Why sexual abuse goes unnoticed

Hidden abuse

Nobody wants to think they would ignore the signs of abuse. But they do. I did. Some always will. Abusers do not always isolate children to molest them. The world was shocked as survivor after survivor explained that Larry Nassar would penetrate their vaginas without gloves, for up to 40 minutes at a time, while their parents were in the same room just feet away. He would whisper in their ears, “How does this feel?” As I listened to an army of brave survivors describe how Nassar abused them in front of adults, I was not shocked in the least. My father is a pedophile. I wrote him a letter a couple years ago asking if there was anything that consistently surprised him all of the times he successfully molested children. He wrote back from prison, “The one thing that always surprised me is how easy it was to fool adults. Oftentimes, after abusing kids right in front of them, I had to pinch myself and ask, ‘Are these adults really this stupid?'” I’ve personally listened to countless survivors tell me how often their abusers would molest them in front of adults. All of them have wondered, “Why did nobody protect me from my abuser?”

All of my research began to focus on what techniques abusers use to molest children in open spaces. As the son of a pedophile, I obsessed over the fact that we all missed it with my father. I was one of those adults who didn’t protect kids from their abuser–my father. But I genuinely did not recount a single time where I remembered him abusing them either. I learned that pedophiles are not just manipulative. They are literally using the same techniques magicians use to keep adults blind to the abuse. I was fascinated with this finding. I learned that, in order to see the abuse from pedophiles in real time, we need to stop looking for them and instead start looking for us! As Nassar molested his hundreds of victims and my father his dozens, how did they see those of us who were standing in the same room? How did they know that we were not catching on to them as they groped, caressed, and violated these children while looking at us? What were their exact techniques? I began growing increasingly frustrated with the “red flag behavior” that experts share about abusers. These signs are so generic that it tells us nothing about how abusers abuse and get away with it. By the time anyone notices “red flag behavior” it’s too late. Children have already been abused.

Should we assume, then, that parents and adults are just naive? Or that they don’t care? Rachael Denhollander gave a heart-stopping statement where she named victim after victim who told adults that they felt uncomfortable around Larry Nassar. Each and every time, the adults, including investigators, excused the abuse away. It’s inconceivable for most untrained people to believe that a child can be molested in the same room as an adult–especially a parent–and that adult not see it. So when children tell their stories, they are told that they must have “misunderstood” what really happened. Children who are molested, especially when their parents are nearby, have no understanding that the abuser is using very specific techniques to fool the adults into believing they’re not seeing the abuse. Rachael described brilliantly what every little child experiences when adults fail to protect: “As Larry was abusing me each time, I assured myself that it must be fine because I thought I could trust the adults around me.” Nassar knew that every one of these little girls was thinking this, and this is one of the reasons why it’s important for the pedophile to molest a child with their parent just feet away.

But again, should we assume that the adults don’t care? Kyle Stephen’s parents, who radically defended Nassar for years and repeatedly made Kyle apologize to Nassar, certainly cared. When Nassar had charges brought against him, Kyle’s father did what he could to make amends for not believing her. He was so riddled with guilt and shame for not believing his little girl that, in 2016, he committed suicide.

So why did hundreds, if not thousands, of adults fail these children, including their own parents who were in the same room as they were penetrated? While there certainly were some adults who didn’t care, we cannot assume that the majority of them just didn’t care. We’ve got to stop assuming that all adults don’t care and instead look at the techniques abusers use to keep us blind. I recently discovered a brilliant book by the husband-wife team of neuroscientists Macknik & Martinez-Conde called Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions. This book was my “aha!” moment. They say, “The spooky truth is that your brain constructs reality, visual or otherwise. What you see, hear, feel, and think is based on what you expect to see, hear, feel, and think. In turn, your expectations are based on all your prior experiences and memories.” Every word inside of this book juxtaposed with the hundreds of letters from prison by my father began to reveal a very clear picture. We are all incredibly “hackable” and abusers intuitively know it. I glossed over the apostle Paul’s words for years and now they jump off the page at me: “. . .evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13).

