Category Archives: Religion

Child Molesting Female Impersonators Are a Myth. Child Molesting Religious Males Are Not

“Perverts” are not coming for your children, disguised as transgendered persons, in your local department store bathroom.

Far more likely- by orders of magnitude in fact- they’re coming for them in your church.

That’s an arguably coarse statement, provocative and doubtlessly offensive to many. It’s also utterly correct. I know because I have prosecuted and/or consulted on cases involving the sexual abuse of children for almost 20 years.

Opponents of Target’s new policy often insist that the issue isn’t hatred or intolerance against transgender persons. They’ll acknowledge, as they must, that no virtually no complaints of transgender persons- or even predatory persons in disguise as one- attacking a child or anyone else in a bathroom have been reported anywhere. No matter. The issue, they insist, is preventative. Allowing people who identify as transgendered into bathrooms other than their assigned gender, the argument goes, will create a floodgate of eager male pedophiles disguising themselves as women in order to gain access to little girls.

Folks, that’s nonsense. It simply isn’t done that way. Child molesters almost always groom, not only children but the families and institutions to which they belong. They enter their victim’s lives as invited guests almost all of the time. They rarely prey on strangers, despite myths to the contrary, and when they do, it’s not through the use of feminine disguise. In fact, most child molesters identify as straight males. Most will not admit to abusing male victims (carrying a stigma of homosexuality or femininity) until threatened with a polygraph. Most identify as masculine, and would not deign to “put on a dress” in order to invade a restroom in search of a little girl. That’s just not what they do. And there’s no reason to do it; they get dozens of victims far more easily and with far less risk in their communities, usually as trusted figures.

Obviously, no one can state with certainty that a child molester (only a subset of whom are pedophiles, by the way), would never seek access to children by exploiting these new policies. Without a doubt, some anecdotal example- however stretched in terms of its actual relevance- will be claimed somewhere in a nation of 300 million.

But the idea that the nation’s male child predators have been waiting with coiled excitement, wigs and lipstick in hand, to invade female restrooms in search of little girls, and that policies like Target’s are going to create a public health crisis of newly endured child abuse, is baseless, plain and simple. It’s frankly silly.

But stoking the fears of parents with this baselessness is not silly. It’s dangerously misleading. The cold fact is that fear- in order to push back against policies like Target’s- is being sold by quite a few people who, to put it bluntly, do have a real problem with the idea of not only transgender people using bathrooms of their identified gender, but also with transgenders themselves. They see them as mentally-ill fetishists and largely immoral creatures. They assume that a rejection of gender norms goes hand-in-hand with sexual crime and abuse. Never mind that transgendered people are largely passive, reliably victimized and abused themselves, and far less likely to hurt anyone than, say, a straight, cisgendered, and religious male, which is how most child molesters describe themselves.

And yes, I said “religious.” That’s because most child molesters- 93% in one study- claim they are religious. My former boss and lifetime mentor, Victor Vieth, probably the most prominent legal child protection professional in the U.S. and beyond, speaks often on this topic as a devout man of faith himself. What he points out, while doing crucial work with other decent people of faith in order to make religious communities safer, is that most child molesters identify or claim to be religious, and then purposely exploit religious environments and the usually decent, trusting and forgiving people within them.

I remain a practicing Roman Catholic and am in no way anti-religion in a general sense. I also understand that a parent can be wary of their own church, mosque or synagogue and still fear for their children in other circumstances. But an uproar about disguised child molesters seeking out little girls in public bathrooms is utterly misplaced, and in many cases disingenuous and cynical. It’s also dangerously misleading, especially by religious people when their own environments are far more dangerous than any department store bathroom.

McCrory, Forest and Moore: You’re Bigots for the LGBT Bill. You’re Cowards for Hiding Behind Women and Children

From a joint statement from Lt. Governor Dan Forest, President of the Senate, and House Speaker Tim Moore, on calling a special session of the North Carolina Legislature:

“We aim to repeal this ordinance before it goes into effect to provide for the privacy and protection of the women and children of our state.”

Dan Forest, you’re a bigot.

Tim Moore– we knew each other in college, actually- you’re one also.

So are you, Governor Pat McCrory. You’re a bigot.

You’re also hypocrites and cowards, all three of you. And that’s exactly how you’ll be remembered. I could withhold the personal invective and call your actions bigoted and cowardly, but instead I’ll call you what you are, based on the actions you took as full-grown men in positions of political power.

