Josh Duggar, who gained celebrity on the TLC reality show “19 Kids and Counting” as the eldest sibling of a brimming family guided by conservative Christian values, went on trial Tuesday in Arkansas on federal child pornography charges.
Mr. Duggar, 33, appeared in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville, Ark., for the first day of jury selection in his closely watched trial. He was arrested in April, accused of using the internet to download explicit material showing the sexual abuse of children, some younger than 12 years old, according to an indictment.
Federal prosecutors charged Mr. Duggar with one count of receiving child pornography and one count of possessing child pornography, each of which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines if convicted.
Mr. Duggar pleaded not guilty and has been free on a personal recognizance bond that was granted by the judge, who this month barred all electronic and recording devices from the courtroom during the trial.
Mr. Duggar’s fame began to unravel in 2015 after In Touch magazine reported that he had molested several girls when he was a teenager, prompting at least 20 companies to pull their ads from the show. TLC canceled the show, which made its debut in 2008 and was one of the cable network’s top performers, after more than 200 episodes.
No criminal charges resulted from the allegations — they had passed the statute of limitations — but Mr. Duggar’s parents said they were true in a Fox News interview in 2015. They disclosed that four of Mr. Duggar’s sisters were among the victims.
At the time, Mr. Duggar apologized in a statement to People magazine that was also posted on the Duggar family’s Facebook page. It has since been removed.
“Twelve years ago, as a young teenager, I acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret,” he said. “I hurt others, including my family and close friends. I confessed this to my parents who took several steps to help me address the situation.”
He had previously worked on the 2008 presidential campaign of Mike Huckabee, the Republican former governor of Arkansas, and on the 2012 presidential campaign of former Senator Rick Santorum, a Republican of Pennsylvania.
“We spoke with the authorities where I confessed my wrongdoing, and my parents arranged for me and those affected by my actions to receive counseling,” Mr. Duggar said in his statement. “I understood that if I continued down this wrong road that I would end up ruining my life.”
During an evidentiary hearing on Monday, Mr. Duggar’s lawyers contended that his conversations with his father, Jim Bob Duggar, and the parents of a girl he was accused of molesting should be excluded from the trial, the television station KNWA reported.
All three are church leaders and the discussions should be treated as confidential, Mr. Duggar’s lawyers wrote in a brief that was filed on Tuesday.
“The clergy privilege — also referred to as the priest-penitent privilege or the religious privilege — is a firmly rooted privilege that shields certain communications from disclosure,” Mr. Duggar’s lawyers wrote.
The lawyers contended that “while clergy are mandated reporters of suspected child abuse in Arkansas,” there is an exemption for the knowledge obtained by clergy members through “religious discipline of the relevant denomination or faith” or in the “context of admission.”
On Monday, the judge heard testimony from Jim Bob Duggar, who is also a candidate for the Arkansas State Senate, about the disclosures.
Prosecutors rejected the argument that Josh Duggar’s disclosures should be treated as confidential.
“The defendant is asking the court to adopt an interpretation of the clergy-penitent privilege that is so unprecedently overbroad as to render it unenforceable,” prosecutors wrote in a brief on Tuesday.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the judge had yet to rule on the admission of evidence related to those disclosures.