By Steve Cornell
[Note: This post was originally published on the Gospel Coalition website.]
Be careful who you leave your children with. This is at least one take away from high-profile sexual abuse cases like Jerry Sandusky. Parents everywhere will think twice before entrusting their children with authority figures like coaches or priests. Parents sometimes trust these people to seek special advantages for their children, but you cannot be too careful these days.
Even before his conviction on 45 charges, including child rape, I was inclined to believe that former Penn State assistant coach Sandusky was guilty of sexually abusing young boys. As a father of three sons, all of whom were athletes at the varsity or college level, I cannot imagine what I would do if I learned that someone had abused one of them. Frankly, it scares me to think about it. Like many parents, I wonder how such abusers can be identified.
In his book, Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse, Steven R. Tracy identifies four general characteristics of abusers. If we hope to protect our children and society from abusers, we need to be aware of the traits that make up their profile.
Before outlining this profile, I should say that I have no intereste in looking for an abuser behind every bush or being unnecessarily suspicious of those who display these characteristics. Yet I believe that parents need to know some of the warning signs in order to protect their children. And they also need to know many abusers are groomed in particular kinds of homes with certain character traits. Parents must become aware of how to raise their children to protect them from becoming abusers. They must provide the kind of healthy love and nurture to fortify their children against such evil. Parents need be able to detect early and correct the traits that lead to abusive behavior.
The application of these characteristics extends beyond sexual abuse to all forms of abuse. They are also useful for protecting people in relationships that may potentially lead to marriage. If you read what follows and believe you’re with a potential abuser, seek counsel and accountability immediately. Don’t downplay or ignore what you see. Save yourself and many others untold trouble by seeking help from a trusted counselor.
1. Pervasive denial of responsibility — “The single most consistent characteristic of abusers is their utter unwillingness to accept full responsibility for their behavior,” Tracy says. Abusers are full of excuses, rationalizations, and justifications. They play the blame game by projecting on others responsibility for their actions.
2. Bold deceitfulness — Tracy identifies this as a “skill” abusers use to “maintain their innocence, avoid the discomfort of changing long-established patterns of behavior, escape the painful consequences of their actions, assuage their own nagging consciences.” Abusers create their own self-serving reality and expect others to affirm it. They can be “masterful at manipulating words and actions to confuse, confound, and put others on the defensive.”
3. Harsh judgmentalism — To deflect attention away from themselves, abusers will often be judgmental and harsh toward others. They use this mechanism to maintain their “moral facade” and to perpetuate denial of responsibility. They replace their shame with blame to escape a guilty conscience. “This harsh judgmentalism is also a godless method for unrepentant abusers to deal with their own shame, much of which is a gracious, God-given, internal witness to their sin,” Tracy notes.
Legalistic religious communities can be both breeding grounds and also havens of protection for undercover abusers. In contrast, communities with gospel clarity where people celebrate God’s grace in a context of humble transparency will not be safe places for abusers.
4. Calculated intimidation — As can already be seen, abusers’ lives are “built around twisting reality” and “avoiding consequences.” Intimidation is their weapon of choice for keeping people from knowing the truth. Abusers are notorious for threatening their victims into silence and submission. But they also use what might be viewed as a positive means of manipulation. Abusers often target people who are needy or come from difficult homes. They buy them gifts and shower them with affirmation as a means to control and abuse them.
It’s not surprising that some abusers are drawn to religious communities with hierarchies of authority. The Catholic priests who abused young boys leveraged their authority to intimidate their victims. Power without accountability can easily lead to corruption and abuse.
An abuser often has an inordinate need for affirmation and praise. This usually connects with deeper levels of insecurity or a history of rejection. It is often displayed in a tendency to project onto the words or actions of others motives and messages of acceptance or rejection. Abusers also typically have unhealthy attachment and detachment issues. They generally refuse to seek help and prohibit their victims from seeking help.
Deep fear of rejection makes abusers unpredictable and volatile. It’s common for them to carry inner rage they periodically unleash on those close to them. Not surprisingly, abusers have difficulty admitting to failure or weakness. But, after unleashing rage on others, they can become profusely apologetic to atone for the damage they’ve caused and to manipulate their victims. Any repentance that does not lead to change must be seen as a means of manipulation.
Honest people will recognize that some of the characteristics of abusers can be found to certain degrees in nearly everyone. Parents must correct their children when they exhibit behaviors associated with abuse. Children learn early in life how to avoid responsibility for their actions, blame others, and manipulate those around them—even their parents. Firmly correct them if they tend to bully others to establish feelings of superiority, or if they make fun of others to feel better about themselves. Help them see through their selfish motivation and lead them to build their security in God’s love displayed in Christ and exemplified through your love for them.
Because abusers prey on vulnerable people, victims often enable their abusers by making excuses for their behavior. If you’re doing this, please break free from the deception and recognize that it is neither loving nor wise to allow yourself to remain in an abusive relationship. Insist on getting help whether your abuser is willing to or not.
Steve Cornell is senior pastor at Millersville Bible Church in Millersville, Pennsylvania.
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