If you three believe you’re justified in preventing North Carolina municipalities from reasonably protecting the rights of some its most vulnerable and regularly discriminated against and preyed upon citizens, be honest about why. Admit you’re doing it because people who are unlike you, or who apparently offend your purported religious beliefs, personally offend you.

Admit that these religious and/or personal beliefs make you feel justified in preventing elected officials- much closer to their communities than you are- from protecting not just the rights but the basic dignity of harmless people you nevertheless disdain, even when suicide, crime and myriad other forms of victimization stalk them.

Admit further that your desire for continued political power, gleaned more and more from a sad and hateful, but thankfully dwindling base is what drives you to continue to offer it anything that will keep its money and votes coming, thus keeping you in the power you crave.

But don’t hide behind women and children.

I am a nearly 20 year veteran of the legal and societal battle against child sexual abuse. I have prosecuted hundreds of cases in two states, for both local and state agencies. I have trained thousands of prosecutors, detectives, child protection professionals, medical providers, soldiers, and others in 49 states and in foreign countries for the United States Army. I am a survivor of child sexual abuse myself. I am more familiar with the dynamics of sexual violence, particularly against children, than most people in my field. When I say I know what I’m talking about where the concerns of women, children and sexual victimization are concerned, I am making a profound understatement.

So I can say with deep confidence that your argument- allowing individuals to use restrooms aligned with their identified gender will create some intolerable risk of predatory men sexually victimizing women and children- is garbage. Your effort to hide behind women and children- worse, to exploit them with this vacuousness- is cowardly.

In my entire career I have heard of exactly zero cases involving transgendered people born male who have sought to infiltrate a space normally segregated to women and girls in order to harm them. In the thousands upon thousands of cases of child sexual abuse I have encountered, the overwhelming majority of perpetrators have been males identifying as cisgender and straight.

I’ve also seen an alarmingly high percentage of perpetrators who infiltrate religious institutions and then sexually abuse children, persons with disabilities, mentally ill and other vulnerable adults. That kind of abuse happens every day in the churches, the mosques, the temples and the parishes of North Carolina. From Appalachia to the coast. From Virginia to Georgia.

So are you ready, Tim, Dan and Pat, to regulate, limit and police the interaction of pastors, youth ministers and other religious leaders with vulnerable members of their congregations, all on the exact same logic? You have before you, after all, not just paranoia, or cynical speculation to act upon. You have cold facts; a mountain of evidence exists on which you could justify segregating religious leaders from children on the grounds of protecting children and vulnerable adults from them.

Will you? No, I didn’t think so. My point is not to be anti-religious; I remain a practicing Roman Catholic. My purpose is to lay bare what you really are and what your actions really amount to.

This vileness will eventually be reversed, cleaned up and rectified by the children of your great state. But not before the economic and social consequences have been felt, just as they were after the exact same small-minded bigotry was once directed at people of color.

McCrory. Forest. Moore. This will be your legacy, and your remembrance. And it will be richly deserved.

Let There Be Light: An Examination of Darkness in a Pennsylvania Diocese

Memorial_cross_in_Canna'“There’s nothing there in the dark that isn’t there in the light.”

Among the many well-intentioned but absurd nostrums told to children, this is perhaps the most frustrating. I was afraid of the dark as a child, albeit of things non-existent, or with no real chance of invading my bedroom. Nevertheless, the fear of inhabiting a space where your most valuable sense is compromised is hardly irrational. Fear of the dark is an evolutionary gift. We fear being in dark spaces because of what we know instinctively:  Most things that would hunt us love the advantage darkness provides.

And darkness, of course, can be figurative as well.

In the latest, miserable chapter of the Roman Catholic clergy abuse crisis, a particular diocese- Altoona-Johnstown, in southwest Pennsylvania- has been revealed as shrouded in darkness for decades, with predictably abysmal results. We don’t know this because the Church took it upon itself to publish a candid and self-reflective report. Instead, we know it because of a civil grand jury armed with a search warrant. Last week, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office released the deeply disturbing report of that investigative body, detailing the sexual abuse of children at the hands of mostly diocesan priests (priests who serve within a geographical area). In many cases, either written admissions of predatory priests were uncovered, or the men made admissions before the grand jury itself.

Two bishops, serving back to back for nearly 50 years, appear most responsible for the kind of behavior now notorious within the context of the abuse crisis. According to the grand jury, both ignored and/or covered up instances of abuse, pressured victims to settle out of court for pre-determined amounts, participated in relocating priests under cover of health related issues, knowingly returned credibly accused priests to active ministry, and so on. In every way, the leadership of this deeply troubled place kept this decades-long crisis in the dark. Not surprisingly, this darkness protected abusers and allowed them to hunt undeterred. As a result, for decades hundreds of children were irreparably damaged, mentally, spiritually, and physically.