Magicians make a living off of hacking our belief system. They are masters at deception. They know what the audience expects to see, hear, feel and think. They hack our “want to believe system” and show us exactly what our brains expect to see, hear, feel, and think based on past experiences. Kyle Stephens’ parents wanted to believe the best in Nassar. Put another way, they didn’t want to believe that their 12 year old daughter had be sexually violated for 6 years by Nassar. He was a family friend. Larry Nassar knew this, hacked their belief system, and made it their new reality. When confronted by Kyle’s parents, Nassar was not nervous because he already knew exactly what conclusion they expected to hear from him. And he delivered the rehearsed response with eloquence. Kyle recounted what Nassar said in that meeting: “I listened to you tell me, ‘No one should ever do that. And if they do, you should tell someone.'” Nassar knew that making it appear as a “misunderstanding,” combined with the fact that the Stephens’ wanted to believe that “no one should ever do that” was a guarantee that his audience would latch on to this expectation and make it their new reality. The power of this technique can’t be overstated.

I see this happen over and over and over again. Church leaders, when presented with the facts, will choose to believe that the person they love and respect is not capable of abuse. Or that he is remorseful and repentant and will never do it again. It’s not that they don’t believe the child. It’s that they don’t want to believe the child. Abusers hack this belief system and make that a new reality for the church leaders. Leaders almost always soften their approach to the abuser when face to face with him in a confrontation. I’ve studied this phenomenon for the past 7 years. I began to get increasingly angry with church leaders who defended abusers at the expense of their victims. As a minister, I wanted to get into the minds of people like me from the perspective of an abuser. The abuser knows exactly what church leaders expect to see, hear, think, and feel–what they want to believe–and so he delivers. Every single time.

Until we start teaching people the specific techniques abusers use to keep others blind, we will never be able to prevent abuse effectively. When I train people, I do demonstrations. Seeing is believing and is way more powerful than another lecture on abuse. It’s a way to “pull someone up on stage” with the abuser–to allow my audience to see us the way abusers see us. A couple years ago I started doing a facility walk through where I demonstrate just how easy it is to exploit people, their belief systems, and their buildings. Last year I was asked to train staff at a Christian camp. I had 5 volunteers–none of whom were abuse survivors–and I asked if I could touch them in benign ways throughout the day to see if others on staff noticed the behavior. What stunned me was how blatantly I could touch them (hugs, petting hair, breaking them off from the rest of the group, etc.) and at first nobody noticed. The first encounter was an exaggerated hug with a volunteer. We counted 9 people who made eye contact with us. I later asked the group how many people saw me hug this male staff member. Only 2 said they saw anything and neither of them thought it odd that I was embracing one of their staff members right in front of them.

These techniques aren’t a checklist that I can put down into a blog. It’s something that people need to experience. And what I’m seeing is that once others know the techniques pedophiles use to abuse kids in front of us, they can see things in real time and intervene before the abuse happens. There is no reason why Nassar, or my father, or any other pedophile who uses sleights of mind, shouldn’t be intercepted and stopped before they can carry out these egregious and horrific crimes. The following video is one that forever changed the way I understand pedophiles. When I first watched this, I shouted at my computer, “That’s it!” Apollo Robbins’ question at the end is more prophetic than he knows: “If you could control someone’s attention, what would you do with it?”

4 Suggestions for preachers to broach the subject of abuse

Bible

With so many churches covering up abuse or ignoring it altogether, its vital that we be serious about tackling abuse. The reality is that many, many people don’t trust the church anymore. I’ve heard survivors vow to never grace a church building again. Sadly, we’ve given them plenty of reasons not to and it breaks my heart. With that said, there are things that we must do if we are ever going to truly be a shelter for the oppressed. These are my suggestion, and I’d like to hear what others would add.

