What I’ve Learned from Child Abusers
I saw the headline: another adult arrested for child sexual abuse. Another headline that made my stomach constrict dangerously.
Then I saw the picture. And the room spun.
I looked back at the headline, just so I wouldn’t have to look at the picture anymore. I didn’t know how to process the shock: someone I knew, and never would have suspected, was accused of a terrible crime. Of violating innocence. Abusing power for selfish and sick pleasure. Carving emotional scars that would never go away.
Every time I see a headline like this, I react as we all do: I shake my head in disgust and anger. I feel the way any mother would: I’m flooded with a mix of empathic rage and fear for my own children. And when I recognize the face staring soberly at me under the newspaper headline, my horror feels like a frozen form of nausea.
In the past few years, I have experienced this three times. A relative was convicted of abuse. I caught a news story about a former schoolmate who preyed upon girls at a school where he worked. And then I saw the headline with a former co-worker’s picture underneath.
Hearing about abuse is never easy. It always feels like a punch in the gut. But when the accused is someone I know–and especially if that person is convicted in court–I go to a whole new level of upset. Layered over my usual feelings is a deeply unsettling mix of emotions that force me to change the way I view my own life.
I feel a vague sense of guilt. I wonder if there’s something I could have done. Did I ignore something I should have seen? I review my history with the person to look for clues that I might have overlooked. Could I have prevented this?
I feel duped. Deceived and embarrassed at my gullibility. This person lied and I fell for it. I didn’t suspect a thing, and I don’t like what that suggests about my own discernment.
I feel unsettled and suspicious at the thought that other people I know may be hiding dangerous secrets. Who else is preying on children? Terrorizing a family behind closed doors? Who presents a danger to my own children? I wonder if I can trust anyone I know, and whether I’m overlooking signs that might save someone else.
I’m forced to confront an ambiguity that is hard to live with: Child predators, like other criminals, aren’t scaly monsters. They don’t breathe fire or grow horns. They aren’t 100 percent evil, disguised to look human. They are fully human, like the rest of us, and sometimes they’re genuinely nice people. I don’t like the fact that I can’t pick them out in a crowd. And I certainly don’t like what that says about my own potential for evil.
Moments of terrible shock can be moments of great and sudden growth–although often recognized much later. Perhaps in these moments when things we thought we knew don’t seem to hold true and our convictions spin, our minds are especially open to reorientation around unchanging truth. And God, in his infinite grace, is in the habit of redeeming even the worst of human behavior for the sake of his transformational work in us. As I’ve grieved for the victims of these people I’ve known, and worked through my own shock at their actions, God has deepened my understanding of a few key spiritual truths.
- Satan truly does masquerade in some pretty attractive costumes. He even hides himself in good deeds and the best of intentions. It’s no wonder that we can’t always recognize his work in the lives of people we know–we don’t always see it in our own lives either. Paul expressed his lack of surprise that false teachers had worked their way into the Corinthian church: “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). The church can and does harbor people who privately indulge and rationalize dark temptations and publicly worship God on Sunday mornings.
- Ultimately, we can’t completely trust people. Placing our full trust in our fellow human beings is an exercise in stupidity. Being human ourselves, we ought to understand the reality that people will always let us down. The prophet Isaiah called it like it is: “Don’t put your trust in mere humans. They are as frail as breath. What good are they?” (Isaiah 2:22). We can’t go through life without relying on each other, and we can and should take risks–but take them shrewdly, knowing that no one will ever fail to fail us. On the other hand, as Isaiah’s prophetic song proclaims of our God, “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you! Trust in the Lord always, for the Lord God is the eternal Rock. He humbles the proud and brings down the arrogant city. He brings it down to the dust. The poor and oppressed trample it underfoot, and the needy walk all over it” (Isaiah 26:3-6). God will always follow through, always be the same, always be worthy of our trust. And someday he will level perfect justice at our world, redeeming the mess we’ve made of it. That’s where we should place our trust.
- We can’t trust ourselves either. We’d all like to believe we’ll recognize danger when we see it, always sense trouble when its jaws are upon us, but our own discernment is flawed. We may be wise in our own eyes, but our eyes deceive us. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. As the Scriptures say, “He traps the wise in the snare of their own cleverness.” And again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise; he knows they are worthless” (1 Corinthians 3:18-20). The Holy Spirit is our source of true wisdom and discernment, and cultivating his growing presence and voice in our lives is the only way to grow in wisdom. “The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
- We are all depraved. Our tendency is to place people in categories–good people and bad people. We think we know them when we see them, but we can’t really define what separates one from the other. We pretty much all believe we belong in the “good people” category, but the truth is none of us do. This is how “good” we are in our natural state: “As the Scriptures say, ‘No one is righteous–not even one. No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God. All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.’ ‘Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave. Their tongues are filled with lies.’ ‘Snake venom rips from their lips.’ ‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.’ ‘They rush to commit murder. Destruction and misery always follow them. They don’t know where to find peace.’ ‘They have no fear of God at all’ (Romans 3:10-18). If we think people are basically good, if we think people who appear to be happy and well-adjusted and prosperous and kind are good, we are fooling ourselves. But for the grace of God, we are all lost to depravity. And even under grace, we’re all still capable of choosing what destroys.
- I’m no better than anyone else. I’m not a child abuser, a child predator, or a criminal. But I’ve still broken God’s law every day of my life. And it doesn’t get any worse than that. On my own, I am completely and irrevocably stained–and no amount of work on my part can wipe away that stain. The fact that I’m redeemed by Jesus’ sacrifice doesn’t make me better than anyone else; it just makes me a very thankful vessel of his work. As hard as it is to admit, I can’t point to anyone–even a sex offender–and claim I don’t have the same capacity for sin. The great Apostle Paul exemplified this sober reality when he said, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him, even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus. This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’–and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:12-16). We are all, like Paul, examples of Jesus’ great patience with even the worst sinners. When I look at the face of a child abuser and shake my head at the horrific nature of their sin, I am looking at a reflection of my own soul. And my reaction to my own sin should be just as nauseating.
In the face of the daily news–child abuse, scandal, murder, deeply disappointing truth about people we hoped would never be newsworthy–our hope is in the Lord, the only righteous one, the only one who is truly trustworthy, who always has been, always is and always will be good.
Note: If you suspect someone is a victim of abuse, state laws vary, but you may be required to report your suspicions to proper authorities. If you’re not sure what your local laws require of you, you can anonymously contact your department of children and family services for consultation. You can also call a child advocacy agency for advice and help in taking the next step. Of course, as a Christian, if you have strong evidence that may give you the power to rescue a child from an abusive situation, you have an absolute duty to do so.
First published here on the Today’s Christian Woman blog.