Growing up in a Christian home, we attended church every Sunday. It was always a “safe place” with “good people.” It was a place where you didn’t think to hide your purse when leaving it in the car, and kids were usually free to run around more than they would be in a Walmart or “public” establishment because they were in a safe place, where everyone had their best interest in mind.
People in the church are more trust-worthy. They’re all-around “better” people.
At least—that’s what we’re taught.
In an essay called “How Predators Groom Our Children,” Joy Beth Smith sheds light on what’s actually going on within the walls of the church.
As parents of young kids, we often do what Joy calls our “due diligence.” We read an article online about the best way to talk to your kids about consent and protecting them from “bad people,” then have the conversation about who should and shouldn’t see their private parts. We ask if anyone has ever touched them in their “bathing suit areas,” and we do our due diligence to make sure that our kids never become victims.
But as Joy points out, with 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys being sexually abused before the age of 18, our “due diligence” is simply not enough.
The church is not immune to sexual predators. In fact, it’s a target.
According to a convicted child molester who was interviewed by Dr. Anna Salter, church people are “easy to fool” because they have a trust that comes from being Christian and believing in seeing the good in all people:
“I considered church people easy to fool… They have a trust that comes from being Christians. They tend to be better folks all around and seem to want to believe in the good that exists in people.”
Whether or not someone comes from the outside or is raised within, the fact of the matter is this—sexual predators are among us. They’re figures of authority to our children, and they’re people that we trust inside the walls of our “safe place.”
A Child Molestation Prevention study conducted by Gene Abel and Nora Harlow found that 93 percent of sex offenders identify themselves as “religious.”
So what does all of this mean for those of us reading this and contemplating every time we’ve ever been “overly trusting” with our kiddos at church? Joy says there is power in knowledge.
“By simply learning about common traits of sexual predators, educating yourself on their typical grooming habits (the ways they seek to target and desensitize their victims), and actively seeking to educate and empower your children with this same information, you are already making a difference. Protecting your children is a daunting, scary task, but it’s not impossible.”
Unlike the super creepy head shots we tend to see on television, child predators are often a friendly, welcoming, socially adept and well-dressed presence.
“Like a chameleon, they take the shape of whatever they need in order to get close to their victim, and often that looks like a friendly, trustworthy volunteer, coach or teacher.”
Joy says that while men are statistically more likely to abuse children, both male and female predators will seek employment and volunteer opportunities in roles that allow extended time with children.
Where we’re failing as parents and church communities as a whole is that we tend to focus our concern on the “creepy” dude who seems to really like kids, or even the complete stranger, rather than the trusted brother-in-law or friend of a friend.
The key to preventing the sin that already lives within the church from harming your children is to build trusting and open communication with them.
Having those due diligence conversations about what’s appropriate is only part of the discussion that we need to be having. Child predators often don’t start with sexual abuse—they work up to it.
Talk to your kids about their relationships with the adults they are close to—teachers, coaches, aunts, uncles, their best friend’s mom—everyone who your child would perceive as a person of authority in their life. Like Joy says, “stranger danger is a real threat, so are those closest to you.”
Be on the look-out for red flags, and don’t be afraid to teach them to your kids either.
Church is a safe place. It’s welcoming, it’s friendly and there ARE really wonderful people there. But we are all sinners, and Lord knows that sin doesn’t end when the church doors open.
We can’t afford to be blind to the abuse that is lurking where we least expect it. It’s there, and it’s threatening to make our children a statistic.
Knowledge is power, and the more you know about how predators will try to groom your children, the more powerful you can be in the fight to prevent it.