Child molesters are drawn to youth-serving organizations such as schools, churches, camps, sports teams, and after-school programs. Each time we read a news story about a child molester who infiltrated a youth-serving organization, we are naturally revulsed and wonder why this person wasn’t detected earlier and stopped.
In this series, I will explain how youth-serving organizations can fail to protect the children they serve in two ways. First, organizations can fail to notice the subtle red flags that child molesters can signal, when they are initially screened and also how they comply with the organization’s rules and culture. Second, organizations can fail to notice the green lights they signal to the molester, essentially saying, “There is little chance you will be detected or caught.”
It may shock you to consider how many U.S. adults could be sexually interested in children. A 2013 study, found that “among men, 6% indicated some likelihood of having sex with a child if they were guaranteed they would not be caught or punished, as did 2% of women” and further, the report finds that “overall, nearly 10% of males and 4% of females reported some likelihood of having sex with children or viewing child pornography.”
It is also important to understand that although the threat of “stranger danger” to children is real, it should not be the organization’s highest priority, when it comes to sexual abuse prevention. Rather, the organization faces a much more likely threat from its own staff or from other children being served by the organization. The Darkness to Light Foundation reports that, “about 90% of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abuser…only 10% of sexually abused children are abused by a stranger.” The foundation also reports that “about 60% of children who are sexually abused are abused by people the family trusts.”
How Child Molesters Function within Organizations
Child molesters typically use a process of deception and coercion, known as “grooming,” to set the stage for exploiting their victims through a very predictable strategy:
- Gain access to children by being part of the organization and identify a child with unmet needs. If the organization does not prohibit it, the child molester will begin to normalize touching, through “innocent” hugs, pats, tickling, lap sitting, wrestling and roughhousing, then
- Gain privacy with the child, if not within, then outside of the organization’s programs and intensify the favoritism, provide gifts or special privileges, share personal information and increase the frequency and sexual nature of touching, then
- Gain emotional control over the child in order to draw them into increasingly more intense sexual acts, increase the child’s emotional dependency on the child molester and ensure that the child will keep the secret through coercion or threats of harm.
However, to get to the stage of grooming the child, the child molester must first groom the organization by becoming an employee or volunteer. Once on the inside, he or she demonstrates they are a valued instructor, coach, staff or volunteer; someone who is fully reliable and relates exceptionally well to children.
Along with grooming the organization, the child molester will often find it necessary to groom the potential victim’s family. This often involves becoming a family friend, building the parent’s complete trust in him or her and finding out ways to help out the parent(s), such as picking up and dropping off their child, providing extra lessons or taking them on brief, even overnight, excursions.
In short, child molesters continue to succeed, year after year, within organizations, due to (a) the complacency of the organizations and parents, (b) the absence of enforced rules, both in the organization and family, (c) the likeability of the child molesters and (d) the seemingly harmlessness of those grooming behaviors that adults may actually observe.
What Your Organization Can Do
To address this persistent threat, everyone involved in the organization: its leaders, employees, volunteers, parents, and youth should be equipped and engaged to address the problem. Through better policies, training and communication tools, everyone in the organization can understand:
1. No one is exempt from the rules.
2. The patterns of child molesters can be easily learned.
3. Everyone has the power to question rule breaking.
4. Everyone is responsible for sharing concerns with the organization’s leadership or, if warranted, the appropriate authorities.
In this series of articles, I will explain how organizations fail and could be negligent in four important areas: (1) screening and selection of employees and volunteers, (2) training the various stakeholders in the organization (3) supervising the actions and behaviors of employees and volunteers and (4) enforcing policy violations and reporting reasonable suspicions. In each area, I will explain some of the child molester’s red flags that an organization should spot, as well as the green lights the organization unintentionally signals to the child molester.
Be Concerned And Deliberate But Do Not Panic
The problem of child molesters infiltrating youth-serving organizations is a complex and persistent threat that will never completely go away, due to the large number of adults who are sexually interested in children. Organizations face an infiltrator who can appear to be the ideal employee or volunteer but instead is evaluating potential victims and patiently planning to exploit them.