Three common strategies sexual offenders use to discredit child witnesses

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Williamson County Courthouse (Texas)  - courtesy of Evan Gearing via Flickr

Williamson County Courthouse (Texas) - courtesy of Evan Gearing via Flickr

A Texas high school student named Greg Kelley was recently convicted of sexually victimizing a four year old boy.  Despite the jury verdict, a small vocal group of supporters have been working hard to convince the public that this sexual offender is innocent..   Marginalizing the powerful voice of the child victim is often at the heart of this disturbing and all too common objective.   In my years as a child sexual abuse prosecutor, I discovered that offenders and their supporters use three common strategies to try and convince others to embrace their distorted definition of innocence:

Making it up:   In the Texas case, the defendant’s supporters initially argued that the 4 year old witness had made up the abuse allegation, with the hope that the public would believe that children are prone to make up false reports of sexual abuse.  Unfortunately for them, the objective research indicates that children are no more likely to lie under oath than adults.  In fact, these same studies have repeatedly found that false allegations of child sexual abuse are made only between one and ten percent of the time.  Though any false allegation is a tragedy and should be dealt with accordingly, the reality is that such allegations are much more rare than offenders want us to believe.  In fact, the research also establishes that children tend to minimize the extent of sexual abuse suffered.  All of this tells us that the vast majority of abuse disclosures by children are truthful, and that there is a strong likelihood that the disclosing child was actually abused more than what has been reported.

It is not only research that pokes a major hole in this strategy.  In order to believe this approach, we have to accept the illogical notion that little children make up details about a heinous act most have no knowledge about at that age.  When offenders and their supporters realize that there is little hope in succeeding with this tactic, they often turn to the second strategy.

Mixing it up:     When a child witness provides detailed and consistent testimony, offenders will question the child’s ability to accurately identify the perpetrator instead of attacking the credibility of the child’s allegations.   This is best illustrated by the supporters of Greg Kelley when they write, “We are NOT saying that the 4-year-old boy was not sexual assaulted at some point in his young life. He very likely was, given that he had detailed knowledge of explicit sexual activity. However, we do not feel that there was enough evidence to name Kelley as the perpetrator.”  With this approach, perpetrators and their supporters are ok with us believing every aspect of a child’s testimony except the part that identifies the perpetrator as the one who committed the offense.  Not only is this argument blatantly self-serving, but it also lacks any common sense when the offender is known by the child.  Is it likely that a child is capable of providing the details of horrific abuse, but incapable of accurately identifying the known individual who perpetrated the abuse?

Williamson County Courthouse (Texas)  - courtesy of Evan Gearing via Flickr

Williamson County Courthouse (Texas) – courtesy of Evan Gearing via Flickr

This strategy is nothing more than another attempt by perpetrators to convince others of their innocence in a way that appears to be more “caring” without directly attacking or discrediting the child victim.  The problem is that this strategy makes no sense and cares nothing about the child.   The failure to succeed with this approach often propels offenders to try and convince others to focus on anything or anyone other than the credible child.

Minimizing and shifting:  When a child provides reliable testimony, perpetrators and their supporters will work hard to shift the attention away from the child and towards everyone else related to the case.  This approach most often involves a devious two-step process:

Step One:     Minimize the importance of the child’s testimony by claiming that it is not evidence.  This is clearly demonstrated by the supporters of Mr. Kelley when they write, “There was no evidence. There were no witnesses. Just the accusation of a young boy.”  This argument is absurd to anyone with a little common sense and any knowledge of our judicial system.  Assume that I am a victim to a robbery and there are no other witnesses to the crime.  My testimony alone about what happened and who committed the robbery is enough for a jury to find the defendant guilty of the crime.  If this were not the case, any crime committed outside the presence of additional witnesses would go unpunished.  That is a frightening notion.  However, offenders and their supporters believe that should be the case when children are the ones victimized.  The truth is that the testimony of a child is evidence.  The truth is that a victim of sexual assault is a witness to the crime…oftentimes the most reliable witness.  The truth is that the testimony of a child whom the jury believes is sufficient evidence to establish an offender’s guilt.

