Five common characteristics of child sexual offenders: Eliminating the edge

Print More
Danger - photo courtesy of Sweetsop via flickr

Danger - photo courtesy of Sweetsop via flickr

It is precisely our lack of knowledge and understanding that gives predators their edge.  – Anna Salter, Psychologist

If child molesters depend upon our ignorance in order to hurt little ones, what steps can the faith community take to eliminate the edge and make sure that they don’t succeed?  Learning how offenders think and act is the first step in making our faith communities safe from those who pose a risk to our little ones.  This post will examine 5 common behavioral characteristics of child sexual offenders that we must understood if we are committed to eliminating their edge:

  1. Offenders have many victims:  We need to understand that most child offenders have multiple victims.  One study indicates that child molesters who sexually victimize females outside of the home averaged approximately 20 different victims.  That same study found that child molesters who sexually victimize males outside of the home averaged approximately 150 different victims!   The importance of knowing this gravely disturbing information is to understand that those who sexually victimize children will continue to do so as long as they have access to children.  It is not just the “known” offenders that must keep us vigilant.  The fact that most offenders have multiple victims means that most offenders in our midst have never been caught.  Our faith communities eliminate the edge from offenders when we create environments that minimize the opportunities of any adult to access any child without strict supervision and ongoing accountability.  We also eliminate the edge when we don’t get fooled by offenders who  get “caught” and beg for “grace”, claiming that this was the only child they have ever victimized. Based upon objective statistics, the offender is likely lying, which means they are continuing to deceive in order to reestablish trust and access of our children.

    Danger - photo courtesy of Sweetsop via flickr

    Danger – photo courtesy of Sweetsop via flickr

  1. Offenders can be the most unsuspected people:  Unfortunately, many Christians still believe that they can spot a child molester simply by appearance.    We 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.   I heard a child protection expert once say, it’s not the guy sitting alone at the party that we should be most concerned about, it’s the one hosting the party.   When I was a prosecutor, I illustrated this point by asking prospective jurors, 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!   Our faith communities eliminate the edge from offenders when we focus on behavior, not looks or economic status.
  1. Offenders are not strangers:   Another unfortunate stereotype is that most offenders are strangers to the child.   We 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.  We 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 faith communities eliminate the edge from offenders when we are always on alert, even when our children are around those that they know and trust.
  1. 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.   Offenders often access children by, 1) exploiting the already existing position the offender has with the child or the child’s family (this can include family members, teachers, friends, coaches, youth pastors, etc.), or 2) intentionally placing themselves in a position where the offender is able to target a child and begin to lavish that child with attention, gifts, and “love”. This can include targeting a “troubled” child, a child lacking a positive adult role model, or even a child who has similar interests.  Both categories of access allow offenders to openly target the vulnerabilities of children in gaining their trust and silence.  Our faith communities eliminate the edge from offenders when we understand these dangerous dynamics and keep our antennas up to make sure that our children are carefully watched and protected.  We must be vigilant in protecting ALL children.
  1. Offenders minimize their criminal actions:   Just this past week, I recently read a very disturbing article by a former youth pastor and convicted child sexual offender. Not once did this person acknowledge that his grooming and subsequent sexual contact with a child in his youth group was criminal and reprehensible.  In fact, he repeatedly referred to the sexual victimization of this minor as a “relationship” and compared his actions with the adultery of King David.  It wasn’t until the end of the article that I even realized this person had sexually abused a child!  This offender was so focused on himself that he seemed completely oblivious to how his crime will forever impact the victim in all aspect of her life. Perhaps he doesn’t really care.  He ends the piece by writing, Sooner or later, all things come into the light (ie. Be careful because at some point you will get caught!). This article was a sobering reminder of another very disturbing statement from another offender that was recently published by a church. Our faith communities eliminate the edge from offenders when we don’t allow them to minimize their crimes and don’t publish their self-deceptive and hurtful words for the world to read.

Since the posting of this blog, the above article has been removed by the Leadership Journal with an apology.  It is encouraging that a Christian publication listened and decided to help eliminate the edge!

These general characteristics are just a starting point as we seek greater knowledge and understanding on how best to eliminate the edge from the predators who have tragically infiltrated all aspects of our faith culture.  Ultimately, our objective is not merely to eliminate the edge, but to make it impossible for child sexual offenders to continue hiding and offending in the communities that should be the safest for all God’s children.

This necessary objective will be achieved only If the Church is willing to listen and learn.  Are we?


  • THANK YOU for saying so! I hope and pray that Christianity Today listens to you, and will #TakeDownThatPost asap.

  • AMEN!

    What is non-Leadership Journal thinking by publishing that piece, then taking down sane, logical, compelling comments refuting the logic of it while keeping that piece of delusional writing up? #TakeDownThatPost
    Twitter isn’t currently working at home. Grrr.

