Attending a gathering with fellow religious faithfuls is most often a happy and refreshing experience. Congregants of different faiths have various motives for their beliefs and why they attend services, but most rarely consider that their or their family’s safety may be at risk. When danger is considered, it is often with images of tragedies like the church shootings in South Carolina in 2015 or Texas in 2017. Many have misguided assumptions about who we should be afraid of and why. When we think of criminals, we tend to think of angry, gun-toting men who want our jewelry and cash. We may even think of the senseless, hate-filled violence that spurred the aforementioned shootings. Or we think of a masked man hiding behind a corner waiting to drag an unsuspecting woman into a dark alley. What we do not often consider are the much greater and likelier dangers for our congregations.
Child predators are a different type of criminal altogether. Their personalities, motives and styles are unique compared to their counterparts. Among their unique traits, child predators usually have a particular type of child that in which they are interested. This may include a certain race, age, gender, body type or any number of other factors. Because their preferred type is so important, child predators do not operate how television shows and movies often portray them. They do not usually lurk in the bushes by a school playground waiting for a mother to turn her back for a moment so they can quickly nab the child. In fact, these types of stranger abductions are quite rare. Instead, child predators tend to be extraordinarily patient and spend a great deal of time planning who they molest, how, where and when.
Both parents and faith leaders often misunderstand who the true dangers are to their children. Thus, their attention is misplaced on stereotypes of scary and unknown would-be abductors, while they are frequently missing the greater danger that is right in front of them. Most sexual abuse of children happens at the hands of adults who are both known to the families and trusted by them. Child predators often go to great and intentional lengths to befriend a family, become a trusted confidant and make themselves a routine part of family life. While establishing themselves as a great and reliable friend, neighbor or babysitter, they are plotting, planning and looking for vulnerabilities. Although it may take months or even years, once they find a weakness, they will exploit it.
Because they exercise patience and planning in infiltrating and earning the trust of the family (and child), predators create ample time to groom, or prepare their victims. This process is proof of their patience and dedication to their ultimate goal: to abuse the child. When grooming a child, the predator will slowly and systematically deconstruct the natural defenses the child has, helping them to feel less anxious and more comfortable with progressively invasive and inappropriate behavior. Again, this process is intentional, well planned and rehearsed and, in the mind of predator, completely justified.
Knowing this about child predators, it makes sense that faith groups are at such high risk. The very aspects that make faith appealing to many are the same ones that leave them most vulnerable. Many seek religion and fellowship with other believers in hope of escaping mistakes of the past, being forgiven, getting a fresh start and not being judged. Many faith groups hold these same values in high regard and welcome broken people into their midst, empathizing with them as fellow broken souls. While most of those who seek fellowship with loving and compassionate others do so with pure and authentic motives, astute predators see an unguarded opening.
They are often adept at playing a role, taking on the characteristics of the group in an effort to appear to belong. They learn the vernacular, they seem enthusiastic. They may even exude some charisma, making them likable and engaging. They are welcomed eagerly when they quickly want to get involved, volunteer and help children learn the tenets of the faith. Once they have achieved this, most of their work is done. They have navigated the barriers and earned the trust of the religious family as a coveted volunteer. As a trusted member, they do not require close oversight, leaving them ready access to their target(s) so they can calmly, systematically and thoroughly practice their craft.
While it is an unquestionably difficult tightrope to walk between core faith values and cautious skepticism, it is one we must embrace and consider seriously. Although child sex offenders are rare overall, they are real, typically more difficult to detect than other criminals and they represent the greatest threat to faith groups. The good news is that we know a great deal about how they operate. It is realistic and not too complicated to create protections to slow down or even stop them from accessing our most vulnerable and innocent.
Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other organizations can create basic policies and practices that make access for predators more difficult and make them easier to identify. Given the knowledge we have about this unique and dangerous group, it is prudent to take reasonable actions to protect our congregants from harm and also keep organizational staff accountable.