From "I think he should rot in hell" to "[the scandal] should be put to bed leave the family alone"
The famously conservative Duggars seemed to be models of wholesome family life, but son Josh was hiding a dark past: He allegedly molested five young girls as a teen. Subscribe now for an inside look at the Duggars’ dark family secrets, only in PEOPLE.
Many of the residents in Washington County, Arkansas, are reeling from a scandal that has put them – and their most famous residents – under a microscope.
There are few inside the Duggars’ county without an opinion about the explosive reveal that Michelle and Jim Bob‘s eldest child Josh was investigated as a teen for the alleged molestation of five underage girls.
The reactions are wide-ranging: One young mother, while herding her two small children in the parking lot of a Walmart, tells PEOPLE of Josh: “I think he should rot in Hell!”
Meanwhile, friends of the Duggars remain as unfailingly supportive as Josh’s parents and wife, Anna, have been since the scandal broke. Grace Branham, who attended Jill Duggar‘s wedding to Derick Dillard, tells PEOPLE, “I’ve known the family for years. They try to do the right thing.”
Her comments echoed what a source close to the Duggars previously told PEOPLE – that Michelle and Jim Bob are “devastated” over the police report leak. “They know that they did the best they could, but it doesn’t mean they’re not filled with regret.”
Adds Branham, 85: “I think [the scandal] should be put to bed and doubled down the road and leave the family alone. I think it’s sad.” A retired public school teacher, she also has no problem with Michelle and Jim Bob’s choice to homeschool their 19 children. “There’s a lot of busywork in public schools. I think that’s their business,” says Branham.
What Do the Neighbors Think?
Carolyn Trammell, who lives two doors down from the Duggars in Tontitown, tells PEOPLE that the 19 Kids and Counting stars are a “nice family but kind of different.”
“They’re homeschooled and don’t get out among other children,” she adds, noting that the neighbors are “concerned that the children didn’t get the attention and opportunities they should have gotten.”
Trammell acknowledges that while the Duggars take trips – TLC aired a three-part special in November 2011 called “Duggars World Tour” – “if you’re not out in this world there’s other education besides trips and homeschooling. [Michelle]’s having one baby after another. Who’s teaching them?”
During the holidays, Trammell adds, hers was the only one of the neighbors’ houses serenaded with Christmas carols by the Duggars. She even received a bag of goodies – a Bible and handmade soap.
A 21-year-old local businessman who grew up a half-mile away from the Duggars says that he had “never noticed anything amiss except this big house. They just seemed like a normal family. They’d all pile in a van and go to Braum’s [a local ice cream parlor] just like a normal family. [While there], they’re not loud, not disrespectful.”
However, he adds, Josh’s lobbying against LGBTQ rights in his former position at the Family Research Council feels hypocritical given what we know now: “I think he should be more sympathetic toward other people’s rights knowing he had made mistakes in the past.”
Related Video: PEOPLE Editors’ Roundtable on the Duggars Cover Story
How Will It Reflect on Their Home and Faith?
Other Arkansas residents are concerned with how the scandal reflects on Christianity as a whole – the Duggars belong to a fundamentalist sect – with one Springdale resident confessing to PEOPLE, “If [Josh] did it, I wish he would admit to it. It makes other Christians who try to live by the Book look bad,” says Page Kale, 26, a wife and mother of two.
“I think a lot of people are super embarrassed,” says a Fayetteville TV executive, 38. “I wish people wouldn’t think of this as the first thing when they hear about Fayetteville. There’s a lot of success here, a lot of growth here.”
Who’s to Blame?
Another Fayetteville resident – a TV ad executive – doesn’t place the blame squarely on Josh. “I think it’s up to the parents to educate [their children] about something as intimate as sex,” he tells PEOPLE.
Indeed, even experts believe that Josh is not solely at fault for what the family has referred to as “teenage mistakes.”
“In a case such as Josh’s, authorities should have been alerted right away,” Gail Wyatt, Ph.D. and director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Sexual Health program, previously told PEOPLE.
“The story will be submerged if the kid feels overwhelmed or blamed. You need to get the story while it can be told,” she said, echoing what the residents of Washington County have also believed about the connection between Josh’s childhood isolation from his peers and the alleged acts of molestation.
“The best thing to do is to tell the truth about it get help,” Wyatt said. “Teenagers who have been isolated from their peers may be more likely to act out sexually, the abuser is trying to make themselves feel better. It s about power.”
• With reporting by JOHN ANDERSON