Predatory Grooming in Our Churches

I have been involved in dealing with a number of cases involving sexual predation and exploitation by church leaders – in all kinds of churches (including “organic” or “simple” churches which naively think they are immune from this kind of abuse).

liesMy wife and I have also done pastoral counseling, over the years, with literally hundreds of sex abuse survivors – as well as many abusers who seek help after truly confessing and openly repenting.

One thing I see over and over – especially by predatory church leaders – is the same kind of initial “grooming” behavior. It is amazing how sexually exploitive men in “ministry” all seem to use the same methods.

This is a first hand account by one survivor, “Samantha N“, and it is worth reading:

“I started noticing more and more things [personal attention, private messages, etc.] and, finally, I asked the pastor (via email) if he emailed all the church members this way or just me. I was not prepared for his reply ‘just you,’ he said.”

This is classic grooming behavior by a man in leadership who has learned how to use his charm and “care” to prey on others: He’ll show special attention and concern, combined with private text messages, chats on Facebook, emails and the like.

Be on guard. When you learn of this kind of focused attention and persistent personal communication – especially by a married church leader (whether itinerant or part of your church) toward a woman in your church – don’t stand idle. It is wrong and it is him testing to see if there is an emotional vulnerability that he can exploit to feed his own narcissism.

I have seen this many, many times. It is classic predatory behavior by an exploitive leader seeking new victims.

It happens in all kinds of churches – institutional, organic, simple, “ekklesia”, whatever. I’m dealing with a case now involving a national “organic” church leader with a history of exactly this type of grooming – especially, in his case, towards younger women.

Don’t be naive and think you or your church is exempt…

If you are the recipient of such behavior, don’t fall prey to it. Go to others whom you trust, while also seeking help and support from those who also have gone through this and understand it. A good resource is The Hope of Survivors.

Locally, here in northern Virginia, our fellowships have developed a ministry called Nathan’s Voice to help victims.

If you learn of such behavior, don’t be naive just because it involves someone who is charming, gifted and personable (in fact, sexual predators in leadership are almost always the most charming, gifted and personable people you will ever know – which is how they get away with it).

Most of all, don’t hesitate to confront and expose such predators (of course, while protecting the victims and their identity).

You may be saving those who otherwise would be their next victims.

Never forget, silence is deadly – they thrive on it.

~ Jim

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31 responses

  1. That was great. It is very difficult to recover from this kind of abuse. It also does not favors to the abuser to allow him to repeat the pattern. Thanks for your work.

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  2. So true. The modern Church forgets that Pastors are humans which means they are sinners just like the rest of us. They should be shown respect for their sacrifices, but held accountable like anyone else in the Body of Christ.

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  3. Pingback: Predators in the Pulpit | Writing a Life Story | Life Story Writing | Unbuckle Your Christianity

  4. If you don’t mind, I am linking your article to mine, at “Predators in the Pulpit” (http://teamfamilyonline.com/anatomy-of-a-seduction-easy-prey/) so that my readers can find you.

    What you are describing is so very common – way too common – it’s something I, myself, have experienced. When I finally spoke up, no one believed me. I was ridiculed and blamed. I finally left that church, only to encounter a similar situation in the next church.

    I’m so very glad you are offering resources to victims!!! Just to be validated, to have someone listen to your story, is so important!

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  5. Until the church realizes that a relationship between a pastor and a woman under his care is abuse, not an affair, lives will continue to be damaged and God’s Kingdom will be hindered. A pastor is not simply ‘human’ and a sinner just like the rest of us, nor is he above the rest of us. He is, however, held to a much higher accountability standard than a layperson, in his role of spiritual leader, a representative of Jesus himself. When he sins against the church and betrays a child of God he is called to protect, the consequences are greater than sins commited by a congregant. It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones (wounded and vulnerable) to sin.

