Pray and Predation: Part 2

Heard the old bromide, if you snooze you lose, recently? If you haven’t, hear it now! It is still the way of the world. In this case, I did not snooze or lose, exactly. On the other hand, current events did overtake my planning.

Prayer and Predation started as a stand-alone piece to discuss an issue about which I feel strongly. It was ready for publication just before Christmas, but I had second thoughts. Was the week before Christmas the right time to bring up the topic of sexual predators? Deciding, that was not appropriate, I scheduled it for January.

Two days after Christmas the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published a story falling squarely into my area of concern. Sadly, the story concerned someone I know casually. He is a father, husband, successful businessman, and active member of his church. Now, he is charged with several sex-related crimes, including sexual assault of a child. The only difference between this case and the multitude of others one can hear about today is the way it is being handled.

The predator is not denying the charges, and not blaming the victim, yet. In fact, he reportedly confessed his actions to friends and family before the charges became public. Also, his church handled the matter in what some might consider an unprecedented manner.

According to media reports, someone close to the suspect advised church leadership of the allegations. The church took immediate and appropriate action to limit the suspect’s access to the church. Additionally, the church is cooperating with the investigation and made a public statement of support for the victim.

By this point, you may be wondering where this is going. If this guy has been charged, has confessed, and the church has taken action against him, why am I dwelling on the matter?

This matter is important for any number of reasons. My main concern is this type of predator is not the focus of church prevention and detection programs. Programs dealing with the issue of sexual misconduct within churches primarily focus on two areas. The biggest concern is the victimization of younger children involved in church ministries or activities. This focus is understandable, as these are some of the most vulnerable members of a congregation.

Child-focused programs include background checks and training, as well as close supervision of volunteers and staff. The goal is to limit the risk of potential predators gaining access to the children. This is accomplished through policies and procedures designed to help gatekeepers detect and prevent risky activities or situations. For instance, a system may dictate that children are never alone with a volunteer or staff member. Policies may also attempt to prohibit known grooming behavior.

The second area upon which churches focus is older potential victims who come in close contact with staff and volunteers through various programs and activities. One example that comes up too often is the young male pastor who mistakenly or intentionally chooses to meet a congregant in a private setting to counsel the person on emotional matters.

Many making this mistake became former pastors by involving themselves with vulnerable members of their flock. In some instances, these cases evolved spontaneously. In others, the pastor or staff member used their position to prey on vulnerable members of the church. Regretfully, some of these cases, including intentional predatory behavior, were swept under the rug by quietly relocating the perpetrator to a new hunting ground.

The details of the incident leading me to write Part 2 are not clear. For example, nothing published or available to date indicates the alleged criminal behavior occurred at his church. In fact, one source stated the criminal acts did not happen on the church campus. That does not mean the grooming process did not begin at church, but it is one reason this sort of predation is not higher on the list of concerns for churches.

Should the church be held responsible for actions by congregants that did not take place on church grounds? For instance, two people meet at church, develop a relationship, and at some point, one commits a crime against the other. Can the church be held legally responsible for the criminal behavior? On its face, that would appear to be unlikely, which is why churches, their insurers, and advisors do not look more closely at the possibility of an adult on adult predation of this nature. On the other hand, does a church not have some responsibility in this area?

Answering that last question in depth is beyond my paygrade, so to speak. On the other hand, a review of readily available information on singles ministries and intimate knowledge of prayer and counseling programs seems to raise a few red flags.

So-called Christian dating sites are designed for matchmaking. They also, to varying degrees, offer warnings, caution statements, and advice on how to avoid problems when making a connection through their site. I could find very little such cautionary verbiage on church singles ministry pages. On the other hand, both the dating sites and church sites prominently display information that might lead one to believe finding a match is possible.

Only one website concerning singles ministries included any cautionary language concerning social matchmaking. In that case, the information was contained in a briefing paper or white paper designed for the churches within that particular tradition or belief system.

Is it reasonable to assume that an organization offering spiritual education combined with social engagement opportunities should recognize the possibility of matchmaking or hookup activity? I would think it should be, as I have yet to meet someone attending a singles ministry who is not looking for something more than a social engagement opportunity, in addition to spiritual growth opportunities. However, everyone I have approached concerning the risk factors inherent in singles ministries feels it is not an issue they can or need to address.

I fear most churches and other ministries will only decide this is a potential problem after a scandal breaks or a horror story emerges. That has been the pattern with churches, schools, and similar institutions for decades.

Church security was not a huge concern for many churches until the late 1990s if not later. Law enforcement and security professionals recognized the threat to churches earlier, but their concerns were ignored in many cases. Churches were of the same mindset as educational organizations, and other entities dealing in goodwill and service. These organizations could not recognize the threat until a tragedy occurred.

In Texas, a mass shooting at a church in 1980 should have been a warning sign. Unfortunately, it was considered a random act that would not be repeated. For almost two decades, that thinking seemed to be acceptable then seven people were killed by a lone gunman at Westside Baptist Church in Fort Worth. With the Columbine High School shooting earlier that years, awareness and caution increased. Still, those, including this writer, who recognized the vulnerability of churches were voices crying in the wilderness, or crying wolf if you prefer.

The 2007 shooting spree including a church camp and a large church in Colorado opened the floodgates as far as church security is concerned. Still, some churches were reluctant to take the steps necessary to secure their campuses and protect their congregations until something happened in their area. The 2012 killing of a young pastor during a robbery at his church in North Texas was the trigger for more and better security at many Texas churches.

Today, church leaders have taken steps to minimize the possibility that a predator can hunt within specific ministries. Churches have programs and protocols to avoid predatory behavior or deal with such action if it involves or is a threat to children, especially younger children. They have programs, procedures, and safety measures to help protect vulnerable congregants from pastors or counselors who might take advantage of someone. Those programs are essential, and the necessity for them is clear.

Singles ministries, on the other hand, are the vulnerability no one wants to address. In some ways, that is understandable. Having singles ministry information which includes cautionary information for participants about the possibility of sexual predators in their midst is not what one wants to see in the church bulletin or website. That, and the fact no scandals seem to have made headlines or the national news in this area provides a bureaucratic comfort zone for church leaders.

Hopefully, I am crying wolf, or overreacting because of an isolated incident from several decades ago. If I am, this may be the only time anyone reads or hears about this possibility. If my concerns are legitimate, a scandal will hit the news at some point.

I love being right. Here, I pray I am wrong.

© – 2019

About S. Eric Jackson

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