Why sexual abuse goes unnoticed

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?”

27 Replies to “Why sexual abuse goes unnoticed”

  1. I want to thank you for using that verse; it is the exact one that stuck in my head from a different post from yesterday. Abusers are terribly self-deceived and that is partly why I think they’re so good at deceiving others. They themselves really believe the load of lies that they are selling. Incredible salesmanship abilities.

    I have not been sexually harmed. But I do recall my mind doing something similar when I would hear or experience things that my conscience “knew” was wrong: I would immediately tell myself I wasn’t hearing it right. Something was wrong with me; not them. I would “reconstruct” reality into something more palatable; more bearable and blame/shame myself instead of them. It was inconceivable to e that what was going on, was really going on. My mind put up barriers and coping techniques. This was true of me as a child and as an adult. The persons around me would also encourage me to do that, so suddenly nothing was serious or disturbing as I thought it was. It became easier and easier to doubt my own sense of judgment and decision making, because I knew that if I spoke up, I wouldn’t be taken seriously.

    I’ve noticed that there are plenty of sins that churches and Christians are willing to “overlook’ or “dumb down.” They “soften” the abuse so that they can more easily overlook it. This is self-serving, but often done in a very subconscious way is what I’ve picked up on. There’s not a lot thought or processing that goes into it. They have scenario in their head already, and they just bend and twist the narrative to “fit” that scenario.

    It is hard to understand (tho I do understand) when someone says they believe a victim, but they really don’t want to, so they don’t. You either believe them or you don’t. When does anyone really “want” to believe that someone was truly victimized? Especially if it’s your own child?

    Perhaps one thing that would help is to for adults to stop being so dismissive when we hear things we really don’t want to hear–and try to get inside their child’s head when they come to you. Ask questions. He (or she) made you uncomfortable? How so? Can you explain it to me? Use your words, and I will listen. Accept that fact that bad things don’t just happen to “someone else.” We’re all “someone else” to someone else–until it happens to you, of course.

    Pastors would do well to do that when adults come to them with stories of abuse or real problems that you shouldn’t just “dismiss” because you don’t like what they are saying. You’re in the wrong position by being a pastor, if you don’t really want to listen, and empathize. I’ve had this happen to me constantly with Christians. I’ll say something, and they’ll respond—and my first thought is: were they even listening to me?

    One thing I noticed in Nassar being described is how he was trusted by nearly everyone. He was considered a miracle doctor, so he obviously knew how to treat injuries. He had a stellar reputation and was well-spoken of by very authoritative persons.That is how I think he was able to abuse for so long. No one wanted to dispute him, so he kept gaining more and more power. It’s just that NO ONE should be held in that kind of honor and put on such a pedestal. It doesn’t matter how good they are at what they do.

    Think of Penn State. They idolized those people for so many years, and no one was brave enough to “topple” them. All they cared about was winning games. Even after the awful truths came out, many weren’t willing to bring these persons “down to earth.”

    I was deceived for a long time about many things, and it has nearly destroyed me. An abuser is a liar, first and foremost, and lies murder from the inside out. If we keep adding to that pile of lies by wanting to live in la-la land, we’re no better than Job’s friends. The Bible is so clear about so many things, yet we who call ourselves Christians are “re-wording” the Word of God so that it’s more palatable and doesn’t require us to “really” change how we think and how we behave (myself included. Trying to not remain that way).

    1. You’re so, so right. Our system of rationalizing and “talking our gut down” is lethal. And it’s powerful. We don’t want to believe that any kind of allegations or “signs” are true, so we override our gut and talk ourselves into all these signs being a “misunderstanding.” It’s very difficult to look at the facts objectively. Our emotional attachments to people really cloud our ability to see their wicked deeds.

      1. “Our system of rationalizing and “talking our gut down” is lethal.”

        Yes. There are two books I recommend which discuss how our intuition is amazingly quick and accurate and how we do well to pay more heed to it.

        “The Gift Of Fear” by Gavin De Becker.
        “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell.

  2. Once I heard you speak at a symposium online and you said that your dad spent a lot of time being a “father figure” with kids, which you didn’t consider a warning sign until after he was arrested. If you are willing, I’m curious what other behaviors were missed warnings? And what caused you to believe the victims in spite of your previous trust of your father? Since your mom helped you go to the police, did she think he was normal until the victim came forward? Or did she know something was “off”?

    1. In a nutshell, all of us had our intuition speaking to us throughout the years but we were never able to pinpoint what specifically was tripping it. This is why, when the victim disclosed to me, I just knew that it finally made sense. The first couple years, I wrestled with not being able to pinpoint what the specific signs were that we missed. I immersed myself in all the best research on pedophilia and, while getting some clarity, was still left very unsatisfied. The “red flag behaviors” aren’t adequate. Not even close. So I ended up, with the help of my mother, developing a predator recognition tool with 20 different “fruits” that pedophiles produce. It takes a while to explain how to use it properly, so I’m working on an online short course to make it available. Pedophiles are not as covert as researchers claim that they are. They hide in plain sight, and my goal is to have them stand out like sore thumbs in a crowd.

      1. I look forward to reading this next blog. I am a victim of incest so it is my mission to never allow anything that happened to me happen to other innocent children. Thanks for being transparent and open and hard working on such a tough subject!

