The day I left my church, I had only one goal: to get enough distance to turn in “Pastor Kevin.” For five years he had been my priest, my spiritual director, my counselor, my crush, my betrayer and offender, my stalker (not in a legal sense, only in the sense that he wouldn’t let me be; he kept finding ways to keep me within reach), my book partner, my mentor, and my boss. He was a central presence in my life, and my feelings for him were complicated. Even when I had come to despise him, I still felt some tenderness. To build the strength to report him, I had to distance myself completely.
When I finally gained the strength to make the call, I thought my distancing efforts had served their purpose. But as the months went by, as I lived in a world outside his influence, I began to see through his lies. Had I seduced him? No. Had he cared for me or even seen me as a person? No. He had been attracted to me “as a woman,” “from the beginning,” and all his actions had stemmed from that harmful impulse. Holding my memories up to the clear light of day, I believe he subjected me to years of predatory grooming. He never touched me, but he could scarcely have done me greater harm if he had.
What is grooming, and why does it cause so much harm?
Forensic psychologist Michael Welner names six stages of grooming in child sexual abuse. The Hope of Survivors’ former board chair, Dr. Martin Weber, describes how clergy offenders use exactly the same process. “It starts with grooming the victim into thinking she is special — at first to God because of her talents, and then later to the pastor because of her sweetness or beauty. Such flattery may cement an emotional bond between the victim and her pastor/predator… The victim may be groomed so skillfully, and manipulated so totally, that she may even initiate sex with the pastor… This often happens in a counseling environment, where he discovers the secrets of her previous abuse and then exploits those vulnerabilities.”
But grooming does more than break down our defenses. It also breaks down our sense of self. We stop trusting our own instincts. We begin to confuse abuse with love, abuser with God. We absorb the abuser’s cognitive distortions. If he thinks we seduced him, we come to believe it. If he thinks he “did nothing,” we feel shame for overreacting to “nothing.” Experts at a U.K. clinic believe that grooming itself is harmful, with or without sexual assault, and that the harm begins with the first exposure to the offender’s distorted attitudes.
What kind of distortions live in the mind of a sexual predator? The Willows Clinic in the U.K. lists them on pages 7-10 of this report. Here’s a summary:
* Euphemistic labeling. Rape becomes “horseplay.” Sexual touch becomes “hey, I’m a hugger.”
* Denial of memory, intent, or facts. “I can’t believe she interpreted my words that way.”
* Moral justification. “How else am I supposed to have a love life?”
* Blaming the victim. “She seduced me.”
* Blaming external factors. “My wife doesn’t have sex with me.”
* Shrugging off the harm to the victim. “She was a mess before I ever knew her.”
* Offense-minimizing comparisons. “At least I didn’t have 30 victims like that other guy.”
* Unrealistic optimism about chance of reoffending. “You can trust me; I won’t do it again.”
Under the influence of predatory grooming, we come to believe those things too. The damage is worse if the grooming happens over a long period and/or multiple stages of life, if the predator is a family member or otherwise central to our lives, or if previous abuse has damaged our sense of self.
How do we get free? We start by walking away, leaving our church if we have to. We seek support from people who understand what grooming does to body and soul. And we wait for time to pass. Two weeks after I left my church, I suddenly realized, “I never have to see him again.” But it was months before I could see his manipulations for what they were, and even longer before I could see that the leaders at my former church enabled his behavior with their own dysfunction. What helped me the most? Joining a healthy church whose pastor was a man of integrity, humility, and compassion. Sometimes we don’t know we’ve been in a sick system until we finally find a healthy one.
Finally, a few words of encouragement to victims and survivors trying to get free from the toxic effects of predatory grooming. These are not my words, but the great poet Mary Oliver’s. In her poem The Journey, you might recognize your own path to freedom.