Preying on trust


REV ANN KEY has been a member of the Uniting Church since it began 40 years ago. She has been an ordained minister for 28 years. Throughout that time, Ann has witnessed the devastating impact abuse, in all its forms, can have on the church community and beyond. Sadly, as the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse illustrate, Ann is not alone in dealing with the aftermath of abuse within the church. She believes it is important for people to acknowledge that, rather than offer a safe haven from abuse, many churches – because of their inclusive, welcoming nature – can unwittingly harbour predators. 

Ann is currently on the council of the Bethel Centre. Bethel’s services are available to individuals and groups in the Vic/Tas synod who have experienced trauma, abuse or misuse of power emotionally, spiritually, physically or sexually within the church.

Abuse in one form or another has most likely always existed in the Church.

In many cases, aberrant behaviour, has been overlooked at best, and accepted or covered up at worst. A male-dominated workplace environment over many years has historically not helped. As numbers in congregations have dwindled, there have been fewer people to ameliorate the impact of ‘difficult’ people. Ministry agents, elders and church councillors have often been ill- equipped to respond helpfully with conflict resolution skills, interpersonal skills and accredited counselling qualifications.

Members of congregations have been reluctant to ‘make waves’ or name the difficult people. Excuses range from ‘Numbers are down, we don’t want to lose another one’ to ‘We want to be accepting of everyone’ to ‘We want to prove we are welcoming of people with …’ to ‘We need the money’. Compromises in standards begin, and then are difficult to reverse.

Support and or assistance from presbytery and synod personnel have not always been present, timely, or appropriate. Nor has the Church response previously modelled a safe place for victims. Many victims have been disinclined to expose themselves to further abuse or re-abuse by initiating or persisting with attempts to seek justice or acknowledgement of the abuse.

In spite of decreasing numbers, the church continues to attract people who are evil. Not sick. Not mentally ill. Not difficult. Evil – a word we rarely use. I hope the church will always have a place for the sick, difficult and mentally ill.

Those who groom other individuals for the purposes of moral, ethical, spiritual, physical (or a combination of all) rape are evil.

One of the effects of grooming is that it isolates people. They do not feel they can speak to anyone about either the grooming, or how they might feel they have been abused, ‘duped’ or hurt. Grooming, when done well, can therefore continue unabated unless someone acts as a ‘circuit breaker’.

A person who is accomplished at grooming will have the people being groomed questioning themselves, their relationships with each other, even their memories. When one becomes aware of being groomed or ‘conned’, the prevalent feelings are of guilt, shame, feeling duped or stupid. One can end up feeling like the criminal rather than victim.

Prime targets for grooming are those in positions of authority or power, or people who are vulnerable in one area or another. Compromising this group means that any consequent complaints or expressions of concern will be minimised, excused or dismissed. In some cases, disclosures will be responded to in such a manner that the person making the disclosure feels re-abused.

Grooming takes time. There is a lot at stake for the groomer, and they can afford to be slow, methodical, and bide their time, while developing strong supports to counteract later accusations or enquiries. Preparing individuals and groups such as congregations can take months, or even years. Although the following case studies relate to Anglo congregations, grooming is not limited to or by Anglo culture. Grooming and abuse occur in all cultures, and the purpose of the grooming can vary.

In some cases paedophilia is the purpose for grooming, others domestic violence, others the physical rather than sexual abuse of children and others it is the misuse of power in terms of control of the congregation/minister for non-sexualised relationships.

Once exposed, the groomer will often leave, undermining the reputation of the person who exposed their behaviour. This has two effects.

The first is to play the role of the victim, thereby continuing to be able to elicit sympathy and support from the people groomed.

The second is that doubts are left in the mind of the people regarding the whistle-blower. Anything they say in the future about any issue, let alone the groomer, will be brought into question. The groomer has retained power and influence.

No congregation wants to open themselves to being maligned within the community. Without details being made public for reasons of privacy, the ‘groomer’ if forced out is usually able to concoct whatever reason suits their purposes as to why they left. There is usually little if any opportunity for a right of reply.

What I write about is by no means definitive. Grooming and the resultant abuse is a highly complex, multi-dimensional dynamic, effecting body, mind and spirit. Being alert to groomers is not about a witch hunt, or exercising prejudicial behaviour. It may well be about gut instinct and following one’s intuition.

The behaviour of a groomer is extremely close to the behaviour of a genuinely well-intentioned person. We all like to think we are astute judges of character, and can spot a perpetrator of whatever sort a mile off. This is the very reason why a groomer is able to infiltrate congregations, agencies and so on, and abuse individuals and groups.


THE first case study relates to grooming of adults to enable inappropriate use of power, damage of property, and emotional abuse of adult women and girls.

