How to Spot Sexual Abuse in Your Church by Maureen Farrell Garcia

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I was married for more than a decade to a Christian man who engaged in disturbing secret behaviors that included sexually abusing a female relative between the ages of 9-12. When the child courageously disclosed the abuse and my husband was confronted, he admitted to some of his abusive behaviors. However, he did so while providing serious spin to the facts.

Still, he was convinced by our pastors to turn himself in to the police, and he pled guilty to a misdemeanor in order to avoid a more serious charge, a trial, and potential jail time. He received probation and court ordered counseling sessions.

I know what occurred when I was a teen, but I still have great difficulty interpreting what occurred. Here are the details: when I was 14, I met a 24-year-old man who groomed me and abused me for years. I have no difficulty acknowledging that a grown man having sex with a teen is abuse, as long as the teen is someone other than me.

I know what the research says. I know that my grooming for sexual abuse was so effective that, many years later I still feel responsible for my own abuse. I understand the dynamics that produced this effect in me. And, yet, after all my knowledge, all my therapy, and all the years of praying, it still feels like my fault, like I was complicit in my own abuse. And, it still feels like I owe my abusers compassion, love, secrecy, and the denigration of myself for their aggrandizement.

This is how effective and destructive abusive grooming is. And this barely touches on the reality of all the feelings, trauma, PTSD symptoms, and other long-term effects caused by sex offenders.

Understanding sexual abuse dynamics

Dr. Anna Salter is a leading expert on recognizing and treating sexual offenders. Her book Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders–Who They Are, How They Operate and How We can Protect Ourselves and Our Children should be required reading for anyone with a leadership position. Because, as Dr. Salter, in her exceptional book Transforming Trauma: A Guide to Understanding and Treating Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse asserts, “the best protection against sexual abuse is understanding it.”

There are a number of misconceptions I have encountered within the church concerning the nature of sexual abuse. The first one is that time, becoming Christian, or truly repenting and being forgiven heals the sex offender.

Dr. Salter states sexual offending is “highly compulsive and repetitive behavior, the tenacity of which is truly impressive.” It will not go away on its own. Serving time in jail will not cure it. In fact there is no cure, only the possibility of recovery if the offender commits to a long term specialized treatment program that addresses the conflation of distorted thinking, beliefs, and values that drives their abusive worldview and entitled behaviors. While engaging with experts, offenders need to submit to a literal renewing of their minds.

Sexual offending cannot be addressed as just a terrible “sin” that is fixed instantly through forgiveness. It must be addressed as a result of the fall, like Cancer, which is treated though God’s working through human agents and rarely through miraculous intervention. Recovery requires commitment, effort, and time that hopefully results in emotional and spiritual health and maturity.

The second misconception is that accepting abusers within church communities is primarily a theological issue. A number of years ago, Leadership Journal published an article addressing church leaders’ attitudes towards sex offenders. Tellingly one pastor profiled stated, “Many people view child abuse as the unforgivable sin. But Jesus says there’s no unforgivable sin except blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.”

Yet sexual abuse has the potential to destroy lives and relationships with God. Decisions to accept a known offender within a church community need to be based on knowledge of sexual abuse dynamics, and questions of ensuring safety and removing potential risk, and not on whether or not the abuser has been forgiven by God.

The pastor profiled also highlighted the importance of educating the congregation stating, “When you teach healthy people in the parish what to look for, what to be aware of, what the rules are, and how we can create safe boundaries, this creates environments where Christ’s light can shine.” He is absolutely correct.

However, his statement, “Within our first year of meeting, [the offender] told me what had happened. I took this as a sign of health on his part, that he came to me and told me about his past,” reveals a lack of understanding concerning sex offenders. Why did the pastor think that confession was a sign of health? It could be. But it could also be an act of manipulation to groom the pastor to perceive the abuser’s prior offenses and character in a way that allows him to begin to groom and abuse future potential victims. The research from those who treat abusers, as well as my own experiences, strongly suggests the latter, not the former.

The third misconception is the idea that sex abuse is merely sinful sex as opposed to abuse within a sexual context. Even though we label this abuse “sexual,” it is not merely sexual, since it includes other types of abuse such as emotional, psychological, and spiritual abuse as well.

Abuse is about power and control. And sexual abuse is not different. It is always primarily about power and control. In fact, abusers groom their victims and communities in order to establish and enforce control. If we continue to misunderstand this basic truth about sexual abuse, we will continue to underestimate and misread potential sex offenders.

Difficulties recognizing potential abusers

There are different stages of grooming. Learning these stages is one step toward understanding sexual abuse, but learning the stages is not enough to protect the vulnerable.

Here’s why: sex abusers, like abusers in general, engage in secretbehaviors. This means that when abusers engage in grooming, they are doing everything possible to make the grooming appear to be normal behavior or else they are keeping it well hidden. Dr. Salter explains, “The most chilling aspect of this behavior is its invisibility.” Complicating matters further: abusers are frequently likable, charming, and highly skilled at manipulation.

So how do we learn to recognize potential threats? By listening to survivors who can inform us how abusers function, and by engaging research from experts who treat abusers, victims, and survivors.

One other note: I have found prayer to be an essential part of dealing with sex offenders. Because sexual offenses are shrouded in deception, prayer can help prepare one to receive disturbing truths, practice discernment, and also help to illuminate and clear the darkness and confusion created by the abuser.

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Source: Christianity Today