Step Two:  Shift the focus to the actions taken by law enforcement, parents, and anyone else connected with the case. The problem with this step is that it usually emphasizes issues that have little to no bearing on the reliability of the victim’s in-court testimony.  This is analogous to the robbery defendant in my above example arguing his innocence because the police improperly handcuffed him. How does that unfortunate fact have any relationship to the credibility of my testimony?  Pointing out the fact that an investigator did not follow proper protocol during a child sexual abuse investigation may establish that he/she needs further training, but it has nothing to do with the reliability of the child victim’s testimony during trial. Shifting the focus fails to discredit the most important evidence in the case, the child’s testimony!

Minimizing the importance of condemning evidence, while making a big deal about facts that have little or no significance to the ultimate issue of guilt is simply another hollow strategy by sexual abusers to claim innocence in the face of an evil truth.

We live in a world where the abuse of children has no limitations or boundaries.  Courtrooms are too often the place where little ones are re-victimized by offenders, their lawyers, and anyone else who has chosen to reject common sense and embrace dark denial.   Shining a light upon these duplicitous strategies is a powerful way we can demonstrate love and care for the many brave children who have stepped forward out of the suffering silence.


  • Jane Reoch

    Hi Boz,
    I have not commented to you directly until now, and would like to write a longer comment about adult abuse, namely young and older veterans who have had improper/unsafe treatment by VA medical practitioners for PTSD, sexual trauma. Cathy Grossman has more information about my particular situation. I have a wonderful story to write with pictures about my day yesterday, 21AUG14. I went to the VAMC ~ 116 miles away, AND ‘my father was with me’. It was an amazing day. I left home ~ 1215 and returned home at 2207, 10:07 pm that night, with joy and laughter, and 2 new people in my life, one 80 years old and one ~20 yrs old.
    Go figure.

    I just want to share and see if I can write well while in some physical discomfort.
    I’m in and out of the house. I will write again in this article comment block.

    I’ll write later

  • tim

    Isn’t this the exact tactics supporters of Michael Jackson used in defending him. Remember how they were more focused on the behavior of the prosecutors during the press conference with the second victim than the victim himself.

  • An Attorney

    Thank you for this post. As a life long Baptist, I am appalled at the treatment many churches exhibit when dealing with children who survive sexual abuse and report it. I believe that a church that attacks such a child is no longer properly called “Christian”, but follows an “anti-Christ”.

  • Judy Jones

    Thank you for this article….

    Something else to keep in mind-
    Child predators are very cunning and manipulative. They know every trick on how to groom, threaten, lie, and put the fear of god into their victims and
    sometimes even their family members. They also appear to do a lot of goods things, they can be very charismatic and you may think they would never harm a child. They have to be this way, in order to not get caught and to continue to abuse. They devote lots of time and energy building trust with their victims by giving them money and gifts. They tend to make the child feel that they are special and loved.

    Sexual predators are often powerful and well-loved, we must overcome the dangerous myth that because someone is successful or warm or caring, he or she couldn’t have done that! It would be comforting if those who preyed on the vulnerable were obvious social misfits whose appearance would somehow set off alarm bells and give us the willies or the creeps. They rarely do. Usually, predators are among the last people we would suspect of sexually violating others. At a party, the predator isn’t some oddball sitting alone in a corner because others feel uncomfortable with him. Most often, the predator is the guy throwing the party.

    And we must stop thinking that because a man is old, that somehow he’s automatically safe. It’s just irresponsible to endanger kids by assuming an adult is harmless simply because he or she may be losing hair, wearing glasses, using hearing aids or walking with a cane. These can be signs of advancing age, but they are not signs that an individual is safe around kids.

    It is extremely rare that a child predator has only one victim. Some have many. Child predators need to be kept far away from kids forever, so let’s hope that anyone who may have knowledge or may have been harmed will find the courage to come forward and contact law enforcement.

