Sex Offenders Groom Churches Too

"The predators that are statistically likely to be in the pews, volunteering, and even behind the pulpit aren’t just grooming their victims, they are grooming their community to view them as trustworthy and even as spiritual leaders." CToday

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I have no doubt that sex offenders do this. Surely, also, alertness to this process may sometimes help with prevention.

Here's where I see difficulty: "Grooming" basically means "Acting like a kind, generous and trustworthy person." So when you pull the reasoning together it looks like this:

  • Sex offenders try to be seen as kind, generous, trustworthy people
  • Kind, generous, trustworthy people try to be seen as kind, generous, trustworthy people
  • Sex offenders and kind, generous, trustworthy people look the same

So the downside of increased awareness is increased suspicion, and a spirit of "everybody here (especially everybody male) is a suspect" in a church (or anywhere else besides a jail, really) is toxic. It's not at all 1 Cor. 12, or Rom. 12:15, or Eph 4:16.

I don't know what "the answer" is, but it can't be good to turn the church into a place where everyone who is unusually kind and generous is viewed with suspicion.

Andrew K's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

I have no doubt that sex offenders do this. Surely, also, alertness to this process may sometimes help with prevention.

Here's where I see difficulty: "Grooming" basically means "Acting like a kind, generous and trustworthy person." So when you pull the reasoning together it looks like this:

  • Sex offenders try to be seen as kind, generous, trustworthy people
  • Kind, generous, trustworthy people try to be seen as kind, generous, trustworthy people
  • Sex offenders and kind, generous, trustworthy people look the same

So the downside of increased awareness is increased suspicion, and a spirit of "everybody here (especially everybody male) is a suspect" in a church (or anywhere else besides a jail, really) is toxic. It's not at all 1 Cor. 12, or Rom. 12:15, or Eph 4:16.

I don't know what "the answer" is, but it can't be good to turn the church into a place where everyone who is unusually kind and generous is viewed with suspicion.

I agree that could be a downside and will likely be taken by many as you describe. However, I don't know that it has to be. Ideally, it should turn people on to behaviors they must be otherwise glossing over, or explaining away.

For example, with the whole Denhollander situation, was it really normal or just "friendly" for a college student to hang out with a 7-year-old girl, and have her sit on his lap (on more than one occasion)? Really? Nobody thought, "That's a bit odd..."?

What I mean is, hopefully the "increased awareness" doesn't result in merely a broad increased suspicion of nice people, but rather a stripping of impunity from behaviors from "nice people" that should be viewed with suspicion.

Jay's picture

The other obvious warning signs from the article that I picked up on were:

  • buying dresses for Rachael (toys and gifts I understand, but dresses? For a 7 year old?)
  • The insistence on holding her or touching her

Thanks for filing this, Aaron. 

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

GregH's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

I have no doubt that sex offenders do this. Surely, also, alertness to this process may sometimes help with prevention.

Here's where I see difficulty: "Grooming" basically means "Acting like a kind, generous and trustworthy person." So when you pull the reasoning together it looks like this:

  • Sex offenders try to be seen as kind, generous, trustworthy people
  • Kind, generous, trustworthy people try to be seen as kind, generous, trustworthy people
  • Sex offenders and kind, generous, trustworthy people look the same

So the downside of increased awareness is increased suspicion, and a spirit of "everybody here (especially everybody male) is a suspect" in a church (or anywhere else besides a jail, really) is toxic. It's not at all 1 Cor. 12, or Rom. 12:15, or Eph 4:16.

I don't know what "the answer" is, but it can't be good to turn the church into a place where everyone who is unusually kind and generous is viewed with suspicion.

This is true. On the flip side, many abusers hide behind their kind facade and use it as an effective shield against accusations. People are naive in that they believe someone just because he is kind when in reality, how "kind" one appears to be means very little in these situations. 

So the takeaway is that when there are accusations of abuse, people need to take the "kindness" of the alleged abuser out of the equation, understanding that it could just be a facade. In fact, most often, in an abuser/victim situation, the abuser is more "kind" while the victim is more shy and withdrawn. This works against the victim in situations where leaders are not shrewd enough to see through it.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

GregH wrote:

So the takeaway is that when there are accusations of abuse, people need to take the "kindness" of the alleged abuser out of the equation, understanding that it could just be a facade. In fact, most often, in an abuser/victim situation, the abuser is more "kind" while the victim is more shy and withdrawn. This works against the victim in situations where leaders are not shrewd enough to see through it.

