How to Spot Sexual Abuse in Your Church
I was married for more than a decade to a Christian man who engaged in disturbing secret behaviors that included sexually abusing a female relative between the ages of 9-12. When the child courageously disclosed the abuse and my husband was confronted, he admitted to some of his abusive behaviors. However, he did so while providing serious spin to the facts.
Still, he was convinced by our pastors to turn himself in to the police, and he pled guilty to a misdemeanor in order to avoid a more serious charge, a trial, and potential jail time. He received probation and court ordered counseling sessions.
I know what occurred when I was a teen, but I still have great difficulty interpreting what occurred. Here are the details: when I was 14, I met a 24-year-old man who groomed me and abused me for years. I have no difficulty acknowledging that a grown man having sex with a teen is abuse, as long as the teen is someone other than me.
I know what the research says. I know that my grooming for sexual abuse was so effective that, many years later I still feel responsible for my own abuse. I understand the dynamics that produced this effect in me. And, yet, after all my knowledge, all my therapy, and all the years of praying, it still feels like my fault, like I was complicit in my own abuse. And, it still feels like I owe my abusers compassion, love, secrecy, and the denigration of myself for their aggrandizement.
This is how effective and destructive abusive grooming is. And this barely touches on the reality of all the feelings, trauma, PTSD symptoms, and other long-term effects caused by sex offenders.
Understanding sexual abuse dynamics
Dr. Anna Salter is a leading expert on recognizing and treating sexual offenders. Her book Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders--Who They Are, How They Operate and How We can Protect Ourselves and Our Children should be required reading for anyone with a leadership position. Because, as Dr. Salter, in her exceptional book Transforming Trauma: A Guide to Understanding and Treating Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse asserts, "the best protection against sexual abuse is understanding it."
There are a number of misconceptions I have encountered within the church concerning the nature of sexual abuse. The first one is that time, becoming Christian, or truly repenting and being forgiven heals the sex offender.
Dr. Salter states sexual offending is "highly compulsive and repetitive behavior, the tenacity of which is truly impressive." It will not go away on its own. Serving time in jail will not cure it. In fact there is no cure, only the possibility of recovery if the offender commits to a long term specialized treatment program that addresses the conflation of distorted thinking, beliefs, and values that drives their abusive worldview and entitled behaviors. While engaging with experts, offenders need to submit to a literal renewing of their minds.
Sexual offending cannot be addressed as just a terrible "sin" that is fixed instantly through forgiveness. It must be addressed as a result of the fall, like Cancer, which is treated though God's working through human agents and rarely through miraculous intervention. Recovery requires commitment, effort, and time that hopefully results in emotional and spiritual health and maturity.
The second misconception is that accepting abusers within church communities is primarily a theological issue. A number of years ago, Leadership Journal published an article addressing church leaders' attitudes towards sex offenders. Tellingly one pastor profiled stated, "Many people view child abuse as the unforgivable sin. But Jesus says there's no unforgivable sin except blasphemy of the Holy Spirit."
Yet sexual abuse has the potential to destroy lives and relationships with God. Decisions to accept a known offender within a church community need to be based on knowledge of sexual abuse dynamics, and questions of ensuring safety and removing potential risk, and not on whether or not the abuser has been forgiven by God.
The pastor profiled also highlighted the importance of educating the congregation stating, "When you teach healthy people in the parish what to look for, what to be aware of, what the rules are, and how we can create safe boundaries, this creates environments where Christ's light can shine." He is absolutely correct.
However, his statement, "Within our first year of meeting, [the offender] told me what had happened. I took this as a sign of health on his part, that he came to me and told me about his past," reveals a lack of understanding concerning sex offenders. Why did the pastor think that confession was a sign of health? It could be. But it could also be an act of manipulation to groom the pastor to perceive the abuser's prior offenses and character in a way that allows him to begin to groom and abuse future potential victims. The research from those who treat abusers, as well as my own experiences, strongly suggests the latter, not the former.
The third misconception is the idea that sex abuse is merely sinful sex as opposed to abuse within a sexual context. Even though we label this abuse "sexual," it is not merely sexual, since it includes other types of abuse such as emotional, psychological, and spiritual abuse as well.
Abuse is about power and control. And sexual abuse is not different. It is always primarily about power and control. In fact, abusers groom their victims and communities in order to establish and enforce control. If we continue to misunderstand this basic truth about sexual abuse, we will continue to underestimate and misread potential sex offenders.
Difficulties recognizing potential abusers
There are different stages of grooming. Learning these stages is one step toward understanding sexual abuse, but learning the stages is not enough to protect the vulnerable.
Here's why: sex abusers, like abusers in general, engage in secret behaviors. This means that when abusers engage in grooming, they are doing everything possible to make the grooming appear to be normal behavior or else they are keeping it well hidden. Dr. Salter explains, "The most chilling aspect of this behavior is its invisibility." Complicating matters further: abusers are frequently likable, charming, and highly skilled at manipulation.
So how do we learn to recognize potential threats? By listening to survivors who can inform us how abusers function, and by engaging research from experts who treat abusers, victims, and survivors.
One other note: I have found prayer to be an essential part of dealing with sex offenders. Because sexual offenses are shrouded in deception, prayer can help prepare one to receive disturbing truths, practice discernment, and also help to illuminate and clear the darkness and confusion created by the abuser.
Common traits of sex offenders
1. They establish and enforce control through defining reality.
Fleming Rutledge, in her wonderful theological treatment of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series, suggests that "Leadership has to do with defining reality." Good leaders "shape" reality to correspond to objective reality. For example, good leaders recognize that humans created in God's image should treat each other with dignity and value. Bad leaders "shape" reality in ways that are self-serving.
