It was March 30, 2003, and Josh Duggar — not for the first time — had something to confess.
This was just a few weeks past his 15th birthday and a few years before his family found reality TV fame. Behind closed doors, however, he had fondled four younger girls since the age of 12.
That startling admission — which he first made in 2002 and again in a 2003 meeting with parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and two of their best friends, Jim and Bobye Holt, and then again in a 2005 conversation with the Holts — was publicly detailed for the first time on Monday, in emotional testimony at a hearing ahead of Josh's trial on federal charges he received and possessed child pornography two years ago.
Josh, 33, has pleaded not guilty and vowed to "fight back in the courtroom."
In court papers, Josh's attorneys have suggested several other people also had access to the computer at his work where the material was found but that police didn't sufficiently investigate.
Monday's three-hour hearing, in court in Arkansas, turned on what may be a key matter at his trial later this week: whether or not the judge should admit evidence that Josh previously committed child molestation. While his defense maintains that Monday's testimony about his actions two decades ago was not definitive, the only major factual dispute at the hearing was about the extent of his conduct and not whether any molestation occurred.
Josh's illicit history first burst into public view in 2015 when the tabloid In Touch published a 2006 police report (later confirmed by PEOPLE) about an investigation into whether Josh had molested five underage girls, including a few of his sisters.
Josh acknowledged to PEOPLE in a statement at the time that "as a young teenager, I acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret. I hurt others, including my family and close friends …. I would do anything to go back to those teen years and take different actions. I sought forgiveness from those I had wronged and asked Christ to forgive me and come into my life."
But none of that, his defense insists, should be relevant today.
"Let's have a trial about what actually happened in May of 2019," Justin Gelfand urged the judge, contending that the prosecution had "a lot of mountains" to climb in proving the admissibility of Josh's past conduct to help them convict.
Gelfand conceded that the testimony on Monday largely agreed on what Josh did to the minor girls (referred to as Jane Does one through four) when he was a teenager. But Gelfand argued that the prosecution was so far relying only on a sole witness to prove Josh had digitally penetrated one of the girls' genitals — the most serious conduct described in court so far.
D Dipasupil/Getty Josh Duggar in 2014
And while prosecutors pressed the two witnesses, including Josh's dad Jim Bob Duggar, over what Josh had admitted to them all those years ago, the defense argued that Josh's statements were made in the context of "spiritual counseling" with Bobye and Jim Holt, and so should be shielded by the religious privilege between clergy and parishioners.
Gelfand said religious liberty existed to protect certain disclosures in certain contexts — and "this is the epitome of those conversations."
The matter remains pending before Judge Timothy L. Brooks, who questioned Gelfand about where such a privilege would begin and end, including in the context of mandatory reporting laws about child abuse.
Brooks requested further briefings from both prosecutors and the defense by Tuesday, amid jury selection, in hopes of a ruling before the trial is underway.
Prosecutors, for their part, called the testimony damning: "as close to a formal admission of guilt in a courtroom setting as you can get," William Clayman told the judge.
Here is how the day unfolded. (Josh's wife, Anna Duggar, watched from the front row.)
The Duggars' Best Friend Speaks
First to testify for the prosecution was Bobye Holt, whose husband, Jim, has known Jim Bob since the two were in the seventh grade. Bobye said their families were close for decades, attending Bible Grace Fellowship together for nearly 10 years and going on ski trips. "We loved them," she said, adding, "We loved Josh." He called her "aunt Bobye," she said.
The Holts' oldest daughter dated Josh for several months, in 2002 and 2003, though their relationship was chaperoned and more emotional than physical, in keeping with the families' custom. They all hoped, one day, the two might marry.
But Josh and the Holts' daughter instead stopped seeing each other on March 30, 2003, Bobye said: She remembered the exact day because that's when she and Jim went to the Duggars' home, after a call from Jim Bob, 56, to Jim, to learn "what Josh had done."
The Holts and the Duggars — Jim Bob, Michelle and Josh — gathered in the Duggar parents' bedroom for an hours-long session, Bobye said on the stand. Jim Bob paced around the floor and sometimes the group prayed.
As Bobye recalled Josh telling her he had touched the four girls both over and under their clothes, she choked up.
One specific incident had led to the meeting that March, Bobye said. Something happened earlier that day. "[Josh] explained that Jane Doe four was sitting on his lap during Bible time and he touched her inappropriately," she said. "He said it happened that day. On that date, he told us that he touched her vaginal area," she continued. Only later did she learn, Bobye said, that Josh touched the girl under her clothes.
Josh also admitted to touching three other girls, Bobye said, each of them on their breasts and genitals.
In one instance, Bobye testified, he inappropriately touched one of the girls in February 2002 and "she went and told his parents what he had done and he confessed." Bobye added that each of the girls was at least three years younger than Josh.
As a pattern of behavior, she said, "From when he told me … it started at [age] 12 until March 30, 2003."