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  6. Having experienced the grooming process, I found it isn’t easy warning someone to avoid the special treatment and attention she is getting from your pastor. I believed my relationship with my pastor was different; I believed he really cared about me; I believed he would never hurt me; I believed he was a man of God; I believed we were meant to be together. By the time my best friend confronted me, warning me of the close relationship I was in with my pastor, it was too late. The grooming process is often done in a private counseling setting that most people do not see. Therefore, the church needs to step up and get more involved and recognize the signs that are common in predator pastors. The church needs to discern men of arrogance and pride, keeping them away from the pulpit. We need to stop ignoring bad character simply because of a pastoral title. A woman entangled in her pastor’s web of manipulation and deception cannot heed the warning signs. She is wounded and vulnerable. She does not believe her pastor would pursue, use, and abuse her. The church must become more aware of pastoral sexual abuse and take steps to remove and keep these men from positions of authority. God’s Kingdom depends on it.

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    • Thank you. You have described very well the typical scenario, and why it is difficult for the victim to see and then extract herself from the manipulation and control. This is why the duty to set and enforce boundaries lies with the church leader, because the person receiving ministry is often vulnerable. A predatory leader knows this, and exploits it.

      You also hit on the vitally important need for external controls, safeguards and accountability.

      I hope and pray that your experience will help others understand these issues.

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  7. I would never have reported my pastor. He groomed me over a six-year period, getting me to trust him more than I trusted anyone, including my husband. He shared personal information with me that he never shared with anyone, not even his wife. He told me I was his closest friend. I was wounded and vulnerable. I felt I needed his friendship and would never have betrayed him by reporting him. It wasn’t until after I was out from under his manipulation that I was able to report him to the board of elders and seek to have his ordination revoked. But while in the relationship, I was powerless. While everyone should be educated on the grooming process, it is the responsibility of church leadership (elder and denominational boards) to recognize the character traits found in predator pastors and keep them from holding positions of spiritual leadership. Hopefully, more states will also step up and enforce legal ramifications for pastoral sexual abuse.

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    • Exactly, MJ. When one is already IN it, there is no way to recognize grooming, that’s why churches should make a “pre-emptive strike” and educate leaders and congregants before it happens. Your recounting the specifics of how you were groomed rings very true for me, as well, especially the part about your abuser sharing personal info with you that he claims he’d never shared with anyone, especially his wife. Mine said the same thing to me. He also told me he trusted me more than anyone and was his closest friend, as yours said to you.

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      • Survivorgirl,

        Wouldn’t it be great if we could prevent predators from the pulpit? There are many church leaders who do not see a relationship between a spiritual leader and a woman under his leadership as abuse, but simply an affair. Until that happens, women will continue being pursued, used, and abused by their church leaders. Recently, I tried communicating this to the worship leader in our church after attending a bible study he led that called a relationship between a worship leader and a woman on the worship team, an affair. I attempted to help him understand it is not an affair, but abuse, giving him several articles from The Hope of Survivors. He replied by giving me advice on counseling while ignoring the very reason I contacted him in the first place. I reiterated my reason for communicating with him, to explain the abuse aspect. It is frustrating and disappointing when a church leader does not see clergy sexual abuse and dismisses it as an affair. How can we stop predators from the pulpit when too many church leaders do not see it as abuse and are not teaching its members?

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  8. It’s interesting that, in the UMC (where I was abused), the local bishop absolutely views such a relationship as an abusive one and not an affair, yet he was reluctant to communicate this to those under him – and he most specifically did not want any announcement made regarding “abuse.” I’m sure he was fearful of litigation, because his primary role is to protect the institution (at the cost of the truth). I may be making too broad a judgment on this, but I’m suspicious I’m on the right track. Jim, given your experience and expertise, can you weigh in?

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    • While my pastor was forced to resign by the board of elders, he did so his way. His children led in the worship service and a meeting was called afterward. His wife and 5 adult children stood by his side. He stated he had an affair, he is forgiven by his wife and children, and by God. It was never announced that he abused his authority although most of the elders believed it was abuse. Most members of the congregation agreed with the board’s decision to have him step down but many believe ‘it takes two to tango’ and I was just as much at fault. My closest friends believe he abused his authority and should never be a pastor again. I had his ordination revoked, not the church. While the Christian and Missionary Alliance unanimously revoked his ordination, they never used the term abuse in our communications. There seems to be a fear of the church calling it abuse for the reasons you stated. Church leaders tend to believe protecting the church is more important than the truth and are ignoring the abuse involved. I’m interested in hearing Jim’s thoughts on this.

