Attorney Greg Love said the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and “what is predictable is preventable.”
“When we consider protecting our boys and girls from sexual predators, we’ll never get this accidentally right,” he said. “Churches must be intentional and build the right fences to protect the sheep God has given us.”
Love directed the child safety workshop at Valleydale Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on March 23. The event was jointly sponsored by the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions and the Birmingham Metro Baptist and Shelby Baptist Associations.
Love and his law partner/spouse, Kimberlee Norris, have more than 30 years of experience as civil trial lawyers specializing in child sexual abuse. He said they receive five to six crisis calls every day from church leaders.
“We must do a better job of putting in guardrails and being proactive rather than reactive,” Love said.
Love said the statistics about child sexual abuse are staggering.
“We know that 1 in 4 females are abused by age 18, and 1 in 6 males,” he said. “This is 60 million [people] abused in our country. And more than 60% don’t report their abuse until adulthood if ever, especially male victims. Predators are adept at convincing their victims not to report, shaming them, telling them they won’t be believed, or convincing them they’ll ‘ruin’ our ministry.”
Love said too many churches rely only on background checks.
“These are good, but not the only thing we must do,” he said. “The typical abuser has 150 male victims or 52 female victims before his arrest at age 35, so the background check alone doesn’t identify the perpetrators.”
Love said churches generally have good policies in place to deal with the “abduction predator,” often identified in the past as “stranger danger.” However, he noted that the major problem in churches is the preferential offender who uses a grooming process — more than 90% of children are victimized by someone they know and trust.
“Though we can’t identify the predator visually, we know the ‘on ramps’ he uses,” Love said.
“These groomers, most often male, groom the gatekeepers first,” he said. “They convince us they’re helpful, trustworthy and responsible. Thus they gain access to our children. They most often select children who are ‘disconnected’ in some way — those from single-parent households, those who are physically or mentally challenged or those who are economically disadvantaged. They offer friendship and build trust.”
Love said predators frequently “set the hook” with boys by offering alcohol, drugs or pornography, whereas they groom girls emotionally, telling them they’re more mature or smart or beautiful than others in the group.
“The average age of a first encounter with pornography is now age 8,” he said. “This usually equates with the time children get a smartphone. And the emotional relationship the predator builds with girls is through electronic communication.”
The predator experiments with “barrier testing” according to Love.
“He will begin ‘playful touch’ (like tickling) with children or turn the conversation to sexual themes with the older boys and girls,” he said. “If a barrier is broken, he will continue to build relationships. If a young person resists, the predator will find other victims.”
Love said another issue is peer-to-peer abuse.
“The average male abuser begins victimizing at age 13,” he said, “and some reports indicate peer-to-peer abuse has risen 300 percent in recent years.”
Love said church members need to have “eyes to see, ears to hear and voices to speak” as they monitor church activities.
“We are all shepherds, and we want the sheepfold to be a safe place,” he said. “It’s never too late to do the right thing, so we encourage churches to do awareness training, skillful screening, background checks, tailored policies and careful monitoring.”
Love’s organization, MinistrySafe of Fort Worth, Texas, offers membership with training videos, documents and sample policies at ministrysafe.com.