#1 Confront the issue head on
We preachers like to tip toe around uncomfortable subjects. I used to be so worried that I would offend someone and they wouldn’t come back. I don’t intentionally offend people, but I’m no longer afraid of doing so either. We have to to quit sanitizing our language. I’ve literally heard preachers say, “There are people out there doing bad things.” Seriously. We’ve got to stop intentionally keeping people naive. I still get requests when I speak places not to say anything that is “offensive.” My response usually is, “With all due respect, adults raping children is offensive to me. If you’re not willing to get offended for their sake, how can I trust that you will actually protect them from their rapists?”

I’m not at all suggesting that we use gory details and traumatize our audience. But our language needs to be direct and strong. “Abuse” is way too generic. Acknowledge that both adults and children are being raped, neglected, beaten, and verbally assaulted.

#2 Recognize that you know that some in the audience are currently being abused
Every time I speak at a church, there are multiple survivors of abuse who speak to me afterwards. There are no exceptions. Many survivors I’ve spoken with feel emotionally invisible. They wonder why nobody within leadership has ever seen or acknowledged their pain. Jesus publicly said, “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus was quoting from Isaiah 61 and he simply summed up his mission. Why did the poor and oppressed feel safe to speak to Jesus and not the other religious leaders? It was because Jesus was crystal clear that his mission was to set them free. He never pretended like everyone had it together. Quite the opposite. Jesus routinely acknowledged, embraced, and protected the poor, the sick, and the oppressed in every town he went to.

#3 Be ready to respond to allegations of abuse
Have a plan for how you will respond if your message empowers survivors to speak up. Most importantly, have a plan for how to respond if one of your fellow leaders is the abuser. I cannot overstate the importance of this point. Of the dozens of churches I’ve consulted with, over 80% of the alleged abusers were in some form of church leadership. Take it from someone who had to turn in his own father, reporting someone you love, respect, and admire is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do. Be prepared and make no excuses. If someone in your congregation discloses that a church leader is abusing them, be prepared to take action immediately. If it is with a minor, assume that you are a mandated reporter and report it immediately to law enforcement. Talk with the parents and hold their hand through the entire process. Assure them that you will not protect the abuser, no matter who he or she is.

If an affair is uncovered or if there was spiritual abuse, be prepared to take action to protect the person who discloses the abuse. Removing someone from leadership and keeping quiet about the abuse is immoral and unethical. Let the church know the reason why the person had to be removed. I get nauseated every time I find out that a minister was fired for misconduct and the church leaders lie to the church and say he “resigned.” Then the person moves to another city or sate and reinvents himself. Pennsylvania and Texas have “Pass the Trash” legislation that prevents school administrators from turning a blind eye to teachers who abuse students then seek employment in another district. We churches need to stop “passing the trash” too.

#4 Come up with a plan to bring healing to survivors
One of the fair criticisms of my church leaders has been that I preach a lot about oppression but don’t offer enough solutions. Survivors especially need to know that we are going to do more than just preach about it. Jesus didn’t just protect. He provided hope. He believed in the oppressed and admired their faith. I recently began working with local agencies to network survivors in the community with our church. They need more than just sermons. They need to know that people believe in them and that there is hope and joy.

If all people ever hear is that there are tons of evil people out there and that churches keep perpetuating abuse, they’ll get discouraged real quick. Offer a tangible solution to the problem and cast that vision to your church. Invite people to join you in this mission to help the oppressed. But be sure to have a clear plan.

Do you have any suggestions?

5 Reasons church leaders don’t treat the wounds of abuse survivors

The church is the last place survivors of abuse want to come for help. As a minister, it pains me to write that. But it’s true. Imagine a hospital where ambulances whizzed past because the patients were better off not arriving at that particular hospital. I’ve spoken with hundreds of survivors and have read even more of their stories. Nearly all of their voices echo through the empty chambers of the church’s callous heart. I believe as Jesus did, that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). And there are a lot of sick people, desperate for someone to believe them–to listen to their pain and to expect nothing in return. Alas, we’ve become terrible at sitting on the ash heap with people whose lives have burned down around them. To be honest, I get impatient and even angry with church leaders who do nothing to validate survivors of abuse. Worse yet, many of them are unknowingly abusing survivors all over again. Your faith isn’t “strong enough,” you keep “holding on to bitterness,” aren’t “willing to forgive.” You get the point. But why is it this way?

