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.

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.

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.

I Teach My Kids to Hate (And You Should Too)

The Bible, through the words of Jesus, instructs us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). If your enemy is hungry, we are told to feed him. If he is thirsty, we should give him drink (Romans 12:20). Point well taken. But the Bible also gives us another vital instruction. It’s one that we don’t take seriously enough, in my opinion. We don’t even like the word. Yes it’s true; we are told to hate. We’re not instructed to hate people, but to hate what is evil. Romans 12:9 (NIV) says, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” This particular word for hate appears only here in all of the Bible. It is the strongest word for hate. It literally means “to have a vehement dislike for something.” It is likened to a state of rage. In contrast, we are to “cling” to what is good. That word means something like “being glued to; to be inseparable.”

Do we have a vehement hatred for evil? I mean, really–does the thought of evil make us rage inside? I’m not so convinced that it does. Neither am I convinced that we’re teaching our kids to hate evil. Let me give a little backdrop for why I hate evil. When I read story after endless story of abuse, especially abuse of children, something snaps inside of me. After hearing stories of shame, humiliation, and torture, Evil is no longer an abstract concept. It becomes personal. Extremely personal. People sometimes ask me, “Why do you subject yourself to all these stories of abuse and surround yourself with people who have been abused?” My answer is, “Why do you not?” Avoidance makes abuse no less real to the people it’s actually happening to. The vast majority of people in our nation choose to ignore this evil, and so it continues.

In my frequent travels, I hear lots of gut-wrenching stories of young children being sexualized and used for pervert predators’ own little sex experiments. Let me be clear–this is not an “attraction” or “addiction.” It is evil. Pure wickedness. Attraction means exactly that–someone is attracted, for whatever reason (I’m not arguing causality here), to children. Attraction turns evil when there is intent to act out. The word “addiction” does not properly explain child molestation either. There is a vast difference between addiction and abuse. Addiction is a craving for something. Abuse is a craving to act out on someone. Children are not drugs. They are humans. They have a soul. They are precious. When they are used, manipulated, sexualized, tortured, emotionally screwed with, brought to orgasm, forced to perform sex acts on adults, and thrown out, we cannot ethically say, “Boy, Eric was addicted to Jennifer.” Let’s not cheapen the child by referring to molestation as an “addiction.” Acting out on a child is always evil because every time molestation happens, an innocent child is harmed.

I am very cautiously optimistic about the epidemic of child sex abuse. The optimistic part comes from shaking hands with people like myself who are speaking out against abuse on a national (and some an international) level. Many people are listening and are willing to take strong measures to prevent abuse. This is commendable and hopeful. The very cautiously part comes from my experience speaking at churches. Church leaders are generally still na├»ve and are way too willing to give people the benefit of doubt. This reduces the likelihood of church leaders reporting suspected abuse in a timely manner. In fact, I’ve witnessed on several occasions strong resistance by church leaders to report alleged abusers because “they just don’t seem like the kind of guy who would do something like that.” I often tell people who respond this way not to confuse their desire for people to be pure and innocent with them actually being pure and innocent. I could wish all day long that my own father had not committed atrocities against multiple children. But that doesn’t change the fact that he actually did. We’ve got to stop pretending like evil is not around us. We can’t cower in fear, either.

Ephesians 5:11 says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” And so we unapologetically expose the works of darkness and shed light on the people who are abusing children in the dark. But more than exposing this darkness, we hate the evil. And we should have no embarrassment or apology for teaching our children to hate what is evil and cling to what is good. Let’s start raising up the next generation to be kind, loving, and opposed to evil.

How Should Christians Treat Repentant Pedophiles?

On September 13, 2009 a small church in Louisville ordained a registered sex offender as a minister of the Gospel. The man was a “changed man,” they demanded. I personally think this was a foolish decision, for a host of reasons. But questions abound on the internet from churches asking what to do with registered sex offenders who wind up on their steps and in their pews. It’s a fair question. I live in a small town with two (yes, two!) state prisons and believe me, we do get released prisoners to show up, desperate for any help they can get. If you have followed my blog at all, you’ll know that pedophiles are just like you and me on the outside–they are educated, religious, productive, sophisticated, warm, and trustworthy. But what lies beneath the skin is a genuine sexual attraction to children. Because we cannot see this attraction, we tend to listen to the kind, charismatic words and see the gentleness they exude. We view these people for what we see at face value–as the kind old man who is warm and nice to our kids at church. We don’t want to fathom that someone could ever think of a child in that way, let alone act out on it. But they do. Ask my friend Les Ferguson. He describes his son’s molester as a kind family friend. A kind man who did unimaginable things behind closed doors and then murdered Les’ wife and son.