    I am willing to listen and learn, Boz. I am part of an excellent church that brings practical training to us. Sign me up to be part of the solution.

  • Shary

    Clicking on the red words worked for me to get to the article and the video.

    Both are examples of those who do not understand anything about child abuse or the use of power to abuse even adults. CT should be ashamed of publishing the article written by a child sex offender. This is not grace this is license to all offenders just write a nice article and all will think good of you even while you are in prison. He does not even give his name or the name of his church because he still wants to stay undercover. Without a name there is no confession. He compares his offense to smoking. So in reality he thinks of child abuse as a bad habit. Does he think there is a “patch” that will help him stop. I can’t believe that CT would publish such an article. Then they have other articles about young people leaving the church. They can’t put 2 and 2 together. Young people see this and why should they want anything to do with the church or even God. CT has actually done more damage than this sexual abuser, they have re abused thousands of people who were abused as children by telling them sex offenders are really just mislead tempted people just like everyone else. Our abuse was not really that bad after all look at all the good this man did for the youth. I am angry again at the organized church of America.

  • Charissa

    Thank you so much for your words, for your holy willingness to stomp on the serpents who sting our children. This information is important, and I am grateful to you for sharing it.

  • Wendy

    Practical questions here — I welcome others’ wisdom! How do I approach a children’s ministry pastor or youth pastor with concerns? How does that conversation start? What does it look like? Are the sites with current recommendations that can be a launching pad for required “minimums” when it comes to protecting our kids?

    Churches are typically good at physical safety but I want to know more of what happens when/if a nonphysical concern is raised. I can’t personally be in each classroom. Sitting in training and/or volunteering isn’t enough to give a bigger picture.

    I have deep, deep concerns that my family is never hurt by such predators. But I also want to have a family raised in a church setting. How do I act without being paranoid?

  • Bob

    First, a question: You say that “One study indicates that child molesters who sexually victimize females outside of the home averaged approximately 20 different victims. That same study found that child molesters who sexually victimize males outside of the home averaged approximately 150 different victims!” Do you have a reference for that? I remember reading about a man in Australia who had molested over a hundred boys, but one of the reasons the case had attracted so much attention in the news was precisely because the number of boys he had molested was so high. The 15th edition of the Merck Manual (a well-known medical reference book) states that the recidivism rate for people who are apprehended for homosexual child molestation is 13-28%, while for those who are apprehended for heterosexual child molestation it is about half that, which would seem to indicate that at least 72% of those apprehended for homosexual child molestation and 86% of those apprehended for heterosexual child molestation don’t reoffend (though, of course, this says nothing about how many times they had offended before they were caught, or whether their offenses occurred inside or outside the home).

    Second, a comment: When I first began to learn about the methods used by child sexual predators to build relationships with their vicitms, I was disturbed by the similarities between their methods and the methods used by legitimate Christian youth ministries I had been involved with. I remember thinking, “Hey, we look like predators!” But I eventually realized that I had it backwards: It was not WE who looked like THEM, but THEY who looked like US! And this was not accidental, for II Corinthians 11:14b-15a says that “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness.” (NIV)

    Unfortunately, I’ve found that some guides listing “danger signs” that you may be dealing with a predator come awfully close to listing the normal traits of legitimate youth workers, which not only isn’t helpful – it is downright harmful!

    Every type of youth work (Christian or secular) has norms, and those norms vary depending on the type of youth work. The norms for a Sunday School teacher are different from those for a youth choir director, which are different from those for a camp counselor, which are different from those for a Youth for Christ worker. A predator is invariably going to be bending those norms in a way that is designed to conveiently give them private, unsupervised access to their victims.

    I launched a new youth ministry at my church about 8 years ago, and before we ever had our first meeting, I wrote an operations manual that outlined our ministry vision and what, specifically, we intended to do with kids to implement that vision. Even if a ministry doesn’t have an operations manual like that, its staff members should be able to tell you what its norms are, and you should be getting more or less the same story from different staff members.

    A couple of years ago, I heard about a chess master who had been giving chess lessons to kids, and who had been prosecuted for molesting several of the boys he had worked with during sleepovers at his house. My reaction at the time was: It’s interesting that none of the parents saw anything odd or unusual about a chess coach having his students sleep over at his house!

    I’ve been involved in Christian youth ministry for more than a quarter of a century, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve had a kid I was working with over to my home. And the reason is fairly simple: None of the kids I’ve worked with lived within walking or bicycling distance of where I lived, and they were too young to drive a car. So it simply made more sense for me to drive to their house, and for us to meet there.

