Preventing Abuse: There Are No Monsters

I’m working my way through Gavin De Becker’s excellent book, The Gift of Fear. De Becker works with the highest ranking government officials, including presidents, to assess risk of violent behavior. He created the MOSAIC Threat Assessment Systems, which is still used by the CIA, high profile public figures, and the public. Though De Becker specializes in predicting violent behavior, many of the principles should be applied to predicting child sexual abuse.

My experience working with churches tells me that they are generally way too trusting of everyone. The majority of church leaders I speak with equate kindness with morality and trustworthiness, they have a high level of naivety when it comes to protection of children, they are oftentimes strongly resistant to making drastic policy changes that include background checks on all volunteers and accountability for volunteers working with children, and they believe that they would be able to detect an abuser if he was among them. Put another way, they believe that abusers look like monsters and therefore are easy to spot. I might add that this is not a problem that’s isolated with churches. Daycares, schools, camps, and people employing babysitters are just as trusting of individuals.

But, as De Becker rightly observes, it’s precisely because we are looking for monsters that we are such good targets. In fact, abusers are not monsters at all. They are people like you and I. They look like us, talk like us, dress like us, work like us, pray like us, and are likely some of our best friends or family members. Because we don’t want to believe that people we personally know are capable of such crimes, we hear things in the news like, “He was such a nice man. I still don’t believe he was capable of doing such bad things. He must have just snapped.” De Becker’s point is that, simply because we ourselves wouldn’t commit a certain crime, we don’t want to fathom that our close friends would either. He says:
Every day people engaged in the clever defiance of their own intuition become, in midthought, victims of violence and accidents. So when we wonder why we are victims so often, the answer is clear: It is because we are so good at it. A woman could offer no greater cooperation to her soon-to-be attacker than to spend her time telling herself, “But he seems like such a nice man” (De Becker, 30).

Point well taken. It’s so important for us to realize that real crimes are committed by real people who don’t necessarily look like whack-jobs. De Becker adds:
So, even in a gathering of aberrant murderers there is something of you and me. When we accept this, we are more likely to recognize the rapist who tries to con his way into our home, the child molester who applies to be a baby-sitter, the spousal killer at the office, the assassin in the crowd. When we accept that violence is committed by people who look and act like people, we silence the voice of denial, the voice that whispers, “This guy doesn’t look like a killer” (De Becker, 46).

He recommends doing the exact opposite of what we are doing every day–we need to observe behaviors, not personalities. Crimes are never created out of thin air. People don’t just “snap.” There are always behavioral indicators prior to acting out. This applies to murderers and it applies to child molesters. We need to be more observant of behavioral patterns that indicate problems and malevolence. I recently had a person give me a laundry list of red flag behavioral issues with a man at church–he’s giving gifts to young kids, he offers to baby sit, he takes particular interest in certain kids, he tries to isolate them by offering rides, he invites them to his house, etc. I explained that he is very high risk and should be removed from activities which include children, to which this person replied, “But he’s so nice and is highly respected by everyone.” My response was, “So what?”

So many of us fall into the trap of believing that abusers look like monsters, that we don’t even want to entertain the possibility of abuse and so our interpretation of certain behaviors becomes tainted. Consider the questions we ask the applicant for the baby sitting job or the Youth Leader position at church–Are you good with children? What are your strengths? What is your experience working with kids in the past? These questions tell us nothing of their behaviors with children. Nor do they put a would-be abuser on the spot so that we can observe their mannerisms in real time. Should we not be asking questions like, “Do you have any sexual attraction to children? Have you ever physically touched a child inappropriately or thought about doing so? Have you ever viewed child pornography? What would you do if you felt a child was soliciting sex?, etc. We can learn a lot about a person by asking the right questions. A 3 second pause or a shift in the chair can reveal a lot of information. But rare is it that I speak to people who are asking these kinds of questions. We’ve got to do a much better job at prediction and prevention of abuse.

If you don’t believe me, take it from an abuser himself. I recently visited my dad in prison and he had this to say, “Two things shocked me each and every time I abused a victim–How easy it was to get a child to act out sexually and how easy it was to get away with it.” He is absolutely right, to our shame.

10 Replies to “Preventing Abuse: There Are No Monsters”

    1. Agreed, Clara. I’ve been thinking of Tom White a lot lately. He was a respected leader of a christian ministry for many years. It is not known if he had more victims than the one for whom he was under investigation, but I have to wonder if anyone at anytime took a look at his behaviours.

  1. Thank you so much for your article! It is so true that we expect the offender to appear as a monster, not as an acquaintance, relative or friend…..BEWARE! I learned several months ago that an elder where our family worshiped was a pedophile…..and was so surprised! My children always enjoyed his teasing. We were in there home on occasion. I am thankful they were never alone with him. He is now deceased, but visited there recently and was sorrowful that his picture is hanging on the wall with other elders, who probably never knew! I am praying that all leaders everywhere will begin to open their hearts to taking precautions to safeguard our children…..we should not have them be easy prey!

    1. It would surprise people to know how many elders and deacons are pedophiles in the church. I get quite a few phone calls and e-mails for help from churches dealing with it. That’s why personality/respect is not a good indicator of abuse. We really have to watch for behavioral patterns. The sings are usually there. . . at least enough signs to make us very cautious. The good news is that more and more churches are beginning to open up and explore this issue. It will take time to shift our culture of negligence, but I’m hopeful. It’s going to take an army of people to stand up for the innocent and vulnerable, but we can do it!

  2. Thank you, once again, for sharing vital information. Daily is amazes us how naive people can be–even when pedophiles are arrested every single day. “Red Flags” become red flags because they are accurate predictors of violence.

  3. If most pedophiles are never a caught, won’t doing background checks promote a false sense of security? Here is a productive idea. Write a list of questions that you think should be asked by church leaders of child workers/volunteers with red flag answers. It is easy to pass on that kind of a list to others.

    1. Background checks alone do give a very false sense of security. Honestly, they are done more from a liability standpoint than as a deterrent. I agree that we need to come up with a great series of questions for interviews, along with a change of landscape in our buildings that increases accountability and decreases the risk of a child being isolated.

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