By Kim Thomas, LMSW

Sexual grooming is defined as someone (offender) building trust with a child and their family for the purpose of manipulating the child into being abused. The approach is usually subtle and goes unnoticed due to this individual being a “caring friend” or in a position of trust and authority. The offender will intentionally build relationships with children based on their vulnerability. National Sexual Violence Resource states that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused by age 18.

In recent history, almost every denomination has failed to protect their congregations from sexual abuse. Decades ago, the “stranger danger” mentality implied that child molesters were creepy old men lurking around corners. However, recent studies have proved that 90 percent of sexual abuse victims knew their abuser. Also, of 3,952 registered sex offenders, 93 percent describe themselves as religious, according to a study conducted by Christianity Today. Sex offenders seek out churches with the weakest child protection policies.

Grooming opportunities are largely available within religious settings due to the nature of nurturing one’s spiritual growth. We trust the sincerity of clergy, chaplains, youth ministers, counselors, volunteers, and other faith leaders. Our children’s spiritual beliefs are placed on the line when we allow them to be exposed to predators posing as God-fearing individuals. These predators are allowed to pray with our children, counsel them, and lead them spiritually, with minimal oversight in most congregations.

According to research conducted by Elizabeth Jeglic and Georgia Winters (2016, 2017, 2020), sexual grooming is mostly seen through hindsight rather than foresight. Therefore, parents and church members must be involved in the prevention of child sexual abuse. Identifying the difference between sexual grooming and appropriate interactions between a child and an adult should be everyone’s concern.

Parents should be attuned to the following signs and behaviors while trusting their church leadership to nurture their children’s spiritual growth. The first stage of grooming may be identified when an adult offender selects their victim to do activities away from other adults, giving the victim compliments or privately communicating with them. An offender normally selects a particular victim due easy access, isolation opportunities, or lack of supervision; the perceived low self-esteem, neediness, or “troubled” nature of the child; or some combination of the above.

Perpetrators blur the lines between appropriate and inappropriate boundaries between adults and children. Sometimes this is done through excessive compliments or gifts. Grooming looks different for every victim and can be hard to detect. However, learning the signs and how to talk to your child about safety is paramount in taking a first step to keeping your child protected.

Once the offender has committed a sexual abuse act, the stage of post-abuse maintenance is enforced. The offender persuades the child into secrecy and personal blame.

Gaining a better understanding of policies and protocols already in place, and/or establishing preventive measures, can mitigate harm within a church’s children and youth ministries. These offenders are members of our congregations. Education on child abuse and sexual grooming practices should be an ongoing initiative throughout the church. Having open dialogue in your congregation will create awareness and the opportunity to establish safeguards to prevent child abuse.

Kim is the CAST Coordinator for Children’s Advocacy Centers of MS™.