Five Characteristics of Child Sexual Offenders in Faith Communities

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Child molesters are very professional
at what they do and they do a good job at it. 

— Convicted child molester [1]

If child molesters are so “good” at what they do, what steps can the faith community take to insure that they don’t succeed? Learning how offenders think and act is the first step in developing protective antennas, which can keep our community safe from those who pose a risk to our little ones. This post will examine five basic behavioral characteristics of child sexual offenders that must be understood if we are committed to making the faith community a safe community.

1.     Offenders have many victims: One study indicates that child molesters who sexually victimize females outside of the home averaged approximately 20 different victims.[2] That same study found that child molesters who sexually victimize males outside of the home averaged approximately 150 different victims![3]  The importance of these startling statistics is to expose the reality that those who sexually victimize children likely have victimized dozens of other children during their lifetime.  Not only does this open our eyes to the prevalence of this tragic epidemic, but it should also prepare us in how to respond to individuals within our faith community who get “caught” for engaging in criminal behavior against a child, demonstrate outward remorse (usually by a lot of tears), and beg for “grace”, claiming that this was the only child they had ever victimized.  Based upon these statistics, the offender is most likely lying, which means they are continuing to deceive in order to reestablish trust and access to our children.

2.     Offenders can be the most unsuspecting people: Unfortunately, many in our faith community still believe that they can spot a child molester simply by appearance.  Parents are most often on the lookout for the “creepy looking” guy who hangs out at the park or outside of the school.  First, all adults should be concerned and take action to protect children when they see such a person. However, do not allow that limited stereotype to identify those in our community who may be a danger to our children.  When selecting a jury, I often asked, Can you tell me what a burglar looks like? This question often helped jurors understand that child molesters cannot be identified by appearance or social status.  In my years as a child sexual abuse prosecutor, I prosecuted physicians, computer programmers, financial advisors, teachers, and even a child sexual abuse investigator!  As a faith community, our protective antennas should be focused on behavior, not looks or economic status.

3.     Offenders are not strangers:  Another unfortunate stereotype is that most offenders are strangers to the child.  Again, the faith community must be vigilant in protecting our children from interacting with strangers. However, it is common knowledge that most children are not sexually victimized by strangers. In fact, one study found that only 10 percent of child molesters molest children that they don’t know.[4] The faith community must come to terms with the heartbreaking reality that those who pose the greatest risk to our children are within our families, churches, and circle of friends. Our protective antennas must always be on alert, especially when our children are around those that they know and trust.

4.     Offenders often prey upon trusting and vulnerable young people:  In order to sexually victimize a child, an offender will first have to gain access to the child. As a result, offenders spend much time planning and executing what is commonly known as the “grooming” process. This is the process which the offender gains access to the child in order to develop a trusting and/or authoritative relationship. Once such a relationship has been created, the perpetrator is often free to abuse.  Access to such children is obtained by 1) the all ready existing position of the offender to the child or the child’s family (this can include family members, friends, coaches, youth pastors, etc.), or 2) the intentionally created position by the offender who targets a child and begins to lavish that child with attention, gifts, and “love” (this can include the person who takes an interest in a troubled child, a child from a broken home, or one who has similar interests).  Both categories of access assist offenders in targeting vulnerable children…those who trust and obey the offender.  The faith community must keep its antennas up to make sure that children who fall into both categories are carefully watched and protected. We must be vigilant in protecting all children.

5.     Offenders are often attracted to the faith community:
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. I think they want to believe in people. And because of that, you can easily convince, with or without convincing words.” —Convicted Child Molester[5]

Though there are many reasons why those who want to hurt our children target the faith community, I want to focus on two that we believe to be fundamental:

1.     Churches are very trusting. Not long ago, I was thinking about the time when we had just moved to an area and were looking for a church. At that time, our eldest child was an infant, and at each visiting church we dropped her off at the church nursery. Yes, I entrusted my child into the care of a complete stranger at a strange new place.  Could you imagine walking into Wal-Mart and handing your child into the care of the greeter while you shopped? Though I don’t think I would be so careless today, the reason I did not think much about it then was that it was a church…and I “trusted” those at a church. This same naivety is why offenders flock to the faith community. There is no other environment where they can obtain access to so many children so quickly and nobody seems to be concerned.  The faith community must keep its antennas up in making sure that clear policies are in place that prohibits others from exploiting the trust that so often accompanies Christian fellowship. We could all probably benefit from following the advice of former President Ronald Reagan when he said, Trust, but verify.

2.     Churches are always in need of volunteers.  How many churches can you think of that are not in need of volunteers to help out with our children and young people? (i.e., nursery, youth group, vacation bible school, etc). Many offenders have grown up in the faith community and are well aware of this constant need for assistance.  They will always use this need to their advantage in gaining access to our children.  The faith community must keep its antennas up by developing ways to carefully screen those who volunteer, while also putting up accountability and monitoring safeguards.

There are many other behavioral characteristics of child sexual abuse offenders that we must learn about if we are going to be proactive and successful in protecting our little ones. A great resource to help you further learn the manner in which these individuals think and act is a book by clinical psychologist, Anna Salter, entitled, Predators, Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders: Who They Are, How They Operate, and How Can We Protect Ourselves and Our Children. Every parent and pastor should read this book. However, the characteristics provided above are a starting point for the faith community to study and consider as we prayerfully seek God’s strength and wisdom in keeping our protective antennas up and active!

[1] Anna Salter, Predators, Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders: Who They Are, How They Operate, and How Can We Protect Ourselves and Our Children (2003).
[2] The Abel and Harlow Child Molestation Prevention Study (2002), available online at
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Salter, see note 1.

This article was originally published on April 18, 2012 for the Christian Post. Used with permission.