What We Often Get Wrong About Sexual Abuse and Sexual Offenders

On the Awake blog we’ve written multiple posts about grooming, the tactics abusers may use to prepare their victims for abuse. These techniques can include gaining the trust of a potential victim and their family and friends; singling out the person for special treatment and gifts; normalizing physical touch, nudity, and talk about bodies and sex; encouraging secret-keeping; and making efforts to get the victim alone.

Learning about grooming is an important step in raising awareness about abuse. It not only helps individuals stay safe, but also can inform institutions including the Church as they adopt practices to prevent abuse.

But not all abusers engage in grooming behaviors, explains psychotherapist Mitch Mueller, LPC, of West Bend, Wisconsin, who has worked for many years treating sexual offenders. A practicing Catholic and parishioner at St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception in West Bend, Mueller feels called to educate the public about people who commit sexual crimes. “If you don’t understand offenders, you’re not going to do a good job of reducing the offenses,” he says. Mueller adds that the issue of clergy sexual abuse can be complex and requires nuanced thinking.  

#1: Not All Abusers Are “Predatory.”

Some offenders can be described as “predators,” Mueller says. These are stereotypical abusers, such as Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, who seek out potential victims and groom them for abuse. “They plan it, they calculate it, they scheme it, and they try to figure out how to [abuse] without getting caught or with minimal repercussions to themselves,” he says. These people commit a large percentage of all abuses, but only make up a small percentage of abusers.

Many more offenders are “opportunistic,” Mueller explains. “These are people who have no intention of committing sexual abuse, but if put in situations in person or online that are compromising to their will, they can’t deal with temptations. They haven’t figured out strategies and skills necessary to navigate those things, and they end up choosing to do something that is extremely harmful to a lot of people, and they genuinely regret it afterward.” They may also “find themselves trapped in cycles of addiction” around these behaviors, Mueller says.

He believes that because the Church focuses mainly on predatory abusers, it misses the opportunity to stop other types of offenders. Mueller recalls completing the VIRTUS safe environment training in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis several years ago, and was disappointed that the only offenders featured were predators who described targeting and grooming their victims. The training failed to capture the diversity in sexual abuse scenarios. It would be more useful if safe environment training could be “more nuanced than just one kind of story,” he says. 

#2: We Don’t Consider the Factors that Lead People to Commit ABuse.

Mueller notes that we tend to think of people who commit sexual abuse as a breed apart, or something other than human. The risk of that mindset is that “we fail to really take the time to understand how they think,” he says. “If we don’t take the time to understand what happened to them, or how they made that decision to offend, then we won’t be very good at preventing this kind of thing from happening in the future. If we have the wrong understanding of the problem, we are liable to pick the wrong tools to fix it.”

#3: We PLace Clergy Members on pedestals.

Catholics often believe that clergy members are inherently holier or more virtuous than other people. “Priests and deacons have a charism, they have a mission, but there is no necessary connection between that and moral development except that they are called to work on it more than the rest of us,” Mueller asserts. “They’re going to experience the same temptations. They’re going to experience the same level of alcoholism. They’re still human beings.”

Mueller notes that there are “many very holy and very good priests, just as there are many very holy and very good lay people. But there’s diversity there.” He would like the Church to provide mental health support to seminarians and continued social support to priests as they enter post-seminary life. Social isolation is one factor that can raise a person’s risk of committing sexual offenses. “This doesn’t mean that every socially isolated priest is going to offend,” Mueller stresses, “but if they’ve crossed a boundary once and they’re socially isolated,” they are more likely to continue that pattern.

#4: We’re Not Talking Enough About Sex—or Sexual Abuse.

Mueller encourages parents to make time to talk with their children about sex and issues such as personal boundaries and appropriate behavior. This can help kids keep their bodies safe from abuse, and provide guidance as they navigate confusing feelings, physical changes, and urges. “They need to talk with adults who know how this stuff works, not just their peers who don’t have a clue,” Mueller says. If parents aren’t providing information, kids are more likely to draw their own conclusions from online pornography, which generally provides a warped and unrealistic version of human sexuality, he adds.

Similarly, it’s important to engage in public conversation around pedophilia and sexual abuse. “Many good people are just too repulsed by talking about these things to get involved in the discussion,” Mueller says. “We need to get comfortable just talking about this stuff.” As a Church and a society, “we have gotten much better at talking about things like addiction, domestic violence, mental illness, and racism, and we have seen some genuinely positive developments in these areas,” he says. “I think there are many positive developments we can expect to come out of a more open discussion about sexuality in the Church.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

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