How the Grooming Process Leads to Child Sexual Abuse

Samantha Kilpatrick

Culturally, we have been conditioned to believe that the greatest threat to our children is the stranger. However, statistics do not support our fear of strangers when it comes to sexual abuse. We should be more concerned about the people we know. In order for a pedophile to successfully offend against a child, he or she must do so from a relational context. Within a relationship, the opportunities increase, and the misplaced trust allows the perpetrator to go undetected for longer periods of time. Sex offenders groom the intended victim and the adults1Oftentimes, the adults who are responsible for the care and best interest of the child are called “gatekeepers.” in the child’s life—parents, pastors, and other adults. Grooming is the process a perpetrator uses to build relationships of perceived trust with individuals and a community in order to sexually offend. 

A thorough understanding of grooming is foundational to understanding sexual abuse, formulating good policy and training, and protecting children from sexual abuse. When we are faced with the reality that the stranger is not the most likely perpetrator of sexual abuse, the natural response is often fear and the feeling that we cannot trust anyone. The purpose of this article is not to create irrational fear, but rather to raise awareness and educate families and church leaders to be alert and aware. In order to become more aware, we must understand the prevalence and realities of child sexual abuse, as well as the grooming process a perpetrator uses in order to offend.

The Realities of Child Sexual Abuse

In the United States, about one in four girls and one in six boys will be the victim of sexual abuse during their childhood.2David Cantor et al., “Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct” (The Association of American Universities, September 21, 2015). Of those children who are sexually abused during childhood, 91% are abused by someone that they know.3https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/childsexualabuse.html This might be a family member, family friend, teacher, coach, church leader, or neighbor. These individuals have access to the child in a relational context that allows them the ability to build a distorted sense of trust with the child and other adults. This misplaced trust allows the perpetrator to build a false rapport with the child and others in order to go undetected and garner more time with the child victim. 

Given that the majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone within the victim’s community, faith-based organizations4For brevity, I will refer to faith-based organizations which includes churches, schools, camps, and other youth-serving organizations with a faith-based mission. must be aware and on the lookout for signs of a sexual predator. However, oftentimes these organizations are not aware of and do not realize the danger in their midst until it is too late. There are several key reasons why faith-based, youth-serving organizations are prime targets for perpetrators of sexual abuse. 

First, organizations often have a false sense of security that “it cannot happen here” which serves to lower their guard and increases the risk for abuse. 

Second, our organizations need workers and volunteers in our youth and children’s ministries.

Third, faith-based communities are known for being trusting places—we welcome visitors and want to meet and accept people where they are in their spiritual journey. Because of our Christian beliefs, we are often too quick to give trust, and we feel guilty when we are suspicious. 

The mix of premature trust and desperate need for volunteers makes it easier for a perpetrator to gain access to the desired demographic. Trust also blinds an organization in the hiring and recruiting process of employees and volunteers; references and application information goes unchecked because someone “knows” them or the person worked at another church. In addition, community members may fear being seen as overreactive or troublemakers, and this keeps them from speaking up to report troublesome behavior.

The Grooming Process

In order to sexually offend, a perpetrator must gain trust and access to the child. The grooming process includes careful selection of a target, calculated trust-building with the child, gatekeepers, and organization, strategic isolation of the child, and testing of boundaries. 

The first step in the process is selecting the target. Perpetrators are looking for vulnerable targets on an individual, as well as a community level. In looking for a community in which to offend, organizations with low barriers to entry are preferred to ones that have a waiting period to volunteer or a more robust application process. An organization that is in desperate need to fill positions is attractive to perpetrators because the organization may overlook certain deficiencies in application and process in order to fill the position. 

Perpetrators also seek out children with vulnerabilities that the perpetrator can exploit. Perpetrators often insert themselves into family situations where life is very busy, in crisis, or lacks adult supervision.

The second phase of the grooming process is the trust-building phase. Trust building happens on multiple levels. In order to gain access to children, the perpetrator must gain the trust of the child, the organization, and the adult gatekeepers. Perpetrators may present as a volunteer who is always available, seems to go the extra mile, or is often seen as a “kid-magnet” or “pied piper.” Perpetrators are apt at seeing needs that they can fill in order to build trust. 

When it comes to the child, the perpetrator seeks to build a relationship focusing on the things that make the child feel special, older, appreciated, understood, desired, and loved. Over the course of the relationship, the perpetrator will begin to isolate the child. One-on-one encounters tend to increase during this time. This can make the child feel more “special” and “understood.”

As the one-on-one opportunities increase, the perpetrator will begin to push the boundaries in small ways. Each instance is calculated to gain information and see whether the child will let his or her guard down. It is also an experiment to see how aware or distracted the adults are in the child’s life. 

At some point, the perpetrator will begin to push sexual boundaries with the child. At first, the actions may seem very subtle, and the child may view it as accidental. But these advances are meant to test the child. They are meant to be stimulating and yet at the same time seem accidental, allowing the perpetrator to push further the next time. Depending on the age of the child, some perpetrators will use sexual innuendo and media with sexual content to test the waters. The advances may occur in person or virtually. 

The boundary pushing continues and the sexual advances become more overt when the perpetrator feels there is enough power in the relationship to silence and control the child. At the point the child realizes what is going on, he or she feels helpless to stop it, and the perpetrator will use the nature and extent of the sexual relationship to continue controlling the child. The child is trapped and fears that no one will believe him or her. Perpetrators are skilled in using secrecy, blame, guilt, physical violence, and shaming in order to keep the relationship going. 

As adults and organizations entrusted with the care and safety of children, we must be aware of the grooming process and take proactive steps to guard our children and organizations from predators. On many occasions as parents, gatekeepers, and organizations, we choose who has access to our children. We need to be aware of those choices and choose with an awareness of sexual predators and how they operate. Once we become aware and understand the risk, there are proactive steps that can lower the risk and keep children safe.

Proactive Steps to Lower the Risk of Sexual Abuse

For Parents:

  1. In developmentally appropriate ways, talk to children about their bodies. Teach them how to be assertive when they feel uncomfortable or weird. 
  2. Be that safe place where they can tell you anything.
  3. Vet the people and organizations in your child’s life. Ask about employee and volunteer screening and child abuse policy.
  4. Speak up when you feel uncomfortable or see or hear something that doesn’t feel right.

For Organizations:

  1. Create, implement, and follow child safety and abuse prevention policies which should include limiting one-on-one opportunities, screening of employees and volunteers, defining acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, and reporting.
  2. Train your employees and volunteers and show them that the safety of children is a priority of your organization.
  3. Eliminate unnecessary one-on-one interactions.
  4. Make all activities of your organization observable and interruptible in order to lessen opportunities for abuse.
  5. Have an open-door policy and take the concerns of your community seriously.

Understanding grooming and putting into practice these proactive steps in your home or ministry will help protect those in your care. We do not need to be irrationally fearful, but rather we must understand the grooming process to increase awareness, be alert to predators, implement screening policies and best practices, and to courageously protect against real threats.

Samantha Kilpatrick is an attorney with over 20 years of experience in the practice of law. She is currently a partner with Kilpatrick Law Group, PLLC in Raleigh, NC. She is a former prosecutor with experience in the areas of domestic violence and sexual assault crimes. Currently, in private practice, she represents and counsels survivors of abuse and advises faith-based organizations on abuse prevention, policy, and safety.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24