It’s unfortunate that the Church needed to be compelled by legal process to assist in the production of this report. Regardless, now that it’s out, it should be studied closely by both civil authorities and the Church as well. It’s important to note that most dioceses don’t appear to have been as successfully infiltrated by abusers as Altoona-Johnstown. One organization, Bishop Accountability (criticized as unreliable by some in the Catholic community), publishes a data base of accused priests by diocese within the U.S. The site does not provide per capita data, so it’s not easy to tell by the raw numbers how plagued a particular diocese may have been relative to its size. But there are some compelling indicators. Large dioceses (known as Archdioceses) show some remarkable disparities; Los Angeles and Boston, both notorious for abuse, show over 250 accused priests each, while New York and Chicago show far less. The diocese I grew up in (Arlington, Virginia), has over 450,000 registered Catholics. I happen to know (apart from the database) that Arlington has had an unusually low number of reported incidents of abuse over time. In Altoona-Johnstown, with around 100,000 Catholics, hundreds were identified just in this grand jury report.

Most likely, luck and coincidence do not account for these disparities. They’re far more likely driven by the atmosphere set in large part by the authority on the ground. It’s no secret that Arlington, one of the most conservative dioceses in the U.S., is not one I always agree with on issues of faith and practice. But they appear to be doing something right where child protection is concerned. That should be emulated as much as the actions of past bishops in Altoona-Johnstown (the current bishop is accused of no wrongdoing) should be avoided.

Contrary to some beliefs, held often by those antagonistic to the Church in general, the institution, while highly imperfect, neither solicits nor “manufactures” predators. Instead it almost always unwittingly attracts them, as literally every religious institution occasionally does. With its global reach, vast resources and ancient roots, the Church has always been a sadly attractive place for predators. Sadder still is the Church’s often disastrous response to this neutral fact, a response that has made the problem immensely worse. One thing it can do now, in the wake of a report pried from darkness, is use it to illuminate every space it touches. The stakes are too high for anything else. 

Let there be light. 

What’s to Blame for Josh Duggar? Institutionalism, not Christianity

What we know: Josh Duggar’s admission is great fodder against Duggar Family Values, which include anti-gay stances as well as assertions that “non-traditional” values endanger children.

What we don’t know: What created the awful urges in Josh to begin with. Those opposed to what this powerful family both believes and attempts to influence politically are triumphantly declaring things like home-schooling and hyper-religiosity to be petri dishes for the kind of sexual deviance Josh displayed as a teenager.

They’re probably wrong.

As deliciously tempting as it is for some on my side of the political spectrum to demonize the Duggars and their way of life as some sort of catalyst for awful behavior, there’s little psychological evidence to support that. In fact, Josh’s deviance was most likely not (in and of itself) the product of home schooling or any other religious dogma or tradition the Duggars took part in. Sexual deviance, as far we know at this point, does not generate that way. More likely, Josh was (or is) deviant for reasons we don’t understand, but that are probably innate (“nature”) and/or the product of his environment (“nurture”), but in a different way than we normally observe.

I am no soothsayer, but what I’ve come to understand after a career of dealing with this pathology is that it is simply everywhere. The conservative numbers (1 in 3 girls and about 1 in 6 boys) remain replicable, reliable and constant. Sexual abuse happens everywhere: Among the religious and non-religious. Among the rich, the poor, the city dweller, the farmer, etc., etc., etc. The sexual abuse of children, whether by teenagers like Josh Duggar or by more mature adults, happens continuously and universally.

Therefore, the question better asked is not “what made this happen?” but “what allowed it to flourish and continue in that particular situation?” In the case of the world of “19 and Counting,” we should look, as always, to an institution.

In Josh Duggar’s world, the institution of dogmatic, insular Christianity provided him two things: First, It made it easier for him not only to offend, but to get away with offending. Second, it did so in a manner that leaves him today free of legal consequences, still married, and still employable. Here’s how:

Whatever Josh was (or is), he grew up in a male-dominated world where “the father is the head of the family as Christ is the head of the Church.” Firstly, his was an environment that exalted a Christian-based order that, among other things, clamped down on any opposition or suggestion of “rebellion.” This very likely discouraged his victims from reporting his actions to other family members or anyone who might have made a difference. Rebellion, after all, can be perceived as anything that upsets the proverbial apple cart. This was a fact probably not lost on Josh himself as he chose his victims.