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Bobye grew more distraught later in her testimony, describing how in early 2005, between January and April, Josh had come to live with the Holts in Little Rock. Jim, a state senator as well as an ordained minister, chaplain and one of their church's elders, was regularly counseling Josh. The Holts had offered to help Josh unburden himself of any "temptations he wanted to confess."
And so in one evening conversation with Jim and Bobye, that is what Josh did, according to Bobye who testified that Josh shared more details about how he touched Jane Doe four in 2003. "When she was sitting on his lap he put his hand under her pantaloons and under her panties," said Bobye, who was crying and had to pause to gather herself, apologizing to the court.
Josh touched the girl outside and then inside her genitals, said Bobye, whose voice began to hitch.
In yet another incident, Bobye said, Josh "said that he went to [one of the girls] as she was sleeping and got up under her blanket to start touching her and she woke up and hit him." Then, the girl told his parents.
"He told me she snitched on him," Bobye recalled.
"I went to go tell Jim Bob and Michelle but they said they didn't want to hear it," Bobye said, later adding, "People began to be aware. … Something else happened in Little Rock that made Josh leave our home." (She clarified that it was unrelated to inappropriate touching.)
Under cross-examination, Bobye said she had kept no records of what she said Josh told her but pushed back when the defense focused on her failure to remember what word Josh used for genitals. "I know what he told me," she said.
Like Josh did previously, Bobye said during her testimony, "I'm confessing now."
Patsy Lynch/Shutterstock; Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images Josh (left) and Jim Bob Duggar
Jim Bob Takes the Stand
Weeks after prosecutors told the judge it had been difficult to serve Josh's father with a subpoena, the Duggar patriarch took the stand on Monday after Bobye Holt.
Early in his testimony, Jim Bob quickly took issue with the prosecution bringing up In Touch obtaining the 2006 police report. "This was something for a young man to come forward," he said, insisting it was a "juvenile record" and a "sealed case." (Local authorities have said they were obliged to release the redacted police report after In Touch made a freedom of information request.)
Unlike Bobye, Jim Bob avoided giving almost any specifics of what Josh had told him of the past molestation beyond describing it as "inappropriate touching" of girls' breasts. Jim Bob repeatedly said "I don't remember": "It's been like 18, 19 years ago. … a long time ago."
Jim Bob said that around 2002, Josh did come to him and Michelle about inappropriate touching of a minor. "We were shocked this had happened," Jim Bob said, "but we were thankful he came on his own and told us."
"He had told me that he had touched some of the girls when they were sleeping on their breasts … they didn't wake up," said Jim Bob, who clarified that he didn't remember Josh's wording. But, the Duggar patriarch said, he and his wife Michelle took action in their home after that and believed Josh had behaved inappropriately.
He also confirmed in his testimony that problems continued: "There was, yes, an incident that he told us about … after the first incident."
In 2003, Jim Bob said, an incident made them send Josh from their home.
"We tried to handle things in house," he said, continuing, "It was a very difficult time in our family's life." He did not elaborate further in his testimony.
Josh, he insisted, "had crossed some line right at that age of curiosity, at 14, your hormones are kicking in."
But they had taken steps to address the issues, Jim Bob said: "We did even take Josh to the Arkansas State Police on the recommendation of Jim Holt. … Josh confessed everything to Arkansas State Police."
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Instagram; Inset: Courtesy Washington county arkansas Josh and Anna Duggars' family; inset: his mugshot
The police report from that period shows that the investigation actually began another way, after an anonymous tip to Oprah Winfrey's show ahead of a scheduled Duggar appearance. The report shows that Josh also spent three months, from March to May 2003, in a controversial treatment program and, in 2004, got a "stern" lecture from a state trooper, whom Jim Bob knew. (Charges from the 2006 investigation were never brought as the statute of limitations had expired.)
On the stand, however, Jim Bob said he couldn't recall many of the details. And when prosecutor Carly Marshall brought him the police report — apparently still watermarked with In Touch's logo — he complained about the tabloid connection.
"I'm not gonna allow it. Are you gonna allow for that?" Jim Bob asked the judge with his hands raised as the judge reminded him, "If there is [an] objection to be made, someone will make it but it won't be you."
Still, Jim Bob said, "For you guys to use a tabloid to bring it back up is very unprofessional."
The judge offered some sympathy: "Mr. Duggar, I recognize this is perhaps a very unfair position that you're placed in and I appreciate that."
But the judge told him, "This is not a debate."
As Jim Bob's testimony wound down, he addressed what seemed to be a subtext of the argument over priestly protection: that because Bobye Holt said women weren't elders in their church and so wasn't an elder, her presence undercut claims of privilege.
"I'm not a male chauvinist," Jim Bob said. "My wife is wiser than I am."
Jury selection in Josh's trial begins Tuesday. He is freed on bail, with restrictions.