The more I travel, the more I realize that this isn’t a fringe group of churches. On the contrary, mistreatment of abuse survivors is the norm. As someone who, prior to turning in my own father for sex crimes against children, was completely oblivious to survivors, I offer five reasons why this is the case.

#1 Abuse and trauma are not even on the radar in our seminaries
Everyone I talk to says that they were never trained in seminary to handle cases of abuse. But the problem is much worse. Many seminaries are not even discussing abuse and trauma at all. Even worse, unless this has recently changed, there is zero screening to even get into seminary. Believe me when I say that many pedophiles are graduating from seminaries every year. I went to seminary for 4 years and I don’t recall ever talking about physical or sexual abuse in any of our classes. Rather, we were taught how to think–a skill that I am eternally grateful for but one that does nothing to awaken us to trauma. Church leaders are generally clueless when it comes to abuse. I was. It’s not that I didn’t have a heart for the abused. It’s just that I had no idea that so many people in our pews would be suffering in silence. Nor would I imagine that so many predators lead churches and sit in our pews. It wasn’t taught.

#2 We live behind the pulpit, not in the trenches of life
Let’s face it, Jesus tells us to lay our lives down for one another. The biggest threat most of us face is that the office air conditioner will quit. In all seriousness, most of the pain we ministers experience is the pain of disappointment and strained relationships. That becomes our focus. We don’t have a clue what it’s like to live in constant fear. Fear of being molested or raped. Fear of being beaten or shot. Nearly all of the survivors I’ve met are incredibly good at compartmentalizing their grief. What we see (and, frankly, what we want to see) are the smiles, good grades, and successful jobs. People who haven’t experienced trauma have a difficult time imagining that we are surrounded by a sea of friends and family who are struggling to make it through another day. As preachers, our weekly task is to dig deep into the Word and put a series of lessons and sermons together. Somewhere in the shuffle, we’ve forgotten that Jesus always preached in crowds out in the real world. His preaching was often interrupted with desperate cries for help. And he stopped everything to tend to the wounded.

#3 Our theology views wolves as the ones who need a hand and the oppressed as the ones who should “move on”
The number one question I get asked by churches after an abuser is outed is, “How do we surround this brother and help restore him back to the church?” Savannah Guthrie, after announcing Matt Lauer’s firing said, “I’m heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear, dear, dear friend and he is beloved by many many people here.1 For the first year after my father’s arrest for molesting 23 prepubescent children, I lost count how many times I was asked, “How’s your dad doing?” I only recall one time where someone asked, “How are your father’s victims doing?” Our bad theology makes no distinction between the sinner who is tempted from the oppressor who takes pleasure in harming innocent people. Therefore, church leaders feel a need to “rescue the sinner,” as if they were just wrestling with some desire. Our bad theology doesn’t allow us to see that the Matt Lauers of the world are warped reprobates who are fully aware that they are harming their victims. They just don’t care. Yet leaders continue to dote over the abusers and either ignore or intimidate the abused.

#4 Because trauma is not personal to leaders, they don’t develop a desperation to intercede
To be honest, sometimes help can’t wait until the next elder’s meeting. I’ve personally met with some who needed their pain to be triaged and treated immediately. I’ve sat in offices as trembling women file protection from abuse orders against husbands who vow to murder them. I’ve patiently loved others as they enter drug rehab for the 3rd and 4th time. Trauma is horrible and people need someone who will listen in their darkest hours. And they need someone who knows how to respond. Saying that “I’m praying for you” is not enough. We need to weep with survivors. We need to believe them, to really hear them. And we need to intercede. It’s our job as leaders, whether we like it or not, to shield the abused from the abuser. What message does it send to victims when we surround the abuser with hugs and praise and talk about how “beloved” they were by so many?