I’m currently reading Jaycee Dugard’s memoir A Stolen Life. If you have not read it, get it today and read it. I mean it. Get. The. Book. Enter into the bedroom of a victim before rushing to embrace the “repentant” pedophile. The psychological abuse always accompanies the sexual abuse. God bless Jaycee. She holds nothing back. What I read last night made it difficult for me to fall asleep. Unimaginable. I am still haunted by the things this “nice man,” as she describes him in the book,” named Philip Garrido did to her–for 18 hellish years. I’m haunted by the things my dad, whom I always trusted and respected, did to young children. I still can’t wrap my mind around it all.

I admire churches who trust that people have truly repented, I really do. But pedophilia is a very complex issue and even the greatest professional people in the field of psychology have been repeatedly fooled. One area that churches need to become familiar with is recidivism (relapse) rates among pedophiles, because you can rest assured that they will use the statistical data to help their case. There are a number of common actuarial instruments currently used that gage risk in incarcerated sex offenders. The Stable and Static99 are 2 common instruments that are used. Without getting too technical, these instruments are touted as being wonderful guides to tell us whether “reformed” pedophiles will reoffend. Despite what you will hear from people who administer the tests, they are definitely not reliable for predicting whether a sex offender will reoffend. In fact, Dr. Anna Salter says this: “They do not measure the risk of reoffending; they measure the likelihood of getting caught. No instruments are able to measure the risk of reoffending, because there is no access to offenders who continue to offend but who do not get caught” (annasalter.com, “What Does Static99 Really Measure?).

The recidivism rate among registered sex offenders is lower than most other crimes, at less than 10%. So most people get a false sense that, because the recidivism rates are low, sex offenders really have an epiphany of sorts and have “learned their lesson” from spending hard time in prison. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I spoke with Dr. Salter directly and asked her what her thoughts were on why recidivism rates were so low among sex offenders (she is highly respected in the field of treating pedophiles, is a Harvard PhD, and has been in the field for over 30 years). She told me that several studies show that sex offenders have about a 3% chance of ever getting caught for any one offense against a child. She told me, “In my experience, that number (3%) is probably high. They just don’t get caught.” Reassuring, isn’t it?

Before churches swing open their doors and criticize people for standing in the way of repentant sinners, remember that there is no other sin in this category of such deep secrecy. It is the most successfully hidden secret and should be treated as such. Simply because someone says they don’t offend kids anymore doesn’t mean they aren’t actually doing it. One site asked the question (I can’t remember the source), “If a pilot told you that the plane previously had mechanical problems but they’re pretty sure there’s now only a 40% chance that there will be an immediate mechanical failure, would you feel comfortable flying?” Let’s factor in what we know about Gene Abel’s study and Anna Salter’s experience–that pedophiles only have a 3% chance of getting caught for any one offense. Here’s what that would look like:

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. We just spotted some thugs dressed in black masks with a mechanic’s bag running from underneath the plane. According to our instruments, there’s a 97% chance that they secretly sabotaged this plane and badly damaged major components in the hydraulics and main computer. We should be cleared for takeoff in about 3 minutes, so make sure your seatbelts are fastened and enjoy the ride.” Any normal person would be jumping out the window to get off that plane.

So, when we know what we know about recidivism rates, when we know what we know about pedophiles avoiding getting caught at all costs, when we know that there is no cure for pedophilia, and when we know that it is extremely difficult to control pedophiles even after years of therapy, that should change our perspective on repentance. We should now be the passengers on the plane saying, “Something doesn’t feel right; it’s not safe to fly.” Paul preached all over that people should “perform deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20 ESV).

Repentance needs to be proved. A repentant pedophile will perform deeds by demanding that he not be near children again. A repentant pedophile doesn’t ask for pictures (no matter how innocent they seem) of any children. A repentant pedophile will renounce any internet use for the rest of his life, since pornography and fantasy drive them to their core. A repentant pedophile will not happily accept a role as minister where people now look to him as a spiritual leader of old and, yes even very young, people. A repentant pedophile will make sure that his presence is not traumatizing to survivors of child sex abuse in the congregation. And if it is, he will gladly find another church and not put up a fight. A repentant pedophile will not ask church members if he can babysit their kids. Please beware of these things and let’s work together to make our churches safe.