Bill* was a bachelor in his late 50s who, rather than wash his clothes, would turn them inside out and wear them again. Slight in stature and ingratiating in manner, Bill quickly became a person people felt sorry for, and sought to involve in the life of the congregation because he was lonely and well-connected in the wider church. Congregation members were good and kindly people, who wanted to show the community and each other that they were accepting of anyone and everyone.

Bill was not pleasant to be near, so it was thought an ‘outside’ job would keep him on the envelope list and give everyone a bit of distance. All the church property keys were given to Bill. He loved wearing the keys in a prominent location so everyone would know who the real ‘gatekeeper’ was.

He would check everything after any meeting. No heaters or lights were ever left on. In winter the heaters were turned on early in the mornings so the church was nice and warm when folks arrived.

In summer, the air conditioners and fans were on so everything was cool. Even the morning tea things were set out ready. If the alarms went off, no one else had to get up and go out in the middle of the night. Everyone, including the minister, knew that Bill would be there. The rubbish bins were put out and brought back in, the plants were trimmed, rubbish was cleaned up from the garden. The place looked lovely and well cared for.

Without having been asked to do anything other than open and close the church for meetings, over time, Bill became indispensable, and made life, especially for the men, much easier.

When women in the congregation began to feel uneasy in Bill’s presence, it was attributed to his poor hygiene. Men fobbed off the comments made by partners and teenage daughters, because Bill always gave them space. He deferred to the men and praised them at every opportunity. Women were told they were imagining things, and needed to be more ‘Christian’. They were told to be kinder to ‘poor’, lonely Bill; include him more; cook meals and drop them in.

Increasingly, the women found there was no support for them in stopping Bill invading their personal space. He would come into their homes through unlocked doors and pretend he had knocked but there had been no answer. He was found peering through windows when women were on their own at night. There were reports of Bill coming in through a back door while a woman was in the shower, and waiting for her with a towel when she came out of the bathroom. Another woman found him sitting at her kitchen table, having made himself a cup of tea while she was dressing.

When one woman formally approached the chairperson of the church council with complaints that Bill was entering her house, rifling through drawers, changing belongings around, putting grass clippings in the linen cupboard, and prowling around outside at night, the response was: “Stop complaining. While he is doing it to you, he is not doing it to our wives and daughters.”

The woman was advised not to go to the police about the matter, as there would be no corroboration of the story from congregation leaders.

When locks on the doors were changed (this was a former manse to which Bill had keys), there was a formal visit from the chair of the church council complaining that this action should not have been taken. The chair had visited Bill, told him there had been a complaint and that police may be involved. Bill was so upset, he had threatened to leave the church, and it had taken several hours for the chair to placate him and have his assurance this would not happen. Bill’s place was secured.

The grooming was complete. The women were effectively isolated, and no one talked about this to anyone else.

Abuse does not have to be sexualised for there to be feelings of violation and betrayal. The women felt let down by pretty well everyone,
and powerless to band together in response.

Bill continued for many years in his role as gatekeeper. To the best of my knowledge, his abuse continued in one form or another, until age
and infirmity brought an end to his mobility, and he was relocated to a secure aged care facility.

breakout box


The second case study concerns grooming adults in order to sexually abuse children.

Sam* had had a difficult life. Everyone knew that childhood illness had robbed him of the sporting potential he talked of.

He openly spoke of having been sexually abused while in hospital, and there were rumours of incest involving his mother as well. He was a father and when he showed an interest in working with other children in sporting clubs, scouts, and then in Sunday school, the general response was that Sam was a good member of the community. He was always welcome to assist with camps, meetings and so on, particularly when other parents weren’t available.

Children started coming home from scout camps telling their parents that ‘something had happened’. Mums told the scout leaders what had been said, and were assured the matter would be dealt with.

They were also told their children were ‘imagining things’ or ‘making things up’. And the ‘something happened’ continued. Numbers in the scout group plummeted, and Sam left. No action was taken, although one child was killed, and another injured by a car while trying to run away from him, and another leader on a camp.  This was never investigated, no charges were laid, and both leaders concluded their association with scouting immediately.

Sam’s children would go to the homes of their friends after school, then show extreme reluctance when it was time to go home. There were stories of the children crying and making up every excuse to stay longer. Their school performance fluctuated and concern was expressed about their emotional wellbeing, even though they were always dressed well and seemed physically cared for.

No one in town was surprised when the children left home and moved away as soon as they were able.

Sam ‘church-hopped’ all the congregations of each denomination in town. When he left the first one after several years, because the minister wasn’t basing his sermons on the scriptures sufficiently, Sam’s reputation for being very pious and devout strengthened.  He was considered a good and Godly man, involved in the community and interested in young people.