#5 We church leaders are addicted to instant transformation
We’ve all seen the cardboard testimonies. On one side of the card there is a word or phrase for who the person was before Jesus transformed their life. On the other side is a word for phrase for who they’ve become after Jesus transformed them. Emotional music is played while a group of people are paraded across the church stage. It is a preacher’s fantasy lesson because transformations are powerful. This is not to knock cardboard testimonies. We should celebrate transformation and I’m happy that people do it in front of the church. But these instant testimonies are indicative of our poor theology. I often wonder how many people are agonizing over what in the world they would write on the back of their piece of cardboard. So many survivors are in process. And this frustrates church leaders. We want crave quick and powerful stories of radical transformation. Ironically, you know who offers just what the itching ears want to hear? That’s right, the abusers! Church leaders migrate to them because, how powerful a story is it for a man who once sexually abused children and has now found Jesus? The abusers know this about church leaders and they are playing them like the fiddles they often are. John says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

In my next post I will offer solutions to my friends who are leading churches. This behavior is counter to the Gospel of Jesus and is doing nothing to help survivors find healing.

Three predictions for sexual abuse in the church for 2018

Graph

I am no prophet who can predict the future, but I do pay attention to patterns. Patterns can be good predictors, and it’s my attention to patterns that has helped me develop some powerful insight into the mind of pedophiles. In my work with churches, I always pay attention to patterns–what are some universal responses to abuse, the most common questions, biggest concerns, etc. And I read and analyze news stories on abuse every day. So what are some of my predictions for how 2018 will play out?

#1 Churches will continue to be sympathetic to abusers
This is, by far, the biggest uphill battle that we will continue to face. The church has become a refuge for registered sex offenders. The dirty little secret is that I have yet to visit a church that doesn’t have at least one registered sex offender. This is no exaggeration. Sadly, the lay church members are rarely made aware by the leadership. This toxic pattern is driven by bad theology (no sin is worse than others) and is fueled by abusers building the ideal facade. When I train churches, I actively demonstrate techniques abusers use in churches to abuse kids. I used to get frustrated that, no matter how much or how convincingly I spoke, church leaders still believed that “keeping an eye” on the abuser was enough. It is not. Many of you survivors know how brazen your abusers were. Being in a public place is not a deterrent for them. At all. They will still molest children when others are within eyesight. So I shifted to demonstrations. Seeing is believing, so I demonstrate that we are not as perceptive as we think we are. Nevertheless, the vast majority of churches will continue to be swooned by dangerous child rapists in 2018.

#2 Child sex abuse will be a hot button topic
Ironically, many churches are talking about child sexual abuse and are coming out of of denial. Sadly, this is because it usually takes a personal experience to awaken us to the reality of abuse. I personally don’t believe that in most cases “silence is acceptance.” I was silent for years, until it happened in our church. I’ve always hated abuse. God knows, I turned my own father in. But I literally had no idea it was so common because I hadn’t been awakened to it. Many, many churches are being awakened to it because survivors are tired of living in silence while their abusers waltz their way through life, producing more and more victims. We are witnessing a radical cultural shift where churches have no choice but to address sexual abuse in all of its forms. Which leads me to #3.

#3 Survivors are outing their abusers like never before
This is the one that is most encouraging. Survivors are almost always made to believe that they are alone, that somehow the abuse was their fault, and that if they tell there will be major consequences. The Harvey Weinstein scandal opened the floodgates, flipped the script, and has activated an army of survivors who are ready to fight for justice. My opinion is that the Jerry Sandusky, Jared Fogle, Bill Cosby, and Anthony Weiner cases laid the foundation for survivors to become empowered. They were all high profile cases and the public was outraged as more and more details were released. When the Weinstein case broke, millions of brave survivors shouted, #MeToo! Just in the last 30 days, we’re seeing politicians, a host of Hollywood actors, news anchors, and comedians being outed as abusers, including names like Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Richard Dreyfuss, Steven Seagul, Sylvester Stalone, Al Franken and on and on it goes. Here is a partial list of recent accusations. And let’s not forget how public Corey Feldman has been, naming pedophiles by name and promising to out every Hollywood pedophile he knows. If you’re like me, you’ve not been able to keep up with the abuse scandals that broke in the past seven days. The list continues to grow, and will continue to do so in 2018. For the first time in a long time, abusers who go on to abuse run a very big risk that their closet skeletons will be brought out for the world to see.

