Grooming is the predatory act of maneuvering another individual into a position that makes them more isolated, dependent, likely to trust, and more vulnerable to abusive behavior. The grooming of victims, however, is a subject for another day. There is another level of understanding in relation to grooming that is necessary and equally important in most sexual assaults. This is the grooming directed at individuals other than the actual victim. Sexual predators don’t just groom their victim. They groom the victim's friends, their family, even their co-workers, in order to make everyone around them supporters of what they’re doing. Especially in cases of clergy or professional sexual assault, the victim’s environment has almost always been groomed prior to, during, and after the assault to ensure continued access to the victim and to minimize disclosure of the abuse. This grooming of the community also ensures that when the abuse is disclosed there will be support for the abuser, and a minimization of the consequences of his actions.
Sex offenders purposely attempt to manipulate the empathy of a community. If they can evoke empathy, they can manipulate trust and gain support. Lundy Bancroft, an expert in treating domestic abusers, explains that abusers often manipulate their environment so effectively that they gain allies within the legal system and even the victim’s families. If we are interacting with a sex offender who is admitting he has harmed someone, and we feel ourselves being pulled to feel sorry for this person instead of, or more than, the victim, it is likely that we ourselves have been manipulated and groomed.
Many well-intentioned people feel sympathy for an offender and even advocate for them with the victim and/or the victim's loved ones. They may remind victims that their abusers are created in God's image no matter what harm they have done, and that the Bible teaches forgiveness. It is worth remembering that any of us is as susceptible to being groomed as enablers as we are as victims.
Recently Willow Creek Community Church issued a statement concerning the scandal involving church founder Bill Hybels, charging Hybels with “unchecked sin and intimidating behavior”. When allegations of sexual abuse first surfaced in 2018, Hybels called them “flat out lies” and the former board publicly supported him. They have all since resigned. The new elders board said in the statement that they believe that the former board was misled. “Bill’s denials and failure to acknowledge sinful, intimidating, and overly controlling behavior led leaders to make statements that were misinformed and incomplete,” they said.
We wonder how the leadership of a church that has world-wide exposure and 25,000 people attending services at seven campuses could have been so inept as to react initially with such confusion and disbelief? Why did it take reports by the Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today to force the former elder board to look at allegations that had actually been surfacing for years, some dating back decades? (In fact when the information became public Willow Creek initially denied all the allegations and claimed former church members were colluding to ruin Hybel’s reputation and harm the church.) The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that the former elder board who had served under Bill Hybels’ leadership for years had been groomed and manipulated into an almost cult-like relationship with their leader.
A community that has been groomed methodically will explain away allegations of abuse by insisting that the accused "would never do something like that!" Quite simply, the offender has manipulated the community's perceptions so that he is not only accepted as an appropriate and valued part of the social structure of the group, but also a good "match" for the victim. The goal is to get the community to support and approve of a relationship between the victim and the offender. Properly groomed environments actually push the victim toward the offender. Grooming minimizes the chance that anyone will ask difficult questions and serves to keep the victim in relationship with the offender.
In their article, Sexual Assault Against Adults, Tanner and Brake list four factors in the grooming of a community: Position, Charm, Power, and Celebrity. Using these four will help to formulate important questions to ask in times of confusion. Typically a community finds it difficult to believe that someone who has held an important and trusted POSITION could be guilty of sexually abusing someone in their care. If there is an element of CHARM - a warm, caring personality; good verbal skills; good listening skills - the stakes are even higher. POWER is effectively used by offenders to suppress examination of their actions. CELEBRITY status often guarantees immunity because a community desires to maintain relationship with and access to someone who is popular.
Adult victims who have been groomed by a predator, and are members of a community that has been effectively manipulated and groomed, have almost no hope of understanding, let alone finding the courage to disclose the horrible and vile experience of clergy or professional sexual abuse.