More on Grooming: How Should I Respond if I Suspect Grooming Behavior?

By Erin O’Donnell
Editor, Awake Blog

Last week on the blog we discussed grooming, or the tactics abusers may use to prepare victims for abuse, including the red flags that may signal boundary violations and the potential for impending abuse.

This week we continue the conversation by exploring an important question: if someone is exhibiting behaviors that look like grooming, how should individuals and institutions respond?

It’s a complicated question, with plenty of gray area. For starters, observers may be hesitant to call out these behaviors. As Diana Johnstone, MSW, LCSW, a therapist who works with youth survivors of sexual violence at Pathfinders in Milwaukee pointed out in our blog post last week, many elements of grooming look like simple generosity:  giving gifts, offering rides or babysitting services, becoming friendly with and winning over a victim’s family or community. It can be difficult to question someone’s motives when their actions could just be kindness.

And often perpetrators will dance right at the edge of boundaries without being seen to cross the line, explains Jan Ruidl, a victim-survivor who was abused as a teenager by her parish priest, and who served several years as a parish director in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. As a member of two review boards, where she was responsible for examining abuse allegations against clergy, Ruidl has considered many scenarios where behavior exists in a gray area, including adults who give hugs to children or engage in physical contact such as touching a shoulder or rubbing a back during conversation. Is it harmless, or is it a grooming behavior, and a possible prelude to abuse?

Hard and Fast Rules

This is why it’s important to have clear guidelines for clergy and other church employees and volunteers about what is and is not appropriate behavior, including rules about maintaining personal space. Another hard and fast rule is that adults should never be alone in a car with anyone under age 18, Ruidl explains. She remembers once when she made a plan to take an altar boy who was a family friend to a special Mass; she mentioned it to a colleague who pointed out that she would be violating safe environment protocols if she drove him alone in her car. “Here I am, a parish director, and I’m a survivor, and I know this stuff backwards and forwards. But it’s so easy to just have a lapse and not even think of it because I knew this family really well,” she notes. She recruited her adult daughter to drive them to the Mass to ensure that they were abiding by the safe environment rules.

“You don’t want everybody to be so paranoid and suspicious that they can’t have healthy relationships,” Ruidl says. But she recommends erring on the side of caution.

Ruidl acknowledges that maintaining boundaries and guarding against grooming involves balance. “You don’t want everybody to be so paranoid and suspicious that they can’t have healthy relationships,” she says. But she recommends erring on the side of caution. If you notice behavior that could be grooming or red flag behaviors as described in Safe Environment Training, she recommends mentioning it to the person’s supervisor.

“Trust your gut, and report, report, report,” Ruidl says. “Don’t wait, because someone could be harmed.” A strong supervisor should speak with the adult in question, explaining that the action was a boundary violation, and add a note to the person’s personnel file. “One of the things that I’ve learned while on a review board is that often when somebody crosses the line to abuse, you discover that there is a personnel file with multiple notations of red flag behaviors, complaints, or suspicions of inappropriate interactions,” she says.   

How the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Responds to Grooming Behavior

In December 2019, Awake submitted a list of questions to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee about its response to the abuse crisis. This included questions about the process the Archdiocese uses to accept and respond to complaints about grooming behaviors that do not rise to the level of abuse. Jerry Topczewski, the archbishop’s chief of staff, responded in this way: “The Archdiocese of Milwaukee relies upon its Code of Ethical Standards for Leaders, which is on the archdiocesan website and every Church Minister must read, acknowledge and sign a statement that they have read the Code and understand its applicability to [their] work and/or volunteer efforts for the Church.” Topczewski then highlighted several sections of the code that refer to unethical behavior by Church ministers.

For example, the code states: “When Church ministers believe that one of their colleagues may have violated this Code of Ethical Standards, they should make a good faith attempt to resolve the issue, if possible, by bringing it to the attention of the individual. If this fails, the Church minister must take further action by reporting to the supervisor or next higher authority, or by referral to the Chancery Office.”

Awake is aware that other U.S. dioceses have increased education and clarified policies around misconduct and boundary violations in recent years. For example, the Diocese of Cheyenne website provides detailed guidelines about interactions with minors and vulnerable adults, as well as a bulletin insert about red flag behaviors by potential perpetrators. The website of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul & Minneapolis also offers a list of warning signs of potential abuse.

All of this suggests that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee could benefit from clearer guidelines about reporting and responding to concerns, as well as continued conversation around grooming, red flags, and boundary violations. Awake hopes to discuss this topic with Archdiocese staff in the future.

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