Comment on some trends that you see.

Dear Church: Stop trying to convert wolves

Wolf

There was a recent article published at The Gospel Coalition titled Beware of Broken Wolves. While I appreciate the notion that we need to beware of wolves, this idea that wolves are broken is something that has permeated the church and has no biblical basis. We have spoken to dozens of churches in recent months and I can assure you that the vast majority of them are sympathetic to the wolves who are child rapists (this is not to suggest that only child rapists are wolves; more about this in the next post). I recently wrote about churches defending child rapists here. “We need to gently restore this brother” is the mantra of the day. It’s become so predictable that we expect this phrase to roll off the lips of church leaders as blood and flesh are dripping from the wolf’s. We have grown weary of churches who want to nurture the wolves back to “health.” The root of the problem is that church leaders don’t really think in terms of sheep and wolves. They are thinking like sheep, so they assume that wolves are really just broken sheep who can repent and come back to the sheep pen. They are not. They are wolves. Genuine wolves. Wolves do not convert into sheep. They disguise themselves as sheep. This is a crucial difference. What church leaders overlook is how wolves are described in Scripture and, most importantly, that Jesus and his disciples never spoke to their conversion or repentance.

Jesus used word pictures to drive his points home. He used parables and metaphors to describe the Gospel. He used images that connected the brain to the heart and moved people to action. When he was on a rural mountain, he told his disciples to “beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15 ESV). He was in sheep country. It’s likely that there were sheep grazing within eyesight of the disciples as Jesus was preaching this very lesson. No shepherd would have heard these words and thought Jesus was calling them to be gentle, kind, or understanding of a wolf. Shepherds didn’t sit wolves down and say, “What pain is in your life to make you like this?” In fact, in this context Jesus didn’t speak of pain at all. He spoke in terms of fruit! “You will recognize them by their fruit. . . the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” He shifts images from a wolf to a tree. Does God’s justice require the wolves to turn their hearts and become sheep, or the bad trees to become good trees? No! In fact, Jesus’ words are chilling: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:19, 20). There was never a plea to rescue them from the flames, like we find in Jude 1:23. A clear distinction was made between sinners and wolves.

In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd who is the door for the sheep. Those who enter by way of the door will find pasture. What about the wolf? Does Jesus call him a “brother?” Does he speak about his or her pain? Let’s listen to His words, “The thief only comes to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). Is Jesus clear enough? This is who they are. Though they deceive and disguise themselves as sheep, they are not sheep. They never were. Their diabolic mission, their very identity is to seek sheep to devour. They have no interest in repentance.

We also have the tendency to apply “wolf” to people in the church who cause division. Not all people who cause division are wolves. Some people are like wrecking balls and they are so ignorant they don’t even know it. Others are well intentioned but still manage to run people off. When the Bible describes wolves, it’s not describing what they do. It’s describing who they are. I grew up in a very conservative church where anybody who taught doctrine that wasn’t in line with our tradition was labeled a “wolf.” I received a letter after guest preaching once where I was described as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” by a youth minister from one of the extreme right schools in the Churches of Christ. Wolves are not other Christians with whom we disagree. They are not “brothers” or “sisters” who got caught up in sin. They are what they are. They are wolves. They are diabolic. They crave the flesh of innocent lambs. And they will do anything to kill and destroy the souls of people.