    Judy Jones
    SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests , Despite the word “priest” in our title, we have members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, teachers, rabbis, bishops, and Protestant ministers and increasingly, victims who were assaulted in a wide range of institutional settings like summer camps, athletic programs, Boy Scouts, etc

  • Thank you for your straightforward courage, Boz.

  • Tom

    I’m certainly not going to defend Mr Kelley. He was convicted after all. But, for the sake of argument, suppose someone was similarly accused and was in-fact, not guilty. Boz, are you saying that could never happen? If it did, what kind of defense should the accused mount? Maybe not these… But It seems like you’re prejudging the circumstances. The argument attempts to reduce a complex issue to one where you don’t have to think– that’s cut and dried. For someone who leads an organization offering to conduct independent investigations, this is troubling, Boz..

    The research reference is problematic too. “The Leadership Counsel?” Sounds Orwellian. It certainly isn’t objective. For instance, Advisory Board member Constance Dalenberg presented expert testimony in favor of the theory of repressed and recovered memories and on behalf of “John Doe 76C” in the 2012 Minnesota Supreme Ct appeals case. None of Dalenberg’s 328 supporting research documents passed the court’s scientific smell test. That doesn’t make me confident in the “objective research” being offered here.

  • In my own personal experiences with several pedophiles, both from my own childhood and from my children’s and grandchildren’s experiences, every pedophile involved had two common denominators. They were all control freaks and they all applied the tactic or M.O. of discrediting their victims.

    My website URL I’ve posted here:
    contains a growing number of stories of survivors from a religious cult, many of whom were victims of sexual assault, as well as other forms of abuse. Their stories will give you even more insight into the cult’s harmful and dangerous policies which protect sexual predators, while ostracizing and further traumatizing their victims.

  • Tom – Thanks for your note.

    You write that I am “prejudging the circumstances.” The circumstances were judged by a jury who are the only ones in this case who had the opportunity to receive all of the relevant evidence, including the ability to hear the child’s testimony and observe the cross-examination designed to question the credibility of that testimony. This same jury had a front row seat to the opening statements and closing arguments of both parties. This same jury was in the best position to hear and process all of the complexities associated with this case and rendered a unanimous guilty verdict. There was no “prejudging” on my part, just post jury verdict observations and concerns.

    I am troubled that you seem to be more concerned with “The Leadership Council” than the independent and well respected studies cited in their report.

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  • Thanks for finally talking about >Three common strategies
    sexual offenders use to discredit child witnesses |
    Rhymes with Religion <Liked it!

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  • Zephaniah Waks

    Spot on. The “funny” thing is, it’s not only against very young child victims that this nonsense is tried, almost universally in “religious” communities: apart from “Mixing it up”, the other 2 you describe are used against teenage victims as well…

  • Tom

    Boz, I wasn’t referring to the Kelley Case. Let’s agree that verdict was sound. I was asking about a hypothetical scenario where the accused was innocent. Would these strategies be invalid then?

    Your blog did not cite any specific sources. It only endorsed research at the Leadership Counsel’s website as “objective.” I’m happy to accept the jury’s verdict on Mr Kelly. Are you willing to accept the Minnesota Supreme Court’s judgment that a lot of the research cited by the LC has credibility problems? It would be better to have the actual research references. Otherwise I’m left wondering what other ideas you share with this group.

  • Oscar

    I caught one Wolf in Sheeps clothing
    Grabbed him by the tail
    He let out such a yelp
    And he went a wolfish sort of pale

    Then he pulled out “The Book”
    Quoted the Lion will lie down with the Lamb
    Said he did nothing wrong
    For he believed in a divine plan

    He pointed to passages
    That said “Elders must have respect”
    And “Spare the Rod, spoil the child”
    To cure human will defect

    Then he became pious
    Questioned I had any faith at all
    Rambled on about his good works
    And how he held his head humbly tall

    On he went
    How I was out to destroy his forgiving God
    He spoke with conviction and sincerity
    Words truly bizarre and very odd

    But he wrapped it up in warped religion
    Claimed he knew “the truth, the life, the way”
    And asked how I dare question his God
    In my evil, questioning, doubting way

    Then I pointed out the blood
    That from is mouth dripped loose and free
    He just gave me that smirk I knew so well
    And said “I did this in remembrance of Me”

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  • Ken

    Thanks, Boz!

