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?”

Three predictions for sexual abuse in the church for 2018

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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.