Contrast the descriptions and responses that Jon and I hear when we work with churches who have child rapists with the truths of the Bible. Here are the things we hear most often:

He’s a pillar of the community
This man is one of my best friends
I believe he genuinely loves the Lord
We are willing to do whatever it takes to help guide him back to the Lord
We want him to be surrounded with love
The Lord expects us to forgive
The Lord hates the sin and loves the sinner
Everyone has abandoned him, it’s our duty to rally around him
He’s been a member of this church for 30 years
Nobody is beyond redemption
The Lord’s grace is sufficient

Here are some of the things the Bible says about wolves and false prophets who, by the way, are false teachers because their goal is to ultimately destroy the souls of God’s children:

The wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (Eph 5:6)
Evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived (2 Tim 3:13)
Secretly bring in destructive heresies
Irrational animals, creatures of instinct
Born to be caught and destroyed
They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime
They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you
They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin
They entice unsteady souls
They have hearts trained for greed
Accursed children!
Following the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing
Waterless springs and mists driven by a storm
For them the gloom of utter darkness is reserved
They entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error
The dog returns to its own vomit
The sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire (all the above from 2 Peter 2)

Make no mistake. Genuine wolves derive pleasure in inflicting harm on innocent souls, and the most effective way to do this is to do it in the name of Jesus. Why do we fail to see what’s already clearly laid out in the Bible? I will follow up with a blog post or two giving us practical things that we can actually do to identify who the real wolves are and how we protect the flock from them.

A Peek Behind the Catholic Veil in the Pennsylvania Sex Abuse Cover-Up

Last week Pennsylvania was in the national spotlight for another big sex abuse scandal. This time it involves over 50 Catholic priests and other leaders who sexually abused hundreds of children in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. The investigation began 2 years ago in Johnstown, less than 20 miles from my home. I am currently working my way through the Grand Jury’s 147 page report, which I will post below. I highly recommend reading this report in its entirety after reading my thoughts on how cover-ups of this magnitude still happen regularly. But first, we need to remember that these are real victims with real names, real families, and lasting struggles. Many of the hundreds of victims in this report thought about or attempted suicide, and these hundreds of victims only account for an 8-county radius around my home. This kind of abuse is going on every single day all over the country. There is an estimated 42 million living people just in the US who have suffered sexual assault by an adult when they were a child. This 147 page report is significant.

The late Father Joseph Bender became angry with young boys who refused his advances. “Bender would lash out in anger when the children rebuffed his advances. In a particular incident Bender grabbed a boy by the neck and asked ‘don’t you love me anymore” when the child insisted on wearing underwear to bed. . . The challenge after being Bender’s victims wasn’t to attempt to live well, but to attempt to simply live.” One of Bender’s victims from the 70s wrote an anonymous letter to Bishop Joseph Adamec in 1991 giving details of forced foreplay, masturbation, and oral sex. The victim wrote, “Because I respected his position, and feared the consequences of disobeying him, I would remain silent. I would estimate that I was abused approximately one hundred times.” That letter was stored along with scores of others in the secret archive of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

As I read through this report about priests abusing in the name of God, forcing 8 year old children to perform oral sex on them hundreds of times, forcing them to get drunk, anally raping them, and inflicting unfathomable mental abuse on top of the sexual abuse, I get angry. But my anger is not only reserved for the pedophiles who were relentless in their abuse of helpless children. It’s also aimed at the deadbeat bishops and law enforcement officials who knew about the abuse and chose to shuffle these pedophiles from church to church while remaining silent. But my righteous anger doesn’t stop there. While the Catholics get their share of justified finger pointing, they are not alone–not by a long shot. We at Church Protect regularly hear stories about churches of every stripe who chose to invite pedophiles into their ranks and grant them access to children. In our experience, church leaders routinely allow even convicted pedophiles to waltz back into their churches, “redeemed” by the blood of the lamb and with very few restrictions. One desperate message to me chronicled a group of elders who gave their blessing to a convicted pedophile who had recently been released from prison. The registered sex offender offered to house a struggling youth in his basement under the guise of offering moral support and being a positive role model. Not surprisingly, he attempted to rape the young church girl. Surely an attempted rape of a young troubled youth from their church by a convicted child predator would cause the elders to ban him from that congregation, right? Nope. The girl was told to sit elsewhere if this man made her feel uncomfortable.