    When you see a youth worker doing something that doesn’t make sense to you, but that conveniently gives him access to your kid in a private, unsupervised setting, you have a right to be a bit suspicious. DON’T assume there’s a problem (and, above all, don’t spread gossip about it)! After all, there may be something you don’t understand, or he may not have considered how the things he is doing look to an outsider. But DO ask him about it, and unless his answers completely satisfy you, DO mention it to the adults who are in charge (who are likely to be in a better position than you are to monitor and deal with his behavior).

  • Bob

    Those are good questions, Wendy!

    When I first became involved in this issue more than a quarter of a century ago, I felt like I was a lone voice trying to awaken a sleeping world. I remember asking a youth ministry I worked with whether they did criminal background checks on the adults who worked with their program, and having them look at me like I was from Mars! But there are few people nowadays who aren’t aware, in general, of the problem, so things should be easier.

    Two suggestions I would make are:
    1) Approach them in a non-accusative way. It’s unlikely that there is currently anyone preying upon children at your church. But you can show them an article like this one and say, “This is an issue that families who are thinking of joining our church are increasingly likely to ask about, so we should put policies in place to reassure them”

    2) Volunteer to spearhead the effort. Most Christian youth workers are unpaid and are already very busy trying to put together programs that will appeal to kids while also communicating the gospel, and the last thing they want or need is more to do. And they are often painfully familiar with adults who have all kinds of demands about how things should be done, but who never lift a finger to help. So don’t be one! Make it clear that you are willing to be the one who does the bulk of the work needed to design and implement the necessary changes.

  • Thanks for your answers, Bob. I was wanting to know, too. Your answers make complete sense.

  • Amanda

    Very good advice. I’m a probation officer, and so much of this is truth that I have learned in my job. I have seen this happen in churches, including the one that I was raised in. There was a youth worker who had been removed from positions at multiple churches, camps, etc, and had even had a sexual offense against a young boy expunged from his record. He had told people at the church I grew up at that he had a “problem” with little boys and needed help. They used poor judgment and allowed him to stay in his position as a youth worker after this confession, and he molested some boys and is now in prison. The church cannot put children at risk while trying to work someone through their problems. It is not a risk you can take in the name of mercy.

    Additionally, I am so glad to hear that I am not the only one who was disturbed by the CT article. This is a person who has not accepted responsibility for his actions, has not actually identified himself as a child molester, and has no place writing in a Christian publication. Thanks for saying it!!

  • Kim

    Great post. Perhaps one of the most straightforward and instructive pieces I have seen on this topic. Should be required reading for any organization or institution that provides services to children or is child-centered.

  • Pingback: A Tutorial on Sex Abuse: What Evangelicals Must Learn From the Leadership Journal Debacle | The Wartburg Watch 2014()

  • Pingback: LINKS! | PhoenixPreacher()

  • Pingback: Protecting Children from People Who Want to Hurt Them()

  • Pingback: A Glimpse into the Heart of Spiritual Abuse | Spiritual Sounding Board()

  • Pingback: This is What Child Abusers Look Like in Homeschooling Communities | H . A()

  • Hello There. I discovered your blog the usage of msn.
    That is an extremely smartly written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and return to learn more of your useful info.
    Thanks for the post. I will definitely comeback.

  • Pingback: 10 Child Abuse Prevention Steps Your Homeschool Group Can Take Today « HARO()

  • In our case, the guy hosting the party was the Pastor. We loved Jesus… and this guy seemed a little bit like our “Own Personal Jesus”.

    You know, “Jesus”. That one person who can look directly into your soul, with all it’s dysfunction and guilt, and know you. The one who understands, forgives, accepts and empowers you to be the person you were originally intended to be.

    He seemed kind enough to absorb our dysfunction and strong enough to forge a vision and future for us.

    The truth was that he had a garden variety personality disorder. “Borderline”… a diagnosis that would place him on the same textbook page with some many of the most tyrannical of history’s megalomaniacs.
    Due to his own traumatic and disordered childhood, he had developed an uncanny ability to identify, expose and feed on the weaknesses of others.
    Such an individual, (thankfully rare) has as sense of grandiosity and entitlement. He handles his high level of stress by pulling others into his orbit. By force of will, he controls and uses his victims for his own gratification, while, somehow, convincing them of their need for him.
    This party host is going to be facing a Multnomah County judge next month and eventually a greater Judge.

  • Pingback: How We Marginalize Abuse Survivors: “All Have Sinned” « HARO()

  • Joe

    This can happen to young adults too, when. Person of power abuses it. Trust me , a young person in their early twenties single with child and needing money. Often the law over looks this type of molester because if your over 18 …you should know.

  • Pingback: What Child Abusers Actually Look Like - A Mother Far from Home()