In a recent article in Leadership Journal, a former child victim and wife of a confessed offender, talks about being “groomed for abuse” by all the offenders in her life and the mistakes made by faith congregations when abuse is disclosed in their communities. She says that after being abused as a young teen for several years by a family friend, she married a man that turned out to be a child molester. Both these experiences give her a unique view of how families and faith communities deal with these situations. It also reinforces studies that show that those who were abused as children may become abusers as adults or may reinforce their own victimhood by entering into abusive relationships.
The author in this article reminds us to keep our eye on the behavior of the offender – not what he or she says or promises. In almost every case, an offender will try to shift the blame to someone or something else. In addition, they are cunning and skilled in their manipulation. Their goal is to have the grooming process appear “normal” so that it is not identified as grooming.
The author points to the need for us to know what to look for, what to be aware of, what the rules are and how to create safe environments as the real pathway to dealing with the potential for this risk in our faith communities. These are the essential elements of the Virtus Programs and the reason participating in the program is mandated for all adults who have regular contact with children. Maintaining that “healthy suspicion” – as we promote in the Protecting God’s Children for Adults (PGCA) program – is essential to the creation and expansion of safe and healthy environments for all in ministry.
In addition to touching on warning signs that are part of the PGCA program, the author reminds us that one way offenders establish and enforce control is to attempt to redefine reality. The offender’s common insistence that the victim is responsible for the acts, that these are acts of “love,” that if the victim tells he or she will not be believed or that the behavior is what God wants for the child, are all clear examples of an offender redefining reality. When that offender is also in a position of authority or power, they use their positon to redefine the situation for everyone involved.
The author also points to the sense of entitlement that is present with offenders. In our Virtus classes, we talk about paying attention to people who think the rules don’t apply to them as one of the warning signs of potential predators. The author invites us to look further to see whether the person exhibits signs that they are “entitled to sympathy instead of accountability and restriction, or to forgiveness and reconciliation from their victims and/or loved ones, or to being restored to a position of power.” An abuser who is truly repentant will give up their right to any control of others.
This thoughtful, insightful article reinforces the need for us to know the warning signs and to set and enforce appropriate boundaries within our communities. We must not be swayed by the charismatic pleading or remorseful persuasiveness of someone who has sexually abused another, and cannot confuse forgiveness with trust.
Our faith communities must be safe havens for the vulnerable among us and places where abusers will be identified, confronted and removed from contact with children and offered an opportunity to begin the long road to transforming their lives.
Colleen Sulsberger is coordinator of the Office of Safe Environment for the Diocese of Sioux City.