Protecting children: Being aware of how sex offenders “groom” their victims

Drew Dillingham of the USCCB office of child protection is pictured in Rome Jan. 31. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Drew Dillingham
Catholic News Service

(Tenth in a series)

ROME — This week at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, my class learned about the ethical issues related to the sexual abuse of minors. One question we discussed was, “To what extent, ethically speaking, are sexual offenders responsible for their actions?”

Sexual abuse is listed in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as a mental disorder. It is true that offenders who commit abuse have mental disorders and this plays a role in their crimes. For this reason, dioceses offer psychological and spiritual care both to those who have been abused, as well as to offenders.

However, sexual abuse of minors is also an abuse of power, trust and sexuality. Despite their disorders, offenders must be held accountable for their actions. In justice there is mercy and in mercy there is justice.

promiseEspecially when it comes to abuse of minors by those close to them, such as relatives, caretakers or priests, abuse is not spontaneous. It takes a long period of premeditated, logical and patient “grooming” before abuse occurs. According to the acquaintance model of abuse, the following behaviors are most commonly carried out by an offender:

  1. Identify preferred or acceptable child target. The offender actively searches for a “suitable” victim.
  2. Gather information about the child’s interests and vulnerabilities. The offender learns more about the victim with the intent of exploiting him or her.
  3. Gain access to the child. The offender misuses the trust of those close to the child to gain private time with the child.
  4. Lower the inhibitions of the child and oneself. The offender uses drugs, alcohol, pornography, etc. to decrease the natural resistance of the victim and himself.
  5. Seek to fulfill one’s own physical and emotional desires. The offender abuses his power, the trust of the victim and his or her caretakers, and the sexuality of the victim in pursuit of his own self-centered desires.
  6. Gain and maintain control of the child. The offender forces or manipulates the victim into remaining in the abusive relationship.

pledgeIn each of those steps, the offender freely carries out an improper use of power and trust to abuse the child. Ethically speaking, these premeditated abuses of power and trust, as well as the sexual abuse itself, are further proof that those who abuse children must be held accountable and no longer have access to children.

Should an organization put those who have abused back into roles with “power” where they can abuse children if they gravely misused that power in the past? The answer is clearly no. In his letter to bishops on the feast of the Holy Innocents, Pope Francis reiterated the need for zero tolerance in the Catholic Church.

St. Peter’s Basilica seen during a sunset in Rome in 2011. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Since 2002, dioceses in the United States have followed the guidelines of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which calls for the removal of priests who have abused children from active ministry. It’s up to all of us, especially those in positions of leadership in the church, to do all we can to prevent those who would harm children from carrying out their crimes.

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Drew Dillingham is the Coordinator for Resources and Special Projects with the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.  He is attending Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University’s interdisciplinary program for a diploma in safeguarding minors. He is an avid reader of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and shares his April 26th birthday. Dillingham also dabbles in the works of Bishop Robert Barron, thanks to the ongoing encouragement of his wife, Kim. 

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