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
- In developmentally appropriate ways, talk to children about their bodies. Teach them how to be assertive when they feel uncomfortable or weird.
- Be that safe place where they can tell you anything.
- Vet the people and organizations in your child’s life. Ask about employee and volunteer screening and child abuse policy.
- Speak up when you feel uncomfortable or see or hear something that doesn’t feel right.
- 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.
- Train your employees and volunteers and show them that the safety of children is a priority of your organization.
- Eliminate unnecessary one-on-one interactions.
- Make all activities of your organization observable and interruptible in order to lessen opportunities for abuse.
- 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.
- 1Oftentimes, the adults who are responsible for the care and best interest of the child are called “gatekeepers.”
- 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).
- 4For brevity, I will refer to faith-based organizations which includes churches, schools, camps, and other youth-serving organizations with a faith-based mission.