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Is a sexual predator grooming your child at church?
It happened right under the mother's nose: a youth minister at church was molesting her 3-year-old daughter.
The youth minister, age 23 at the time, worked well with children and seemed destined for a career in that capacity.
The mother shrugged off rumors about the minister's past conviction as a sex offender. After all, the church was supposed to be a safe and forgiving place of acceptance, and the youth minister was popular in the church family. He gained the mother's trust as he helped around the house, played with the girl and mentored her older son.
"He was so good with the kids," said the mother, a local resident whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy.
A red flag surfaced when she came home one day and noticed the daughter was less excited about her mother's return and more interested in the minister leaving. She spotted more odd behavior, including the minister's eagerness to spend time with her daughter. She asked serious questions that led to the revelation of abuse.
In the years since the abuse, she learned that when it comes to the safety of children, "nobody's toes are too big to step on."
The mother described her family's traumatic experience at a Jan. 23 symposium sponsored by King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC) in Federal Way.
Roughly 86 percent of sexual abuse goes unreported, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Most juvenile victims know their perpetrators — typically a relative, a family friend or an acquaintance.
At the KCSARC symposium, a couple shared how sexual abuse shook up their church community when they discovered a nephew was molesting their 4-year-old twin daughters.
By all accounts, the nephew was considered an upstanding teenager and church member. He played with the couple's children and mowed their lawn. He was a few merit badges shy of earning Eagle Scout status.
While bathing the girls, the mother noticed signs of abuse, and immediately confronted the men in her family. Despite the mother's job as a Child Protective Services investigator, she had trouble pinpointing the source of abuse until one of the girls came forward. The parents pursued charges.
The KCSARC symposium brought together leaders, counselors and congregants from area churches with a goal of spreading awareness on sexual assault and preventing child abuse.
The topic hits home for the faith community. Churches are often the first place sex offenders will go, not necessarily to cause harm, but to rebuild their lives after a conviction.
Rev. Marvin Eckfeldt has served on the KCSARC board and was a minister of First Christian Church in Kent for 33 years. Eckfeldt supports strict policies and rules for sex offenders who participate in church life. For example, perpetrators must undergo background checks and supervision while on church property, and are not allowed to interact with children.
Background checks are limited, but they are better than nothing, Eckfeldt said. These precautions, coupled with awareness and education, can further protect children while the offenders get their lives on track.
Common threads ran through the stories of these families whose children suffered sexual abuse.
These traumatic incidents shattered the parents' trust when it came to leaving their children in the company of others. Both the parents and children were groomed by the perpetrators to let down their guard.
Grooming is a process in which a perpetrator gradually gains the victim's trust, often through harmless interactions that lower inhibitions. The "groomer" often exhibits the following behaviors, according to KCSARC:
• Groomers access victims through lies, secrecy and trust.
• Groomers are often overly helpful, too touchy-feely and extra attentive to children or other vulnerable individuals.
• Groomers can be one-sided in relationships, such as always giving but never taking. They may violate boundaries of personal space and privacy.
• Groomers can seem too charming or too good to be true. They can get aggressive when questioned or confronted about behaviors, and may attempt to form collegial relationship with those who raise questions about their behavior.
• The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC) has a 24-hour resource line at (888) 998-6423. Also visit www.kcsarc.org.
• Since 1990, Washington has required public registration and notification of convicted sex offenders. Along with supervision as required by law, sex offenders need a supportive environment that steers them away from bad behavior. Churches are often behind-the-scenes heroes in this process. Click here to learn more.