Sex offenders in our midst

Becoming Wise as Serpents

Recently Leadership Journal published My Easy Trip From Youth Minister to Felon.” The anonymous author is a convicted felon who will be on the sex offender registry for life due to his sexual abuse and statutory rape of one of the youths under his leadership. But this isn’t the story he told. Instead he framed his story as an extra-marital affair morality tale: “Don’t do this because these are the consequences I’ve suffered.” 

Then the Internet (rightly) exploded. Bloggers wrote of their concern, and new hashtags started trending (#takedownthatpost and #howoldwereyou).

The editors of Leadership Journal responded by removing the post, and replaced it with an apology. While the author believed he was warning others against committing the same “sin,” instead, he was revealing the state of his heart: the heart of an unhealthy, unrepentant sex offender. 

My intent is not to attack the author.

Because he is not a monster. 

It’s important to make this distinction. To think of him or other sex offenders as monsters is to minimize their responsibility for their actions. 

Monsters behave like monsters. It isn’t a choice they make. But offenders who behave monstrously are people, not monsters, people who have chosen to behave abusively and who need to be held responsible for their choices.

Plus, it promotes the myth that sex offenders are not the regular people we know and love. And as author Amy K. Sorrells asserts, “It’s not the people you don’t know who will hurt your daughter, girlfriend, wife. It’s the people you do know.  

It would be so much easier if they were monsters. If only there was some distinguishing mark to warn us of their deceptions and compulsions. But there isn’t. 

So, how do we protect potential victims? How do we offer safety and healing to survivors? And how do we identify potential predators?

Dr. Anna C. Salter, an expert on treating victims of sexual abuse and sex offenders, states in Transforming Trauma, “the best protection against sexual abuse is understanding it.” 

And, as I’ve written before, “the church must become educated in how sex offenders function, manipulate, charm, and lie. Christians need to be especially aware how sex offenders groom their victims for abuse, while simultaneously grooming their communities to trust and defend them.” 

While I can’t tell you definitively who may be a sex offender, I can tell you a bit about some distorted beliefs sex offenders have and some things sex offenders do, beliefs and behaviours that were reflected in the Leadership Journal article. 

Note: I will refer to the anonymous author of the controversial Leadership Journal article as “Don” for the rest of this post just to simplify things. Don inadvertently helps us understand the process of grooming his victim and community. 

Let’s break this down.

Sex Offenders Groom

Don explicitly states, “I wanted the parents to trust me and the students to love me.” This might seem like an innocent statement at best, or a bit vain at worst, but instead it is much more insidious. It is a reflection of his hope to effectively groom his community.

So, what is grooming? It is the relational method of developing control through bonding the victim to the abuser and building trust within the community. The purpose of grooming is to create an environment where the abuser can control and abuse with the least risk of exposure, and in case of exposure, ensure others will defend them. 

Don wanted the parents to trust him. He was not concerned with being trustworthy. He was concerned with controlling their perception of him. 

He wanted the youth to love him. He was not concerned with loving them in safe and healthy ways. He was more concerned with his image than with his character.

Many Christians interact with known sex offenders as if the offender has just made a mistake, or messed up, or has accidentally abused or raped someone. This is not true. Ever. It is imperative that we understand that grooming is an intentional process. Sex offenders set up circumstances to abuse. 

First, trust must be established. Once trust is established, the offender slowly and carefully escalates abusive behaviour. Don lays this out. He mentions that the family of his victim was very close with his family. They spent much time together “over the years.” This indicates his grooming was effective. The parents and the victim trusted him and very likely loved him. 

He describes the “relationship” growing through “talking and texting,” then “flirting,” which “led to a physical relationship.” He describes the process as “very slow and gradual, but … constantly escalating.” This is a description of his grooming process, which follows the pattern of many other sex offenders.

Sex Offenders Coerce Secrecy

Don claims, “we were lying to ourselves and others … and discretion was needed.” He says his victim willingly lied to protect them and their relationship. In reality the grooming process is designed to enforce secrecy, create shame, and silence the victim. 

Victims hide the truth because they have been effectively and insidiously groomed to protect their abuser. 

There are numerous techniques Don employed to assure this. One is victim-stancing, or “playing the victim.” Don does this all over his article. He has a whole paragraph dedicated to telling us what he has endured. He lost his wife, his children, his job, his opportunity to study at seminary, and of course his freedom. He mentions nothing about his betrayal to his victim, her family, his wife, his children, the youths he led, or his community. 

Victim-stancing simply means the offender takes the stance of a victim. This is how he attempts to get others to feel sympathy for him in order to get what he wants. I have seen this be effective with strangers. But it is much more effective with people and victims who love the offender and with well-intentioned Christians. 

Christians must become aware of how sex offenders manipulate our empathy to protect themselves and their ability to offend. 

In fact, I suggest if you are interacting with a sex offender who is admitting he or she has harmed someone, and you feel yourself 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. 

One way sex offenders shift blame and play victim is with their use of passive language. It distances them from their actions and portrays the abuse as something that has happened to them, not a series of choices they have made. 

Some examples from the article include: Don being in prison because of “a problem,” not his criminal behaviour; he merely “failed to heed” God’s warnings instead of progressing with grooming and abuse; he “gravitated” towards the victim, instead of choosing and grooming her for abuse; the relationship “had crossed a line” instead of him pushing past boundaries he shouldn’t have; and, of course, he didn’t choose to abuse and rape a young woman, instead he “fell.” 

Consider a glimpse into the position his victim was placed in. Victims bear the weight of knowing. They experience violation of their soul and body and feel shame and guilt for behaviours their abuser is responsible for. If they experience pleasure relationally and/or physically it reinforces the distorted belief that they wanted the abuse to happen, that they are responsible for it. This increases their shame. 

Victims are coerced into keeping the abuser’s secrets. In Don’s case, his victim, the child, is effectively isolated, through the deceptions that he, the adult, enforces through control, the manipulation of her love and trust, and implicit shaming. If she seeks support from her parents or anyone else, she believes she, not her abuser, will be responsible for the destruction of his life, his family, whom she has known for years, and the youth ministry. She bears this weight alone. 

Conversely, as long as the secret is kept, Don has the support of his family, his church community, his victim, and her family! He is trusted, loved, adored, and applauded. 

So Now What?

Dr. Salter’s statement concerning understanding as the best way to protect ourselves reminds me of Hosea 4:6: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

How long will we allow our children and our youth to be destroyed for lack of knowledge? How long will we allow faulty understandings of forgiveness and redemption to invite predators to prey on our youth? 

Our churches must become communities where victims and survivors’ safety, experiences, healing, and wisdom are elevated. 

We must become communities that recognize the tactics sex offenders use to groom and offend. 

We must train our compassion to be directed towards those who were victimized. We must withhold our sympathy from those that offend, knowing this enables them to continue to destroy themselves and others. 

Forgiveness and love do not equal turning a blind eye to injustice. Instead, we must offer offenders a “severe mercy” that holds them accountable, and enforces life long restrictions, and the possibility of transformation. 

Let us become communities where sex offenders will fear offending because our love and protection of the vulnerable is so expansive, and our knowledge of every aspect of the dynamics of sexual abuse is glaringly evident. Let us, as Jesus said, become innocent as doves and wise as serpents. 

Photo (Flickr CC) by Vivek Jena.