Sex offenders groom in order to "define reality" for victims and their community so that they agree with the abuser's distorted thoughts, beliefs, and values. Their purpose is to control others' perspectives. They gain control much like Rutledge describes Grima Wormtongue's hold on King Théodin, "as a classic example of a person who holds [humans] captive to unreality by calling black white, truth lies, and wisdom foolishness."
For example, I once had to intervene when I witnessed my daughter introduce her stuffed dolphin, Mr. Periwinkle, to her father, who as mentioned above is my former husband and a sex offender. He responded by telling her it was blue. She proclaimed, "No, he's purple." He continued to insist it was blue. Now technically the dolphin is a purplish-blue color.
However, the important thing here is that her father insisted she capitulate to his perspective. He refused to allow her to have a different perspective than the one he provided. Disagreeing with him over anything, no matter how minor, would result in withdrawal, victim-stancing, and/or escalating anger. This is one example of the insidious and subtle ways an abuser attempts to gain control and enforce their worldview.
If the abuser has a position of authority and a platform, they will use it to influence their community's views by establishing and reinforcing their distorted perspective.
2. Sex offenders victim-stance.
We had a friend who is a large intimidating man. He looks as if he has stepped off the set of Sons of Anarchy. My husband told him his version of what happened and our friend, who is a protective father, surprisingly experienced deep sympathy for him. A few days later our friend spoke with me and I told him the unspun version. He was so angry on behalf of the victim and our family, he couldn't believe he had felt such strong sympathy. Now, why didn't he feel angry when speaking directly with the abuser?
Simple. Sex offenders purposely attempt to manipulate out empathy. If they can evoke empathy, they can manipulate our trust and gain our support. Lundy Bancroft, an expert in treating domestic abusers, explains abusers manipulate so effectively they gain allies within the legal system and even the victim's families.
As I've written elsewhere, "if you are interacting with a sex offender who is admitting he or she has harmed someone, and you feel yourself being pulled to feel sorry for this person instead of, or more than, the victim, it is probable that an experienced victim-stancer is manipulating you."
Many well-intentioned people feel sympathy for an offender and advocate for them with the victim and/or the victim's loved ones. They remind victims that their abusers are created in God's image no matter what harm they have done. For the victims and their loved ones, this is a bizarre, surreal, and wounding experience because it echoes and reinforces the grooming of the abuser.
Bancroft states that he has "almost never worked with an abused woman who overlooked her abuser's humanity. The problem is the reverse: He forgets her humanity."
In other words, to tell a survivor that she should feel sympathy for the one who sexually abused her is to impede her recovery. Instead, survivors need support to fight against the internalized impulse to automatically empathize with our abusers.
3. They coerce secrecy and isolation.
It is common for abusers to create distance and mistrust between their victim and their victim's loved ones. This is an intentional grooming tactic. For example, a common scenario is to trap a child by setting up a bonding and isolating circumstance. One example provided by Dr. Salter involved a sex offender who left an unlabeled pornographic videotape mingled with the children's normal tapes.
Then he waited.
When the children found the tape and watched it, he "caught" them, reprimanded them and warned them how upset their parents would be. As the children became upset, the abuser comforted them, told them to keep their infraction secret from their parents, and assured them, that out of his love for them, he would keep their secret.
This scenario has numerous desired results for the abuser. He has bound them to him with shame and secrecy. He has coerced them into keeping secret his abusive behavior. He has introduced them to sexually explicit material with the intention of creating curiosity and desensitization. Plus, he has misled them to believe he can be trusted more than the children's parents. And, in doing all this, he has isolated them from their parents.
4. They deal in entitlement.
Experts explain the distorted thinking of abusers always involve beliefs about their entitlement. They are entitled to feel what they feel, say what they say, and act how they act no matter what. With known offenders this can include expecting victims or betrayed loved ones to get over the injuries as quickly and quietly as possible. Offenders believe they are owed an infinite degree of loyalty and forgiveness.
Because of their entitlement, abusers have difficulty accepting boundaries. Be wary of someone who has a pattern of violating others' boundaries even if the violations seem minor. An individual who cannot accept minor boundaries should not be trusted to respect larger boundaries.
Abusers' issues with entitlement are why "agreements" and "covenants" for restricting or guiding known abuser's behaviors within church communities are ineffective for protecting the vulnerable. By all means abusers should be provided clear boundaries and they should agree to adhere to them. But do not trust that the agreement will keep an offender from offending. If an abuser intends to abuse, they will justify their abuse no matter what agreement or promise they have made. It is naïve to believe otherwise. After all, marriage covenants and state laws were powerless to stop their offending.
If you are working with known abusers and you are attempting to discern if an abuser is authentically repentant, look for signs that they feel entitled to sympathy instead of accountability and restrictions, or to forgiveness and reconciliation from their victims and/or loved ones, or to being restored to a position of power. A truly repentant abuser will have relinquished their "right" to control another.
I spent years loving and engaging sex offenders. As difficult as those experiences have been, I now see them as a costly education. It has taken much time and effort to unravel the tangled threads their grooming has left behind in my heart, mind, and body. Even so, threads remain, some hidden, some exposed but too twisted and interlaced to fully recognize or remove safely. My hope is that our Christian communities will become secure places for our vulnerable, knowledgeable places where abusers will be detected, confronted, and offered the hope of true transformation, and safe places for survivors to heal and share their wisdom and experiences while we work together towards unknotting the tangled threads we bear.
Maureen Farrell Garcia is instructor of English at Nyack College Manhattan Campus in New York. This article has been revised and adapted for CT Pastors since its original publication in Leadership Journal.