I would not experience daily anger if I didn’t daily hear these same stories time and time again. My guess is that people reading this post are getting angry that this kind of thing goes on in churches regularly. I also imagine that anyone who actually takes the time to read the Grand Jury’s report will get angry reading it. But here’s my question–why do people get angry at stories about child predators but turn completely passive when actually interacting with them in real life? All of a sudden we move from the facts of raping young children to shoddy theologies of sin, grace, and assimilation. “Well, they seem genuinely remorseful,” the argument goes, “so I’m sure they’ll never harm a child again.” But they do. Again and again and again. Read the report. It’s full of records of rehab, confessions, promises to change, victim blaming, and minimizing the abuse. The sad thing is that it works and pedophiles know it.

In his book Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches, Patrick Parkinson has a short but excellent section on repentance. Here’s what he says:
Forgiveness can have little meaning if the offender has no intention of stopping the abuse. . . In the area of child sexual abuse, repentance has often been confused with remorse. Remorse is what happens in the back of a police car. Repentance means taking full responsibility for the offending and walking the painful road of lasting change. . . The offender may well feel devastated by the prospect of losing these things. Such deep remorse may well be taken for repentance, but the signs of true repentance are in deeds, not in tears. . . The repentant offender ought to be willing to acknowledge to the police and the courts that he has done wrong, that he has committed criminal offences of the utmost gravity and deserves to be punished.

Parkinson also argues that a repentant abuser will take every step to make reparation. Just as we learned as children that an apology for a broken window must be accompanied with an offer to pay for the window, so there must be reparation as adults. The abuser will at very least voluntarily pay for counseling bills of all of his or her victims. In more significant cases, Parkinson rightly argues that the offender may have “to sell his house, or his car. It is costly, but it is also just.” I have argued, and continue to argue, that a repentant child molester will insist on being removed from the presence of children precisely because they have proved time and time again that they cannot be near children without fondling, massaging, raping, and performing oral sex on them. This response does not mean that the church “has it out” for pedophiles. Rather, they have the safety of children as their top priority. A repentant offender will be more than happy to be part of a church with strong accountability–where he or she is still free to worship with other adults and not be near children.

But sadly, this biblical stance of repentance and accountability is viewed as inhumane, cruel, and unjust. And so, like the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, churches of all denominations in 2016 continue to mistake remorse for repentance and they routinely let pedophiles join their worship, preach, lead children’s programs, all while keeping their congregants in the dark about the abuser’s past. So why do churches enable (and thereby bless) abuse to take place in practice while condemning it in theory?

If we peel back the veil in the Pennsylvania Catholic abuse case, I believe we would find two bishops who covered up the abuse not because they hate children and like to know that they’re being abused, but because they mistook remorse for repentance. In the report, they did confront accused clergy time and time again. But every single time they allowed them to continue in ministry. Why? Unfortunately, the power of persuasion by an offender is a louder voice than the cries of abused children. The best leverage an abuser can get (and they may even request it!) is face time with church authorities. Abusers know how easy it is to use emotion to minimize abuse, explain details away, rewrite children’s memories, and plead for mercy. And it works. This is one reason we recommend churches never investigate allegations of abuse themselves. Church leaders need to remove themselves from the abuser emotionally and look at the facts. They need to listen to the cries of children and vow to lay down their lives to protect them. They need to always report allegations of abuse to authorities and not speak to the accused about it. Trust us that you will always leave those meetings second guessing yourself, having sympathy for the abuser, and wondering how such a good child could be so mistaken as to what happened to them.

Church leaders have a very long way to go. Churches continue to be ripe for abusers. The harvest is plentiful and the workers are naive. My prayer is that, for the sake of our children, we wise up and learn from cases like the PA Catholic scandal.