By Joy Allmond
They serve tirelessly at church. They seem to love their community. Kids seem to feel safe with them, and they’ve worked to earn your trust.
But are they grooming you to get access to the kids in your care?
Recent headlines have screamed of children and teenagers victimized by someone at church who gained the trust of parents and other adults.
The predator might be a youth or children’s minister, a church volunteer, or even a pastor.
How can church leaders and parents know whom they can trust?
There’s no obvious, physical clue or visual profile for identifying potential sexual predators, says attorney Kimberlee Norris. But there are behavioral and pattern-related signs to watch.
Norris, who has represented victims in child sexual abuse litigation for more than 25 years, is co-founder of MinistrySafe—a consulting organization that, according to its website, “helps churches meet legal standards of care and reduce the risk of child sexual abuse by creating safety systems tailored to fit the needs of churches, camps, and ministry programs.” Norris practices law with Gregory Love—her law partner, husband, and MinistrySafe co-founder.
“Studies show that 90 percent of child sexual abuse victims are abused by someone they know and trust,” says Norris, “and, according to the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016, less than 3 percent of sexual predators will ever encounter the criminal justice system.”
While there’s no silver bullet for spotting a potential abuser, Norris says parents and church leaders need to be aware that abusers “groom the gatekeepers.” This is a phrase Norris uses to describe the methods used by sexual predators to gain trust from parents, pastors, teachers—anyone responsible for the safety of a child or teen. Predators have to come through the gatekeeper to gain access to their targets.
One way abusers groom gatekeepers, according to Norris, is to create the perception they are helpful, trustworthy, and responsible. But just because they’re helpful doesn’t mean they’re harmless.
“When a perpetrator is working to gain the trust of people in authority, he or she may seem too good to be true,” says Norris. “And the parents or church leaders will think or even say, ‘I don’t know how we ran this place before so-and-so got here.’”
Another clue, Norris says, is if someone serving within the church habitually sets up one-to-one activities with children or teens, putting aside other important tasks in order to engage in activities where children and youth are present. They’ll even take on undesirable tasks if it means access to potential victims.
“Many abusers have few personal boundaries,” she explains. “They will do all the dirty work to get the payoff—which is access to kids.”
The lack of boundaries goes both ways for a predator, Norris says. “It is common for offenders to break rules, policies, or boundaries, then tell leaders or parents why it’s OK that they broke the rule, policy, or boundary. When a staff member or volunteer doesn’t want to be constrained by your church’s policies, or resists policy implementation, church leaders should carry a healthy sense of caution.”
There are safeguards churches can immediately put in place—like the “six-month rule”—to help prevent abuse.
The six-month rule—requiring people to be part of the congregation for at least six months before allowing them to volunteer with teens and children—“creates an opt-out opportunity for those with the wrong motive,” she says.
“Not many preferential abusers (predators who have a preferred age or gender for victims they typically target) will wait it out,” says Norris.
Norris explains another major benefit: With a six-month rule in place, a church lessens the chances of enlisting the help of an abuser with whom people in the congregation are not well acquainted.
“The six-month rule gives the congregation and church leadership time to get to know the applicant before he or she is serving in the children’s or youth ministry,” she says.
Another key to helping prevent abuse in a church, according to Norris, is having a proper screening process in place to get a good look at past behaviors of individuals who sign up to work with kids.
“Offender studies provide us with known offender characteristics and risk indicators,” says Norris. “Every ministry should be aware of these risk indicators.”
She added, “We don’t want to live in paranoia or cynicism—but you can’t address a risk you don’t understand. Just because someone professes Christ doesn’t mean their motives are above reproach where children are concerned.
“In my experience, offenders find church to be an easy target: We’re grace-based and assume their motives are right, so churches generally don’t do a good job of looking at past behavior.
“Ministry leaders must have appropriate screening processes in place.”
JOY ALLMOND (@JoyAllmond) is managing editor of Facts & Trends.