Sex Offenders Groom Churches Too

How predatory behavior goes undetected in congregations.

Rachael Denhollander, the courageous attorney who invoked her faith in her statement during the trial of her abuser Larry Nassar, warns, “It defies the gospel of Christ when we do not call out abuse and enable abuse in our own church.” Shortly before Nassar’s trial, she lost her church because of her advocacy for other victims within evangelical churches. Her story is an example of a culture found in some churches that disregards victims.

 

man who had long sexually abused children sat in front of his pastor, wanting to confess his crimes. He began cautiously, mentioning that there had been accusations against him. He got no further, as his minister broke in, “Well, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of,” the minister said quickly. “You’re the last person I’d believe that of. End of conversation.”

This true account was shared in Anna C. Salter’s 1991 book, Predators, Pedophiles, Rapists, And Other Sex Offenders. As a psychologist who has spent over 20 years working with and studying victims and sexual offenders, Salter says that “many offenders report that religious people are even easier to fool than most people.”

Rachael Denhollander, the courageous attorney who invoked her faith in her statement during the trial of her abuser Larry Nassar, warns, “It defies the gospel of Christ when we do not call out abuse and enable abuse in our own church.” Shortly before Nassar’s trial, she lost her church because of her advocacy for other victims within evangelical churches. Her story is an example of a culture found in some churches that disregards victims.

A key outcome of the #MeToo movement is a growing sensitivity not only to predatory behaviors but to a culture that ignores victims. In May, uproar over a scence in the children’s movie “Show Dogs,” which included grooming behaviors, caused the studio to remove two scenes after the release.

Evangelical churches can also grow in understanding what kind of culture sexual abusers count on and work to create. Psychologists call it “grooming.” A proposed definition of grooming states that abusers, “… strategically manipulate the victim, their family, and the community to hide their deviant intentions and avoid detection.” 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.

A study on how offenders groom found “… the community itself can also be primed and controlled through the grooming process. Many offenders tend to adopt a pattern of socially responsible and caring behaviour in public. They endeavour to build a good reputation and to create a strong social perception of themselves as being an upstanding member of the local church or community, as a nice man.”

Terra Mattson, a therapist, clinical director of Living Wholehearted, and adjunct professor of counseling at George Fox University, has spent years counseling victims, most from within the Christian world. Mattson told me that abusers in churches “have charismatic grooming techniques that they have crafted over years. The ultimate goal for any offender is to build trust quickly, creating a problematic situation for those in leadership if a victim steps forward. These offenders will come across as very helpful, talented, funny, likable, and even wise or godly.”

Mattson explained how abusers will exploit Christian principles of forgiveness and grace for their own end and use any spiritual authority to override people feeling uncomfortable or resisting their grooming. If they are caught in one church, they simply move on. “Many offenders start over and over, finding communities that forgive quickly, offer grace to any kind of story, and do little in terms of investigating a person’s history. Often these churches will only resource themselves with the Bible and remain uneducated about trauma and abuse because ‘God will take care of it.’ This is not only irresponsible, but church leaders that do this are exposing their communities to the potential for real harm,” she said.

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