasn't near his sisters, and safeguarded the girls' bedroom.
Jim Bob and Michelle stressed that all touching was over the clothes — but then conceded there was some brief touching under clothes. "This was not rape or anything like that," Jim Bob Duggar said. "This was like touching someone over their clothes." Later he noted, "As we've talked to other families who've had other things happen, a lot of their stories were even worse."
After the third abuse incident, they pulled Josh out of their family's home to go to Christian-based counseling. Jim Bob likened the family's choice between protecting their son and their daughters to Jesus' "Parable of the Lost Sheep."
"We felt like our son's heart had gone astray," Jim Bob said. "As parents, we still loved Josh and we loved our other ones. We were going to protect those that are in our hands, but also we're going to make sure that Josh doesn't make any wrong choices." They said they felt like failures for letting the incidents happen, but also backpedaled and explained it's not really their fault. "The truth is that kids will make their own choices, and they will make their own decisions even though you've taught them what's right and wrong."
After Josh apologized to his victims (which included four siblings and a babysitter), the parents said they made Josh confess everything, with a witness, at the Arkansas State Police headquarters. The state trooper who took the report never followed up, and by the time the case was taken up again the three-year statute of limitations had passed (the trooper was later convicted on child pornography charges). Michelle said all of their children, including Josh, received counseling from an accredited professional. "Josh is a changed person," Jim Bob added.
The Duggar parents claim they had no fear in starting their reality show because they believed they had taken care of Josh's issues. As Kelly pointed out, though, Josh's dark past was bound to be dug up once their family entered the public eye. Jim Bob put a positive spin on the scandal: "I said, God, I know that there are a lot of families out there hurting, and you know what? This isn't something that we wanted to come out, but if people can see that Josh, who did these very bad things when he was a young person — that God could forgive him for these terrible things, then I hope other people realize God can forgive them."
In Touch broke the initial story by obtaining and publishing a Springdale Police Department report about the sexual abuse, using the Freedom of Information Act. The tabloid published a new report Wednesday that reveals the Duggars waited roughly 16 months before contacting authorities and other professionals about the molestations. This was not directly addressed in the interview. The Duggars said they're considering suing over the disclosures and want to be advocates for protecting juvenile records. Michelle said her daughters have been "victimized more in the last couple of weeks than 12 years ago."
In a brief preview of the second half of the interview, which will air Friday at 9 p.m. ET, Jill Dillard, 24, and Jessa Seewald, 22, said they feel the leak violated their privacy. "We are victims, they can't do this to us," Dillard said through tears. "I do want to speak up in [Josh's] defense against people who are calling him a child molester or a pedophile or a rapist," Jessa reportedly told Kelly. "I’m like, 'That is so overboard and a lie really.' I mean, people get mad at me for saying that, but I can say this because I was one of the victims."
When the Duggar parents were confronted about claims that they are hypocrites — particularly for a recent robocall in which Michelle suggested transgender women are child predators — Jim Bob said she was talking about pedophiles, and Josh doesn't fit that description. "Joshua was actually 14 and just turned 15 when he did what he did and I think the legal definition is 16 and up for being an adult preying on a child," he said. "So he was a child preying on a child."
Michelle said of their critics, "I feel like this is more about, there's an agenda and there's people that are purposing [sic] to try to bring things out and twisting them to hurt and slander."
While TLC has stopped airing episodes of 19 Kids and Counting, and at least 20 companies have distanced themselves from the program, the network has yet to cancel its top-rated show. "I don’t know if the rest of our family should be punished for the act of one of our children," said Jim Bob, adding, "We are fine whether they film us or not."
This post has been updated throughout.