As Sam left each congregation, his reputation as a very religious man grew. Liturgical dance saw him leave another congregation. The use of the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer saw him leave another. The local UCA was the last cab off the rank.

With his reputation as a devout and religiously conservative person intact, Sam was safely entrenched. The baby-sitting service he and his wife informally offered was gratefully taken up by the increasing number of young families coming into the area. And because his wife was so nice it didn’t matter that most, if not all the time, his wife would have to work at the last minute, and he would do the baby-sitting on his own.

And then the story began to unravel. One family approached the minister, stating that two of their children had been sexually abused. They refused to go to the police. They forbade the minister to go to the police. They would ensure the children were not out of their sight. They would pray for guidance.

It is difficult to know where everyone is all the time. One child slipped out to go and say hello to Sam, who he knew as a friend with sweets and computer games. The family approached the minister again. Another of their children had been abused.

They still didn’t want any action taken. Surely talking to the person, Christian to Christian would help. They felt they were failures as parents, should have been more watchful and taken better care of their children.

The grooming of the parents had been happening for three years, the abuse of two of the children for 18 months. The congregation had been part of community grooming for almost 30 years.

Against the parents’ wishes, the police were notified immediately and an investigation began.

The parents’ reluctance to involve the police was not based on a lack of care for their children. For them, it was unthinkable that a Christian would do such a thing – it was literally incomprehensible. So effective had the grooming been, that they felt their neglect as parents was the reason the abuse had occurred. Sam remains the ‘epitome’ of groomers.

Let me unpack this a little more.

Sam had worked on the theory that most people like to be thought of as intelligent, clever and  good parents. The first children he abused were the children of the local police, doctors, teachers and clergy. This took place over a 30 to 40-year period, involving multiple clergy, multiple police, doctors, teachers etc. The people that others will go to if there is an issue. Because these folk did not want anyone to know their children had been sexually abused, when further cases of abuse were disclosed to them police reports were not processed, and no further action was taken.

The abuse continued, with the paedophile working with three children at any one time. One who he was ‘finishing’ with, one who he was most active sexually with, and a third who was being groomed as the next sexual victim. The process could last several years depending on the ages of those involved.

While an undercover police investigation commenced immediately, within the next few days disclosures started coming from all parts of the community. Mostly these came from the mothers of the primary victims. Now in their 60s and 70s, story after story was disclosed of attempts to get action from the scouts, police, medical staff or church, all without success.

Women relived the horror of finding out what had happened to their children, the ongoing effects they had lived with, and the overwhelming grief and guilt at feeling they had failed as parents.

Without exception, these women had attempted to have the perpetrator brought to justice. One institution after another failed them and their children, until the women were eventually silenced. Watching their children become involved in life-threatening and life-taking activities was an ever-present burden with them.

Although much of the abuse had occurred independently of church membership, because the individual identified as a Christian, the church was largely held responsible for the lack of action taken to stop the abuse of over 300 children.

Few remained members of the Church. All longed for peace. The ‘cone of silence’, once broken, gave rise to an outpouring of grief.

Such is the power of an accomplished groomer that the victims – primary and secondary – are left feeling responsible or to blame for what has happened. The groomer seems to show no remorse, awareness of the impact of their actions or emotional connectedness with anything other than meeting their own needs.

Evidence anecdotally and in court indicated that Sam had been sexually abusing children from his late teens. There was a brief period, when his own children were the preferred age for his criminal activity, when complaints from the local children ceased. When Sam’s children became old enough to resist him, he resumed abusing any children whose parents or community of involvement could be colluded and groomed.

As stated earlier, reports and disclosures were ignored by key leaders in the community. This implied to people that there was either not a problem, their children had lied in the first place, or that the perpetrator was somehow ‘protected’.

Factors critical to finally dealing with this were: believing the parents; noting the inconsistencies in Sam’s linear and biographical story; observing behaviour which was questionable; observing the compromises / excuses church members continually made for Sam; observing and experiencing Sam’s attempts to groom; a general discomfort in Sam’s presence, and consistent ‘feeling’ that something was very wrong.

breakout box

Grooming needs intention, time and opportunity, the ‘hunter’ will bide his or her time. It is important to note that while the cases I have discussed concern men, women can also effectively groom congregations and individuals.

A grooming technique eventually will include emotional/ethical blackmail. It is about unbalancing the power differential so that abuse of one type or another can take place. Be wary of people bearing gifts. There will be a time when the favour to be called in.

Above all, trust your intuition or gut instinct about someone. If you consistently feel uncomfortable, or that something is just not quite right, it probably isn’t.

*These case studies are amalgams of real issues that have occurred within church communities. The names have been changed.

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