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses demand two witnesses to child molestation before a case is heard by congregation elders, and until their official policy was rewritten in 2010, they forbade parents from going to the police for these matters. Many still unofficially discourage police reports so the organization doesn’t look bad, and parents are often more loyal to the congregation then their children in these matters. There have also been cases of men convicted in a court of law with mountains of evidence against them, but the congregation demanding that the victims be grilled by the accused and other elders before the pedophile is removed from the congregation.

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  • Meself

    I agree that there has to have been some contact with a child to have a sexual assalt, however what you are suggesting here is that once a child claims he or she has been touched the accused should be summarily incarcerated. I can tell you that as an accused and not having committed the acts, I’m extremely glad that you are not the trier of fact in eny court. As I spent time with this family member I’ll go that far and she is quite young. 8. That when I was arested for sexual assalt I was devastated and now just frightens and angery as the contact was contact that every person in the world would be in prisons for. Just the susspition of an unstable parent and the need for the child to pleas the parent. I’m having a real problem with Pepole that figure that if a child says that thay have had a sexual Experiance and there is no evadance that it just has to be as told. My god every body wold be gilty of some forme of assalt not only appon a child but eny person breathing the way the law is written. Now I don’t think this child had eny reason to be upset with me nore do I think she has been assalted in the mannor I find my self charged by eny body els, I can say she lives in a varry mentally abusive household and that one parrent has the need to be absolutely right in her opinion of eny mater concerning the actions or views of others. And can be quite agressive in her view. As I know I did not interact with the child intentionally or unintentionally sexualy or abusivly and I’m prety Shure that the parrent involved and it is not my spouse but an inlaw that the child was in affect brow beet into saying that I committed the acts that I find my self charged and at jeperty. Now it is opinions sutch as yours that just don’t make mutch sence as what you sugjest is that enybody accused of a sexual assalt should be in prisons emediotly appon acusation . As the child or enybody makes an identification, in the case of the child a venter of time, and a location of offence , and can discribe the nature of the offence. As this is all the law requires to charge. And to use your analogy of the robbery the clerk says that he was robbed accuses you for instance of purporttrating the robbery pockets the cash himself now you are identified there is a time as let’s say you used the phone, there is no evadance yet that you could not have robbed him and the only whitness is the clirk that apon acusation you should be convicted of robbery as there is the phone the call was made and opportunity existed for you to have robed you must have committed the crime.
    The till is short the phone call will put you there the cliirk identified you. In my case I’m there I interact with the child the parrent gets the ida that my interaction must be nefarious questions the child with the theory that there must be somthing going on the child answers the questions in a mannor that pleases, now the conversation begins the child is educated and the police are involved the child tells the police what her mom educated and the charge is made. I’m afrade as Pepole such as your self and I do hope that you your self has not been abused and not beleaved at some point in your life as that is tragic and also happens, however so dose the child for what ever reason tell a tail not usually about being sexualy abused but yes it dose happen and where you or enybody els where there is a lack of pisacal evedance can say ither way that it did or not there is tragic results and I now question the stats of a tail told and all there is is a storry. The Sasquatch dose exist because there are claims of sighting

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  • You might want to spend some time perusing The Mama Bear Effect,, and learn more about the way sex abuse cases are handled, how perpetrators work to groom their young victims, and the realities around these kinds of cases.

    As the author mentioned, false accusations, especially from young children, are extremely rare. They do happen, absolutely, and it’s critical that procedures be followed to help ensure that children aren’t given “suggestion” before testifying. However, it’s also critical that children’s rights are protected at the same level of those of adults, which is something that is not currently happening in our court systems, and, sadly, often in our churches.