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      • Yes, you are right. Many churches want to call it an “affair” rather than “abuse” because there is no legal liability for an “affair” (outside of a divorce proceeding), but lots of potential liability for “abuse”.

        Fortunately, nearly all courts that have looked at this see through the fiction and hold that a pastor or church leader who uses his/her position of trust to prey on others in fact is engaged in abuse.

        It’s just like a doctor, attorney, counselor, teacher, policeman, or any other professional – the law says they may NOT use their position to have or pursue any sexual contact with anyone whom they are helping in the context of their professional.

        The reason is simple: their position gives them undue power and influence over that other person.

        The same rationale applies even more so to pastors and church leaders – they have too much ability to manipulate people emotionally and spiritually to allow any sexual grooming or contact.

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  9. MJ and SurvivorGirl (or anyone here)… can you direct me to resources that would help to educate church leaders about predators in church leadership… how to spot them, how to stop them, how to help the victims?

    You both have excellent comments here!

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    • Susan, THOS definitely has wonderful resources, and I have utilized them successfully in talking to church leaders who were in the throes of major fall-out after their pastor abused a congregant. Another highly respected and helpful organization is FaithTrust Institute (www.faithtrustinstitute.org). While more ecumenical in scope, its goal is to provide education on sexual abuse of all types. The Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, founder of FaithTrust, frequently leads informative seminars/webinars on CSA, complete with round table discussions. In 2009 she collaborated with the Rev. Dr. Aleese Moore-Orbih (with whom I’ve had contact), Kimberly-Day-Lewis, J.D., and Rabbi Mark Dratch to create a comprehensive workbook for faith-based organizations entitled “Responding to Clergy Misconduct: A Handbook.” This is my CSA “bible,” and you can order it online at their website. It is $ well-spent, I guarantee you, especially if your goal is to educate faith leaders about CSA. In fact, p.23 is entitled, “Who Are Sexual Abusers in Ministry?” The Rev. Dr. Fortune has also written a book entitled, “Is Nothing Sacred?: The Story of a Pastor, The Women He Sexually Abused, and the Congregation He Nearly Destroyed.” Nancy Werking Poling wrote, “Victim to Survivor: Women Recovering from Clergy Sexual Abuse.” Both these books are excellent resources for victims. If you get your hands on anything, please let it be Fortune’s handbook on responding to CSM. I cannot praise it highly enough. For more general CSA info (stats, definitions, etc.), you can go to http://www.baylor.edu/clergysexualmisconduct/ to read Diana Garland’s report. As Dean of the School of Social Work at Baylor University, she has also published other papers on CSA that are available on that website.

      All this should keep you busy reading for a while! 🙂

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      • Great resources to check out! It’s good to know there are ministries committed to getting the truth of CSA to the church. Praying God opens their eyes to this truth and will keep abusive men from positions of authority they use for their own satisfaction. The acts of these men will not go unnoticed by our God…..

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  10. Susan,

    A source that was a huge help to me after being abused by my pastor is The Hope of Survivors, found at http://www.thehopeofsurvivors.com/

    There are other sources I’m not fully aware of. Crossroad Junction was given through The Hope of Survivors and they have other ministries mentioned on some of their posts. They are heavily involved in and committed to getting the truth of clergy sexual abuse to the church throughout the world.

    I hope it helps!

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  11. Susan,
    I started reading your article, Predators in the Pulpit, but had to stop because I was at work and it hit too close to home. I will read it again at a better time. There was much in your experience that I could relate. There is comfort sharing our experiences in a world that does not yet realize that a relationship between a pastor and a woman under his care, is abuse.