      2. Jimmy I am SO happy you are going to be publishing an online predator recognition tool with 20 different “fruits” that pedophiles produce.

        Once it is published, I will be encouraging all survivors and victim-advocates to help promote it on social media.

        I’m guessing this tool will be GOLD — not only for recognising pedophiles but for recognising men who abuse their female intimate partners.

        We are starting a series at A Cry For Justice tomorrow about how men who abuse their female intimate partners use very similar tactics to pedophiles. And are even more devious than pedophiles.

        1. Yes, oddly very few churches have decent video equipment so I don’t have any decent quality videos. I’m hoping to get a good recording very soon!

      3. The “notify me of comments” button didn’t work last time, but anyway, after I found your mom’s blog it made more sense why she could know something was wrong without even thinking of pedophilia. What I’ve seen so far of the videos from Bakersfield adds understanding too. The videos explain how your father was “normal” enough that he got his kids not to see (for a while) that he was the cause of their mom’s “craziness”, but it doesn’t explain how he made her “crazy” (for good reason the focus was how he behaved with kids). However, the blog makes sense of it because she wasn’t just upset that he spent time with kids, he was also committing verbal and financial abuse against her when his kids weren’t looking. It’s both creepy and helpful to see the big picture. Creepy that it’s actually possible to molest while giving a piggy back ride (never thought of it because I need both hands on the kid’s lower legs to maintain my balance as well as ewwwww that’s evil), but helpful that knowing what to worry about also means knowing what not to worry about. If someone who interacts with kids on occasion isn’t pushing for more time with them-probably ok.

        1. Hi M&M, if you put double-line breaks into your comments they are much easier for others to read.

          White space is vital in social media, if you want people to read what you write!

          On a laptop, hold down the ‘shift’ button and hit the ‘return’ button twice.

          On a phone, hit ‘return’ twice. ( I think that is the way…. I seldom comment using my phone.)

  3. thank you for writing this and the video… it makes sense… I was just reading court documents about one of the the SGM churches sexual abuse cases and a lot of the abuse by pedophiles happened right in their church buildings, at their schools, in the middle of recess in the playgrounds, during classes at their schools, backstage at church, people’s own homes, and with people around who were clueless. Horrific.

    1. Pedophiles do this stuff right in front of us very, very often. I think this is part of the reason why so many people have a hard time believing victims when they tell. Nobody wants to admit that we miss this blatant of abuse right in front of our very eyes. You are right, it is definitely horrific.

  4. I know your focus is on pedophiles, and I’m impressed and thrilled at the work you are doing, but I would really like someway to explore similar concepts for how to make the non physical abuses (I came from a family high in narcissism) likewise evident. The thought pattern barriers are the same and it violates and destroys minds, hearts, and souls, but no one wants to get it.
    Meanwhile, I know a few support groups I’ll be sharing this to. Thanks for all your work. Looking forward to exploring your site.

    1. I’m definitely interested in this area, particularly as it relates to narcissistic church leaders who spiritually abuse other staff members and lay members. I’m in conversation with someone about developing a tool that distinguishes between a misguided leader (who is teachable) and someone who is abusive (does not have a teachable spirit and will continue to abuse no matter the cost). In the meantime, you’ll want to check out Robert Hare’s book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. It is an excellent book and he’s done superb research in the area of psychopathy. Thank you for sharing my work! Blessings to you!

  5. Some of what M&M said up-thread is so important I need to restate it .

    Jimmy’s videos on how to protect children explain how John Jimmy’s pedophile father appeared “normal” enough. And they explain how the father got his kids to think their mom (Clara) was crazy, while not seeing that their dad was the cause of their mom’s “craziness”.

    But the videos do not explain how this wicked pedophile-pastor made his wife “crazy” . However, Clara’s blog makes sense of it. Clara wasn’t just upset that her husband spent time with lots of kids. She was upset because her husband was committing verbal and financial abuse against her when his kids and the rest of the church weren’t looking.

    Links —

    Jimmy’s video trainings on Protecting Children from Pedophiles (uploaded to YouTube by Westside Church of Christ, Bakersfield California):

    https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLKhi6mGhHXTt4RgxJ7kqP9dApNkjgQJjp

    Clara Hinton’s blog:

    http://www.findingahealingplace.com/

  6. It also caught my attention that excessive “charity” can be a warning. Genuinely loving people work for free at organized church events maybe once a week and they leave tired. Those with ulterior motives offer free babysitting for unlimited time and never get tired (unless the kid is napping with them). Normal people get annoyed when they do too much work for free. I used to see that annoyance as selfish, but now I see it as smart.

    1. And in a parallel way, excessive charity can be something domestic abusers do.

      The men who abuse their wives can be very generous at helping other families in crisis. They volunteer for local community work like hurricane assistance, community fire fighting, or whatever. They might be very willing to help other families in church who need car maintenance, garden maintenance, home maintenance, etc. They love the ‘good guy image this gives them.

      Even if a domestic abuser is not targeting other women for adultery or children for sexual abuse, he might still do this volunteer stuff because he knows that if his wife reports what he is doing to her, the people she reports it to are less likely to believe her if they know her husband to be such a helpful and generous guy.

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