Grooming: A Lesson For Cults

The VIRTUS web page has a good brief essay on grooming. With the issue of appropriate relationships surfacing yet again in Catholic news this week, I thought some elements of Sharon Doty’s piece were helpful and enlightening. Consider her thought experiment and ask yourself what would you do?

You met some new members of the parish neighborhood with children the same age as yours. They seem like a very nice family. Later that week you see them at soccer practice. It turns out their seven year old boy is on the same soccer team as your son. Their situation is a bit different from yours because Mom goes to work at an office everyday and dad works from home. His schedule is more flexible than most dads and he apparently played soccer in college. It is soccer season and dad has offered to take the boys to and from practice. How do you tell if the offer is genuine or the beginning of a grooming process?

Grooming is the process by which an abuser sets up a set of allies and potential victims. Abusers are attractive, charismatic, charming, and just plain nice people. It’s easy for us to dismiss unattractive, dowdy, and troubled people as creeps. Creeps won’t usually succeed at seduction. Abusers work hard at an attractive persona to present to the world. They target parents, work colleagues, and even bishops and the pope.

What does this mean? That every nice person is an abuser? Not at all. The logic is this: all abusers are charming, but not all charming people sexually abuse others. The key is to note the context of the charm, and assess any danger signs.

Does the person exhibit potentially risky behavior?

Does the person seem to ignore rules?

Does the person discount the wishes of parents, even casually?

Does the person seem to want alone time with children?

Does the person initiate unnecessary touching, or seem to be in situations in which accidental touching happens?

In assessing the situation given at the beginning of the post, I would ask myself these questions. A person who discounts rules, can use the allure of specialness to reel in an impressionable girl or boy.

“Your parents want you to go straight home from practice? That’s great, but let’s have a little celebration over ice cream for that goal you scored. You’re a special player and you deserve a treat.”

Parents should share responsibility for taxiing athletes. If you called over another parent or two and initiated a carpool, what would that do to the spirit of the discussion?

The rule about touching is pretty simple: children may initiate touch with adults. Adults with children: no.

It strikes me that questions like this could be asked about the Legion of Christ or any church group over which you might harbor suspicions. A cult insitutionalizes abuse and it will employ all the methods of grooming to ensure conformity and suppress questions. An otherwise good organization might have a sub-group infused with grooming and the abuse that follows. To others in the organization, they are often the targets of grooming in turn.

Bishops and the pope have come under scrutiny for their inaction in addressing criminal sexual predators. I suspect that many of them were dazed by the grooming methods of abusers. No excuse, really; these bishops should be making themselves aware of clergy and others who will manipulate and groom them to serve as allies. Consider an expansion of the thought experiment and apply the grooming questions to elements in your parish, diocese, or the Church at large that might make you uncomfortable. What is the result when you interrupt the grooming? That will be most telling.

Do these church people ignore the rules of good social behavior? Do they appeal to higher, special values that they alone embrace?

Do these people or groups offer contrary standards to minors that differ drastically from parents’ sound values?

Do people seek alone time with children or young people? Remember that the Sacrament of Penance is liturgy, it happens at the initiation of the penitent, not the confessor, and that it takes place in a church–a public place.

Do certain leaders put themselves in the position to be an accidental recipient of touching?

I ask these questions knowing little of Regnum Christi or their practices. But the Legionaries’ founder clearly made himself above the rules in his personal conduct. He seems to have been a classic example of a groomer. Have you yourselves been the target of grooming practices? Would you know it if you experienced it? Have you seen the media or internet used to groom persons?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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