“In 2011, a young adult disclosed to me, her pastor, that my own father had sexually abused her as a young child. Three days later, my mother and I were sitting in a police station reporting my childhood hero. How was this possible?”
It’s a cold February day and I’m standing on stage eyeing up my audience. It’s a seminar at a church on child sexual abuse and I’ve now shifted to speaking about prevention. I don’t want to lecture them about “red flag” behavior. I want them to experience deception. My colleague, a therapist who has logged over 9,000 hours counseling over 3,000 sex offenders in various prisons, has convinced me that we need to role play. He will play the firm church leader and I will play the pedophile. Days before, he assures me that he’s never seen anyone so naturally “get into role” as me. “It’s frightening! You’re too much,” he says. Our aim is to demonstrate to our unsuspecting audience how easily sex offenders cunningly win over the hearts of every person and gain access to children. It’s a scenario we both know too well. It will be, in his opinion, the most compelling and practical part of the entire weekend seminar. He was right.
We let them know that we were acting, but that several of them would find our routine eerily familiar. It’s a strange feeling to pretend to be the very thing you work so hard to fight against. Perhaps that’s why there is a profound shortage of specialists in this field. Nobody wants to plunge their minds into that level of darkness. Two minutes into my act, I could tell that most everyone was hooked. I improvised the entire thing. I had no idea what I was going to say or how I would say it but it just seemed to flow, and so did my tears. Several people in the audience were wiping tears from their own eyes, and we were only 3 minutes in. I used multiple layers of deception through words, pacing and leading, body language, and by hijacking and toying with their belief system. After only 5 minutes I was finished and, frankly, shocked at how easy it was. I asked the audience how many people would give me the benefit of the doubt and let me worship with them, unhindered. Every hand went up except for the church elders. One of the elders raised his hand—“We recently had a situation with a pedophile who gained our trust and eventually worked his way into a leadership position. Things got very ugly and it ended with him threatening lives. I swear, I had to take a second look and make sure that you were not actually that man standing on stage. You mirrored him exactly.” I had never met the man he spoke of, nor did I know any details about this church’s situation.
It’s a specialty I wish I didn’t need to develop, and I wish it wasn’t so personal. It’s taken its toll on me in so many ways, but I remain determined and understanding deception has become a niche. In 2011, a young adult disclosed to me, her pastor, that my own father had sexually abused her as a young child. Three days later, my mother and I were sitting in a police station reporting my childhood hero. How was this possible? I went into ministry because of his influence. He preached for decades at the same church I’m preaching at now. We were best friends. He confessed to over 20 victims, all of them prepubescent children at the time they were abused and is now serving a life sentence. I’ve maintained close contact with my dad, as well as the families of his victims. Learning about deception is woefully painful. Living in its wake is a nightmare.
No matter how much we think we might know about child molestation, people will continue to be easily fooled. Consider the following quote from John Ziegler, who orchestrated the Today Show interview with Dottie Sandusky and Matt Lauer: “I am quite positive that Jerry Sandusky never had sex acts with a boy. He has no consciousness of guilt, Dottie Sandusky has no consciousness of guilt. She was placed at the scene of these alleged crimes by several of the key victims and the narrative of that scenario makes absolutely no sense.” Honestly, I’ve wasted too much precious time listening to John Ziegler’s naïve rationale. He makes the same mistake church leaders do when they squelch the voices of children who disclose abuse. He believes that abuse (and the abuser) must be obvious, that there has to be a smoking gun. In one interview, Mr. Ziegler is sitting in the Sandusky basement where some of the alleged abuse took place. He is sarcastically poking fun at the victims, questioning their testimony and credibility, and describing how ridiculous a theory it is that Dottie would not have heard the abuse taking place in her own home.
Yet, to my knowledge, Mr. Ziegler has not lived under the same roof as a pedophile. He has fallen into the same trap that church leaders do regularly. Good people, so it is believed, don’t have sex with children. And if they did, we would notice. And my study about deception is fueled even more by this foolishness. “Indeed,” the apostle Paul warns, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and imposters will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:12-13 ESV). Jesus was tempted not three times, but for forty days and nights! I believe that the devil looked nothing like the Grim Reaper character in the TV series The Bible. It’s this type of bad theology that keeps us naïve, and abusers know it. I believe that the devil attempted to deceive the Son of God much like he does today—by being the only friend to meet us in the loneliness of the wilderness when nobody else is walking with us. And should we resist, the devil only flees for a season: “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13).