Secondly, this same Christian-based worldview necessitated, as it does with any religiously based orthodoxy, an “in-house” solution to conflict or deviant behavior within the environment. Why? Because it reinforces the idea that the religion itself has within it the answer to every problem- there is never a need to consult outside sources which are doubtlessly less pure and enlightened.

But even more dangerous is the insistence on handling matters of “conflict” within the religious environment so that the outside world will not perceive flaws or weaknesses within its structure. The Duggars likely perceive themselves, as many do in their circumstances, as holdouts against a world moving in a direction they neither trust nor respect. The last thing they want that outside world to perceive is a weakness within their structure.

It’s important to understand how these things explain (but do not excuse) the Duggar’s response to a heartbreaking and haunting problem, and why offenders like Josh Duggar can flourish in environments otherwise mortally opposed to behavior like his. But it’s equally important to understand what they don’t explain.

They don’t explain Josh’s deviance to begin with. That’s a question we dare not breezily discard with the easy answer of demonizing religion. Or culture. Or anything else. Because as far as we know, deviance poisons all of these equally.

Bob Jones University: Another Religious Institutional Failure Where Predators Are Concerned

In 1991, as a senior at UNC Charlotte, I held the position of governor of a statewide student legislature in North Carolina. At some point during my tenure, I had the opportunity to meet and briefly work with my counterpart who was the leader of a similar group in South Carolina. It was a relationship I should have been excited to forge. But I didn’t expect to like him, and for one foolish reason: He attended Bob Jones University.

Bob Jones, in Greeneville, South Carolina, is among the most conservative Christian and strict, biblically-based institutions of higher learning in the country. I had no issue with its basic principles, but BJU had been known for going far beyond most other Bible-based schools. Among a few other things I found distasteful, it did not admit black students until 1971 and banned interracial dating until 2000. So I assumed my counterpart would be smug, judgmental, and perhaps even bigoted.

I could not have been more wrong. He was, and remains, deeply religiously conservative. He is also among the warmest, most thoughtful, and most decent people I’ve ever met. He now lives in Maine with his wife and children, loves sailing, works as a medical professional, and continues to live a devout Christian life.

My point is that Bob Jones is hardly a place that produces uniformly bad people. In fact it produces mostly decent and honorable people, regardless of whether I agree with their politics or religious thinking.

But Bob Jones, like all formal institutions featuring strict religious dogma, an authoritarian structure and a generally insular environment, is especially vulnerable to exploitation by predatory people who infiltrate its community. This doesn’t mean BJU and places like it are more infested with predators than more liberal institutions. Predators are everywhere. But they tend to seek out and/or remain in favorable environments. As sad and unfair as it is, strict religious institutions are often excellent ones for predatory people, simply because predators can utilize aspects of them in mockery of what they’re designed for. Dogma, structure, and some distrust of outsiders are not in and of themselves bad things. Constricting things perhaps. The wrong choice for many, perhaps. But not destructive in essence.

What is destructive, however, is when religious dogma is perverted to “blame and shame” victims. When an authoritarian structure allows those in power to abuse relatively helpless adherents. And when a mistrust of outsiders is used to discourage reporting to civil authorities or even seeking professional help. Every institution with these attributes runs the risk of both infiltration by predators and then the unwitting nurturing of them once they’re inside.

It’s not what the institutions want; BJU’s leadership doubtlessly wanted its students harmed no more than the Vatican intended for there to be widespread abuse by a small but prolific percentage of its priests and nuns. Regardless, vulnerability remains because danger is always present, meaning that predatory people (who as far we know tend to appear for reasons we don’t in every imaginable situation) are always looking for places to hunt and hide. The one thing religious institutions can do to mitigate their inherent risks is to value the members of the institution more than the institution itself.

This means being utterly transparent about policies to prevent abuse, and allowing an honest assessment of how much it’s happening. It means making it publicly known that it will cooperate with civil authorities and seek help from professionals outside of its sphere of influence, even if that means risking exposure to a less Godly and sometimes unfair world outside the gates.

But like the Vatican (and many other religious institutions seeking to keep their reputations and authority intact), Bob Jones appears to have failed at this task, with a report released last week outlining widespread discouragement of reporting and in some cases startling victim-blaming by university officials. In many cases this treatment grossly exacerbated the harm done, and drove some victims not only away from BJU but from Christianity itself.

Again, this is the last thing BJU has ever wanted. But it’s what the institution has reaped, at least in some measure, and at least in part because of its brand mattering more than its students.