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  12. Mj,

    I’m watching the movie, “Call It Anything But Love” from the site you recommended above… excellent video, well done! I can relate to Samantha, whose story of clergy sexual abuse they tell*… except that my marriage of 20-years was to a sociopath who was a charismatic leader in the same church.

    Many years ago, I was filing papers in the pastor’s office on his day off. I thought I was going to be alone for the afternoon and so as I filed music I let the tears fall, following an abusive event with my husband. Suddenly the door was flung open and my pastor bent down to where I was on the floor pulling overheads out of a portable file box, asking me to tell him why I was crying.

    For years I had been silent, never talking to anyone about my husband’s abuse. It was always taught in church that wives should only speak well of their husbands and keep any arguments a private matter. I never told a soul, even when my husband threatened to mutilate my body. I saved my tears and prayers for private moments… but that day I was cornered!

    So I told my pastor everything, and although he had already been grooming me for his own abuse, this one act of vulnerability escalated the attack from both ends, both at home and at church. There was no safe place anywhere.

    Within a short time, I finally “rebelled” and left the church we had been part of for 12-years. In the next church I met with the pastor for counseling, deciding that all the silence had been futile – and I needed help sorting things through. I’ll never forget the day he said to me, “Sue, I will NEVER do to you what that pastor did to you!” Within 7-months he did*. My husband used both of those experiences to torment me on a daily basis, even threatening to put a bullet in my head on more than one occasion.

    I left that church and went to another church, which specialized in inner healing and deliverance ministry. It was at the 3rd church that the worst happened. The pastor did not groom me for abuse but instead some friends and I uncovered a crime network within the church. Both of my friends died “accidentally” within 6-months of each other. The day before the 2nd one died she came to me telling me of some strange things happening in her home. I warned her to be very careful. The next day she was dead. A few weeks later the same things began happening in my home and I escaped, believing that my death was going to be next. The prophetic ministry leader had often threatened to rape me and explained in vivid detail how he would kill me. It was terror at church and terror at home.

    I have attended some good churches since then, and I’ve been part of a large international prayer ministry. But I’ve also stayed away from churches for many years in between. Until church leaders can be educated about abuse, especially the narcissistic, sociopathic kind, I don’t feel anyone is safe. It’s why I am passionate about what Jim Wright is doing and I hope he and others will keep exposing the darkness, speaking up for the oppressed, and shedding Light so that captives will be set free.

    The worst part, in any scenario involving CSA, is not being believed… or when victims are blamed. Psychological torment, most survivors that I know will agree, is far more painful than physical abuse.

    *None of my experiences included a sexual relationship with the pastor, just innuendos and such.

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    • Susan,
      I am sorry for all the abuse you endured by spiritual leaders. I am still shocked to hear stories of men abusing women who are supposedly called by God to protect, not harm, and use for self-satisfaction. Yes, my experience caused a greater emotional toll than physical. My greatest obstacle remains finding a church where I feel safe. I am hypersensitive toward arrogant character and may be making incorrect judgments yet it is a protection I am not willing to give up. God is patient and understanding toward women who were abused by their pastors. While people can offer some comfort and healing, God is the only One who can heal our broken hearts. I am thankful that He will heal us even if we never find a church we feel safe. Praying for our continued healing.

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  15. Amen! I wish I had read this before I met the charming, charismatic pastor who pulled me into his web. I paid a high price for reporting the abuse, but I will never regret speaking up. I would have done it to save even one woman from what I went through, and I believe I saved many.

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  19. A new book is being written, slated for release in June, called ‘Deception in the Pews’.

    My abuser’s daughter sought me out 4 yrs after the abuse came out, and she filled me in on what an awful person her father was. She was afraid of him and kept security cameras at her home, all because she distanced herself from the family. She was afraid that if she spoke out against him, he would harm her physically. I was already afraid of him, but after that meeting, I was even more afraid. These men are dangerous, and I believe more often than not, lead very different private lives than what they project in public. It’s becoming an epidemic. I pray every day that this man is stopped and removed from ministry.

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