Written June 29, 2023 by Jessica Schidlow, Legal Director of CHILD USA

Jessica Schidlow, ESQ, MA, NCC, has an extensive background in child welfare and leads the Legal Team at CHILD USA. After law school, Jessica joined the Montgomery County Public Defender’s Office in their Child Advocacy Unit, where she represented hundreds of at-risk and dependent youth in their Juvenile and Orphan’s Court proceedings.


Over the last several years, there has been a trend of documentaries highlighting various extreme religious groups and the abuses they have allowed within those communities. The new series, “Shiny Happy People,” is the latest in a trend of documentaries aimed at deconstructing the abusive systems within extreme religious groups. It comes on the heels of other greats including “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” “Keep Sweet Pray and Obey,” “The Vow,” “The Keepers,” and “One of Us,” to name a few. These documentaries help to show and expose how children are harmed in extreme religious communities.

“Shiny Happy People” highlights the Duggar family—parents Jim Bob and Michelle and their 19 biological children—who rose to fame on the reality television series “19 Kids and Counting,” captivating viewers thanks to their ultra-conservative religious beliefs and adherence to strict faith-based practices including family supervised courtships before marriage and modest dress for women and girls. But underneath their wholesome veneer, the family held a disturbing secret—that the eldest Duggar son, Josh, molested five underage girls, including four of his sisters, when he was a teenager, and that his parents knew about the abuse and repeatedly tried to cover it up. Josh was later arrested and convicted on charges of child pornography and sentenced to 12.5 years in prison.

The docuseries “Shiny Happy People” chronicles the Duggar family’s fall from grace but more than that, it frames Josh’s abuse within the theological and power structures of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a Christian fundamentalist group whose teachings guide the Duggar’s conservative lifestyle. In doing so, “Shiny Happy People” forces viewers to critically examine the institutional structures that allow child sexual abuse to run rampant within this religious community.

But the IBLP represents just one of many extreme religious groups whose theological underpinnings in moral authority, obedience, and female submission put children in danger—Jehovah’s Witness, Scientology, Christian Science, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), Plain Communities (ex the Amish), and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities all share structural features that contribute to a wider problem perpetuating sexual abuse in America’s religious institutions.

The Tyranny of Patriarchal Rule: Extreme religious groups that thrive on principles of patriarchal rule, female purity, and blind obedience to authority provide fertile ground for child sexual abuse to flourish, the IBLP being a prime example.

The IBLP teachings center on a so-called “umbrella system,” a tiered system of authority with God at the top, followed by men, women, and children. Children are expected to be homeschooled following an IBLP-based curriculum which teaches that women are seductresses, men are sexual deviants, and that women’s bodies are valued exclusively as objects for male pleasure. In the docuseries, women, and former IBLP members, recount how these teachings made them especially vulnerable to abuse—as children they were taught to blindly obey men and they were denied any sex education necessary to articulate, let alone fully grasp, when boundaries were crossed. The patriarchal nature of these communities ensures that abusers have ample opportunities to exploit their positions of trust.

The Weaponization of Religious Text: Those that perpetrate abuse not only draw upon their positions of power and authority but also on assertions about God’s will, to justify their actions. When leaders are considered infallible and their directives are seen as divine, questioning their actions or speaking out against their abuse becomes sacrilegious.

Misguided interpretations of religious text can also be used to foster an environment where children are seen as inherently sinful and thus in need of discipline, thereby blurring the lines between religious devotion and harmful abuse. It can also perpetuate the victim-blaming that is prevalent in these communities, discouraging them from speaking out thereby shielding perpetrators from scrutiny.

Ideological Control and Isolation: Ideological control is a cornerstone of extreme religious communities which plays a crucial role in enabling the patterns of abuse within these groups. This cycle of control often involves sheltering community members from external influences by encouraging their children to be homeschooled and by limiting access to secular books, television, and music. Without access to an education, friends outside of the religion, or secular entertainment those situated in these religious communities are prevented from gaining an objective understanding of their circumstances. This lack of exposure can lead to a distorted perception of what constitutes acceptable behavior, making it easier for abusive practices to flourish.

Even when abuses are brought to light, victims are left without access to external resources, systems, or avenues for reporting abuse. The absence of external scrutiny or oversight allows perpetrators to operate with impunity, shielded from the reach of law enforcement and the protective measures of child welfare agencies.

Prioritization of the Institution Over the Individual: It is a disturbing reality that many of these groups place power and profit over the safety and well-being of children. Disclosures of abuse are frequently met with skepticism or denial by institutions seeking to protect themselves from litigation or loss of reputation. Fearful of tarnishing their image or losing followers, these groups are more likely to engage in the reprehensible practice of covering up child sexual abuse. This cover-up serves to protect not only the abusers but also the financial interests of the organization. Even victims’ own family members may be suspicious of such allegations, favoring instead the perceived credibility of the institution and its religious figurehead. Such responses deter reporting and perpetuate cultures of silence within these communities.

The public is only beginning to grasp the insidious ways in which children are being harmed within these insular ultra-religious groups including, as it was with the Duggars, by their own family. But what we do know is horrific and yet the abuse endured within these religious groups is more or less accepted while the same would never be tolerated in secular communities. Often, these organizations defend the abhorrent behaviors of the faithful in the name of religious freedom. However, the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion do not sanction harming other people in the exercise of one’s religion, and they do not allow religion to serve as a legal defense when they do. Real change is only going to come when faith communities recognize that religion, for all the good it can do, can also do significant harm to children. In this respect “Shiny Happy People” has provided an immense public service.