Having been multiple times in a church leadership position, but thankfully not having had to deal with something like this yet, I personally would not try to be "shrewd" enough on either side of something like this that has legal ramifications.  With this type of accusation, I would recommend to the leadership team that the accused stop any positions of leadership/responsibility, similar to suspension of a police officer (and if the accuser were a teenager with some type of youth leader responsibilities I would do the same), do what we could to ensure no further contact of any sort between them at the church or church functions, and turn the rest over to the proper authorities to investigate.  I wouldn't publicly make any judgment as to whether the accuser or accused is to be more believed, even if I had my own thoughts on the matter.  It's easy in hindsight to say something ought to have been "seen through," but without other obvious evidence, I couldn't take the "kindness" as either a plus or minus for the accused.  That applies to the accuser's shyness as well.  Sometimes an action is completely innocent, and sometimes it's something else completely, and unless it's obvious to all, I'm not qualified to make a legal judgment on which is which.

The sad thing is that, even if it's legally determined that the accused is innocent, there will always be future suspicion that would make it hard for that person to serve in the same church.  And while I would then be in favor of throwing the book at the accuser in that case, we would still have to foster an environment that would enable a true victim to be able to speak out.  We want witnesses and victims to come forward while still dealing with false witnesses, and strongly discouraging future false accusations.  That definitely will take much prayer and wisdom on the part of the church leadership, and I agree with Aaron that there's no perfect answer.  We have to do the best we can, but let's also not try to pretend that this is easy for everyone to get right all the time.

Dave Barnhart

G. N. Barkman's picture

Similar to false teachers.  People often reject faithful teachers because they are willing to deal with difficult issues that require repentance and change.  To those unwilling to change, such teaching "feels" unkind.  False teachers, on the other hand, often work at never being confrontational, which makes them seem more kind than true teachers.  All of this should serve a reminder that although being kind is indeed a fruit of the Spirit, and a harsh, unkind demeanor often indicates carnality, true kindness must be evaluated by truth, not by sentiment.  Sometimes the kindest act is to confront sin.  The nice guy may be the most evil of all.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

It does have superficial resemblance to being a kind and generous person, but there are key differences.  Kindness does things in the open and respects the family and other accountability structures; grooming tends to isolate, avoid accountability structures, and maximize the use of power differentials.  You can see this in the Nassar case, the Tyndall case, the Ketchum case, the case described in the article, and it was the case when a teacher at my elementary school molested my neighbor and other boys on camping trips. 

The article moreover notes that we tend to do a really bad job of recognizing grooming (and provides a peer reviewed article to prove it), which makes sense; we want to believe that apparent kindness is real.  So what we're left to do, really, is to eliminate the opportunities for grooming to proceed by limiting isolation, providing accountability, and minimizing power differentials.

One simple thing we're doing in my church; nobody, including the senior pastor, meets with an unrelated child behind closed doors or otherwise in isolation.  If the situation is important enough to ensure privacy, it's important enough to get another adult in the room before the door is closed.  We are also having security team members wander through the building to monitor the use of rooms and areas for the same reason.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Greg Long's picture

This is an important article which was helpful to me. Sometimes a person who is trying to "groom" a congregation will "test the waters" with a request that would be OK for a non-sex offender but is right on the boundary of what the sex offender should or should not be allowed to do. It will not be a direct violation of any boundaries put in place to restrict him in the church, but kinda sorta on the edge of those boundaries. He might be trying to open the door a crack. When denied, he will say, "Of course, I totally understand, I get it, I was just asking, no problem." If allowed, the time will come when he has gained the trust of people that he will try to push the door open just a bit further.

We have seen that happen. There could also be an innocent explanation for these kinds of requests, but the unfortunate thing is that someone with this kind of a past history faces the consequences of these kinds of restrictions and that even somewhat "innocent" requests (and they might even be truly innocent) may be denied in order to keep the boundaries.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Bert Perry's picture

Something in Dave's comment caught my eye about "throwing the book" at false accusers.  I agree 100%, but it's hard to prove.  The best statistics we have appear a bit messy in my view, and what we've got is somewhere between 2-8% of allegations that are found to be outright false, but another 60-70% of allegations that fall into the category of "sufficient evidence to investigate or indict, but not enough evidence to get a conviction."  A certain portion of those 60-70% of cases will have enough evidence to go to a civil lawsuit.

So most of the time, a church that has an accusation is not going to have a clear reason to throw the book at a perjurer/false accuser, and we need to keep in mind that prosecutors hate prosecuting perjury for two reasons.  First of all, it's incredibly hard to prove, and prosecutors hate losing.   Second, a lot of prosecutors are convinced that punishing false accusers deters real victims from coming forward.

So while I'm fully in favor of prosecuting perjurers, the simple fact of the matter as things stand "on the ground" is that no church board ought to hold their breath waiting for it to happen, and if they want to subject that to church discipline, you've got to (a) understand and appreciate how hard it is to prove someone intentionally lied and (b) what the optics will be in the community if they try.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thoughtful comments all around. Much appreciated.