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?”

Come On! Families of Pedophiles Have to Know, Right?

This is a common misperception–that families of pedophiles had to know that a perpetrator was in the family. Think of Ariel Castro. His family was quickly indicted in the eye of the public. The questions abounded: How could he have 3 girls tied up in his basement for years and nobody in the family had a clue? You mean nobody noticed anything odd about his behaviors? And what about Jerry Sandusky? In his case, people did know that abuse was going on and covered it up. This fuels the perception that already exists in the public. What’s going on? Do family members and close friends know and just choose to cover it up?

As the son of a pedophile, I cannot speak for other families but I can share my experience. Here are a few of my observations:
We Family Members Did Not Know–Not only did we not know, but we daily live with the guilt of not knowing. At the end of the day, our ignorance did nothing to stop him from abusing so many victims. The questions for me usually appear in the form of nightmares (literally). How did I not see it? How could I not have seen the signs? Why did I never question odd behavior that I had seen over the years? Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat after seeing faces of children crying out for help. The guilt of not knowing never leaves.

There Was No Cover Up–To state, suggest, or imply that the family of a perpetrator somehow covered up abuse only adds to our multi-layered pain. It is a traumatic thing for a family to find out that one of their beloved family members had been abusing young children for years. My world stopped 2 years ago when I found out and there are still days when I wake up and have to wrestle with the reality of my own father being a pedophile.

Imprisonment Is Not High-Five Worthy–Now that we do know, and our dad is currently serving a life sentence in prison, we do not celebrate that fact. Don’t get me wrong. He is where he needs to be and worked hard to get there. But it brings no comfort to know that he will die in prison. He is still our dad and, as such, comes a whole gamut of raw emotion. Many of my siblings are still wrestling with whether they should contact him for the first time since being incarcerated. Holidays are weird, too. Do we bring it up? Do we pretend that everybody’s happy? Certain places trigger different memories and emotions for different family members. We try to be sensitive to that when we get together for holidays.

There Can Be Redemption In Not Knowing–Because my family did not know, I have dedicated my life to teaching others how to know that someone is abusing children. Admittedly, much of my drive is fueled by guilt. I get very mad at myself for not taking time to educate myself on abuse, or opening my mind to the possibility that one of my family members might just be an abuser. Because of this horrible experience, I am hopeful that I can offer help to others and stop abuse before it happens. I’m not under the illusion that abuse will cease. But I live under the reality that each of us has a responsibility to inform others and protect the innocent. It’s people like you readers who are making a difference. We need you.

In between college and seminary, I took one year and drove truck coast to coast. It was always something I wanted to do, and I’ve driven off and on over a 10 year span. In 1,000,000 miles, I’ve seen a lot of treacherous road conditions and have witnessed hundreds of accidents, many of them fatal. Nothing, in my estimation, compares to the deception of freezing fog. One night in 2008 I left home and it was 35 degrees and foggy. I climbed to the top of the mountain on US 30 before my descent at a 6% grade for the next 8 miles. Only a small guard rail separates the road from a cliff that drops down a few hundred feet to the bottom. The road was perfectly dry and everything seemed good. However, I had a bad hunch. Something didn’t feel right. I decided to “stab” the brakes on the flat to test the dry pavement. Instantly, all 18 tires skidded. . . big time! I was on sheer black ice–freezing fog. I was faced with the challenge of getting an 80,000lb truck down a 6% grade on a sheet of ice. It was quite literally the scariest time of my life.

What’s my point? There were enough signs telling me that black ice was a possibility. Thick fog, high elevation, near freezing temps, and dry looking pavement. Yet, even with knowledge and experience I’m repeatedly fooled by black ice. I can count at least a dozen times that I’ve nearly lost control from unexpectedly hitting a patch of black ice. Yet every time there were definitive signs which I ignored: cold temps, saturated air, a glassy look to the pavement, a different sound from the tires (tires get quieter when you are on ice), ice building on mirrors, and “soft” steering. In each and every one of those scenarios, I legitimately did not know that I was entering an ice patch. There was no cover up! But I’ve driven enough to know that ignorance is not an excuse. We have got to always be vigilant, be defensive, be attentive to signs, and pass on information that can inform others and ultimately save lives. Let’s work together to help families identify ways that they can protect their children before abuse ever happens.

Here is a video for your viewing pleasure, so you can see just how fun black ice can be. Stay safe!: