Survivors' Voices: Grooming
I have noticed that many survivors feel very strongly about helping people understand what grooming looks like and how it can lay the stage for sexual abuse. So, this post is an opportunity for the Survivors’ Voices panel to to share their experiences on this important topic.
Please read and be aware, to protect yourself and others.
There is grooming of the child and grooming of the community. My abuser was really good at both. He was a master-manipulator. So many adults like my parents thought he was funny, irreverent at times, gave really powerful homilies, an all-around great guy. He broke down barriers with me and other children by asking us to keep secrets, provided alcohol, watch pornography, and use foul language (for a priest, the kids thought it was funny). My parents considered him a trusted, dear friend. To later learn he betrayed their genuine affection for him by abusing their son was devastating to them.
My abuser was a chaplain for a college campus ministry that worked closely with a lay campus minister. The two men worked together to create a situation where a lot of young naive women were surrounding them and were all dependent on them (I was abused by the chaplain, I know of at least one other who was abused by the minister). This was accomplished by fostering an "us versus them" mentality with other student groups, by positioning themselves as confidants, and by monopolizing our time as much as they could. At one point during my last year there, I displeased them both by inadvertently giving a student they had decided was evil (he was a Protestant trying to set up his own student ministry) some information. I was terrified in the aftermath that I would lose all of my friends and membership in the group - because of the social isolation that they'd foisted on us, I had no other friends or connections on campus. I'd seen others lose their membership and become social pariahs for similar. When the sexual abuse started happening, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. None of us wanted to displease them: we wouldn't just lose our relationship with them, but with each other.
In some ways, the grooming was worse than the actual sexual abuse because the psychological aspects warped my fundamental ability to trust what other people said. My abuser told me what we had was "love" - it kept me quiet for a while because I believed it too. But then I realized true love would not require me to hide like a dirty sin or tell me not to say anything to anyone, ever.
Father made it a habit to surround himself with people in a familial kind of way--at least that's how I saw it back then. His boundaries with people were almost automatically intimate in trust and proximity. He liked to be in people's homes and have them into his. After he became our pastor, he took a special interest in our family. He favored our sons as altar servers, though he lavished gifts and attention on all of the servers. Being an avid outdoorsman, Father would come to our house unannounced and drop off fish or venison and tell us he wanted to be invited to dinner when the food was cooked. He took my husband and sons on outings. He would call and text... That went on for about a year and it intensified incrementally. We basked in his attention as a well-loved and charismatic pastor. He was affectionate and open to the whole parish, but we were among his few favored families. Eventually, however, he started texting me privately, and the texts were flirty and inappropriate. He started inviting me alone into the rectory with him after daily mass. The manipulation and pursuit were in full force once the family was well groomed. Fortunately I was able to stop the progression before anything physical happened, but it was devastating for me. My husband was incapable of understanding the situation for months because my husband was literally unable to conceive in his mind that Father had betrayed us in this way. The manipulation after I confronted Father was masterful and extremely intense. He punished me and I was emotionally alienated from my family and parish community. It was devastating. When I reported Father to his superior, the superior's response was, "You're misinterpreting. Father is a relational person. He needs to be with people. That's just the way he is." The superior had been expertly groomed too. Grooming is a process of continually jiggling doorknobs on people's boundaries to ensure that the expectation is clear that the doors stay unlocked.
I see the increasingly strong divide of "us vs. them" in the Church and it makes me nervous. When isolated groups form, it makes grooming much easier because it makes the members of that group more dependent on the leadership. They're more willing to overlook abuse for the "good of the whole" or "all the good they do." I see this on both the conservative and liberal sides of the divide. All the hand wringing, training, and awareness of individual stories in the world won't overcome that kind of selective blindness if it's not consciously addressed.
I was young, most often abused in front of other children, and I witnessed the abuse of others. I remember receiving cookies and dimes to sit on his lap, though these simple gestures were not significant grooming. I never saw the abuse coming. I was naive to his intentions, each time surprised, shocked into a frozen or panicked state when he abused me and when he abused others. He abused us in daylight, sometimes in front of windows with drapes open. Honestly, I believe the praxis, the doctrine, the way people called him Father, rose and sang when he entered church, etc, was all the grooming we needed. He was god. Our parents sent us to this school and church daily to learn of god and the basics of life. In my eyes, my parents worshiped him each weekend at mass. He didn't need to groom us, the church created a perfect scenario for this (in-the-heart-of-a-child) god to abuse openly and for decades.
If you have experienced sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and have your own thoughts to share on this topic, I would be grateful to include your perspective. You can find information about joining the Survivors’ Voices Panel here: An Invitation for Survivors.
I will have the second half of this post next week, so please subscribe here if you’re not already signed up.