A House of Cards: The Wicked Scheme of Child Offending Church Leaders

By Boz Tchividjian

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In season two of the popular Netflix series, House of Cards, Vice President, Frank Underwood, strategically and almost single-handedly brings down the presidency of Garrett Walker. The Underwood scheme was deceptively dark and worked well for Frank Underwood; not so well for Garrett Walker.

Sadly, the Underwood scheme is not limited to fictional television programs.  Just last week, I learned about a family who had a similar experience with a church leader who is alleged to have abused their child. When the Underwood scheme is executed by child abusers who are church leaders, it is far more sinister and destructive than the behavior of a fictional vice-president.  Here is what the Underwood scheme looks like:

Targeting:  Offenders can very intentional about pursuing their victims. Child offending church leaders will often target a new family that has not yet had the opportunity to develop substantive relationships within the church.  These offenders realize that vulnerable families are more likely to be receptive to attempts to initiate a friendship. That is all part of the wicked scheme.

Befriending: Under the guise of developing a new “friendship”, the child offending leader will work quickly to express a desire for the families to “do life” together. The offender will not hesitate to use his wife and children to help facilitate the friendship. Whether it’s an appeal to help “mentor” the target family or simply because the families are in similar “seasons of life”, the offender encourages both families to spend an inordinate amount of time together. Due to the lack of other friendships within the church and how warmly they have been received by the church leader and his family, target families tend to be very appreciative of this new “friendship”. That is all part of the wicked scheme.

Isolating:  The target family will initially feel “special” and enjoy being in the envious position of receiving so much attention from the child offending leader and his family. Isolation is never healthy in any relationship – even if it’s with a “Christian leader” who everyone seems to love and trust. This isolation is fueled by the offenders’ objectives of limiting the target family’s opportunity to develop other close relationships within the church, and gaining their complete trust. The more time these two families spend together, the less time the target family is able to develop friendships with others within the church.  Over time, this exclusive “friendship” results in the target family becoming more isolated and less connected to the larger church community. This dynamic propels the target family to become even more dependent and trusting of the offending leader and his family.  The ultimate consequence of isolation is that it minimizes the congregational support this family will receive if and when the abuse is ever discovered. That is all part of the wicked scheme.

Learning: Beware of those attempting to isolate your relationship, while seeking to learn of your greatest vulnerabilities. As the two families spend more time together and the trust deepens, the offending leader will begin to make efforts to learn more about the struggles facing the targeted family.  This is often carried out under the pretense of pastoral care and friendship. As a result, an already vulnerable family becomes even more vulnerable and exposed as they share about such issues as, marital troubles, financial hardships, parental problems, or any other personal struggle that confront so many modern families. The line between friend and pastor gets intentionally blurred enabling the offender to gather ammunition for possible future use in discrediting and marginalizing the target family. It is important to note that the child offending leader seldom reciprocates and discloses similarly struggles with the target family. Doing so would provide the targeted family with their own ammunition should the abuse be disclosed.  Transparency within isolation fuels a cycle of greater dependency, vulnerability, and eventually even greater isolation and dependency. That is all part of the wicked scheme.

Abusing: Intimate “friendship”, isolation, and the exposure of vulnerabilities are the gateways to abuse for many offenders. Offenders will exploit these very aspects of the relationship to access and abuse the child. One couple informed me that the offender had strongly encouraged them to share their most intimate of marital struggles and then suggested that they seek counseling. He then “generously” offered that he and his wife would watch their children whenever they went to counseling. It was during those times that their child was sexually victimized by this offender. That is all part of the wicked scheme.

Discrediting: If abuse suspicions or allegations ever surface, the child offending leader will find subtle ways to expose the struggles shared by the target family as ammunition to destroy their credibility. This ammunition is especially destructive since the target family has been intentionally cut off from others within the church. This makes it that much easier for the victimized child and family to be maligned as untrustworthy, while the offending leader and his family are embraced and supported as the “real victims”. As a result, the target family finds itself utterly isolated and eventually walks away from the church. That is all part of the wicked scheme.

Beware, child abusing leaders are not the only offenders capable of devising this type of wicked scheme in order to carry out their dark objectives. However, leaders have the distinct advantage based upon their authority and influence.

Also, as effectively illustrated by Frank Underwood, these types of schemes are not limited to child molesters, but to anyone who wants to control and exploit a relationship for their own distorted purposes.

My point here is not to push families away from developing close relationship with leaders or others in the faith community. It is simply to put us on notice of the deceptive practices of those who work their way into positions of leadership in order to hurt little ones. It is simply to encourage us to be cautious as we keep those protective antennas up in order to detect a wicked scheme in progress.

Working together, we can learn how to love and support those children and families who have been victimized by this destructive scheme. Working together, we can learn how to protect children by preventing offenders from finding safe havens inside our churches. May God help us.

Boz Tchividjian is the founder and executive director of GRACE.  

This article was originally published on September 26, 2014 for the Religion News Service (RNS). Used with permission.