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What Do Sexual Predators Look Like?

bob gray jacksonville florida preaching against elvis
IFB Pastor Bob Gray preaching against Elvis, 1956. Gray would later be accused of sexual misconduct. Gray was a serial pedophile.

Evangelicals tend to be submissive and trusting of their pastors, believing these men are specially chosen by God to teach them the Bible and lead them in paths of righteousness. Roman Catholics treat their priests similarly. When these pillars of moral virtue behave in ways not expected, Christians have a hard time believing that Pastor or Father __________ would ever sexually abuse children, take sexual advantage of teenagers, or manipulate congregants for sexual gratification. They just KNOW that their trusted leaders would never do such things, and even after these men of God are convicted and sentenced to prison, some Christians continue to believe that their pastors/priests are innocent.

Part of the problem is that pastors and priests don’t resemble what many people expect sexual predators to look like. The late Bob Gray pastored Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida for thirty-eight years. He was, by all accounts, a wonderful example of a Christian man who devotedly and resolutely followed after Jesus. Yet, when Gray died, he was scheduled to be tried on charges of sexually abusing twenty-two children. All told, Gray was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pastor for fifty years. His predatory ways can be traced all the way back to his days as a student preacher. Gray was, from the get-go, a rotten apple; yet, for many years, he was a revered man of God who pastored one of the largest church in the country. He didn’t “look” like a predator, and neither do most of the men who prey on naive, innocent, defenseless children, teens, and adults.

There are thousands of Bob Grays pastoring churches — from Catholic parishes to IFB congregations. Sometimes these predators spend their lives in one church, grooming entire generations to accept their predatory ways as normal. Other men move from church to church, ever on the prowl for new victims. Those who blindly trust their pastors risk being taken advantage of. Yes, most pastors are decent, thoughtful human beings, but enough of them are abusers that only the naïve among God’s people would blindly trust these men with their children and teenagers. Numerous times a week, Evangelical preachers, mainline pastors, and Catholic priests are arrested and charged with sex crimes. And so are deacons, Sunday school teachers, worship leaders, youth ministers, Christian school teachers, and church volunteers. Churches are magnets for predators. These perverts know that Christians tend to be trusting of others — ignorantly believing claims of salvation and transformation. Even people who were convicted of sex crimes before they were “born again” are often trusted to be on their best behavior. After all, Jesus forgave them of their sins, shouldn’t Christians do the same? Evangelicals, in particular, love stories about “God” giving people second chances. Years ago, a pastor whom I know well told me that his church didn’t do background checks on workers because their past, no matter how heinous, was “under the blood.” In his mind, the precious blood of Jesus was some sort of magic potion that cured pedophiles and sexual predators.

blood of jesus

Several years ago, the Toledo Blade ran an editorial that asked the question, What do Predators Looks Like? Here’s what the article had to say (behind paywall):

A third Toledo pastor now stands accused as part of a sex-trafficking ring that abused teenage girls. And while the idea of clergy members colluding to exploit vulnerable girls shocks the community, it is worth remembering that human traffickers rarely look like villains out of central casting.

Federal prosecutors have alleged that the Rev. Kenneth Butler, 37, the self-proclaimed prophet affiliated with Kingdom Encounter Family Worship Center, is part of the same human-trafficking conspiracy that allegedly involved the Revs. Cordell Jenkins and Anthony Haynes. Those men were arrested in April and are behind bars awaiting trial on sex trafficking and child pornography charges.

To the community, these men appear to be honorable, religious leaders. Authorities say that appearance is a façade.

Experts say that sexual predators who target children will often seek trusted positions in the community that will allow them access to young people and give parents a false sense of security. They seek jobs as coaches or teachers, clergy or youth leaders.

Evil-doers in the movies often look evil. Evil-doers in real life often work hard to look harmless. They look ordinary. They look trustworthy. They do not look as if they were cast to play the part of a villain.

In recent years, society’s understanding of human trafficking has drastically changed to reflect the scope and prevalence of the problem. This is largely thanks to the work of pioneering researchers, one of the most prominent of whom is Celia Williamson of the University of Toledo.

The nation is only beginning to come to grips with the nature and extent of human trafficking. And it is another Ohioan who has been the leader on this issue in Congress — Rob Portman.

But none of this changes the depth of the damage trafficking can do to one life or one family. And the trafficker may be hidden in plain, respectable, sight.

The pastors referenced in this editorial are three respected Toledo pastors.

Since March 2017, I have published over 900 stories detailing clerical criminal — most often sexual — misconduct.  The total number of criminal preachers is much higher, of course, since some arrests don’t make the news and many predators aren’t caught. Some critics, thinking I have an ax to grind, say that the only reason I highlight these stories is that I hate God/Jesus/Christianity and I want to embarrass the Church. Emails from such people are laden with Bible verses or personal attacks, both meant to silence me. What I find interesting is that these people rarely mention the victims, and when they do, they often attack them, suggesting that the sex was consensual or, as in the case of convicted felon Pastor Jack Schaap, the teenage victim was the one who seduced the adult offender. I suspect people attack me because to do otherwise would expose their culpability in allowing sexual predators to prey on church congregants in plain sight.

People of authority, be they pastors, doctors, lawyers, counselors, or teachers, are often privy to intimate details about the lives of those they serve. This access to the darkest, deepest, most vulnerable parts of our lives makes us easy targets for “servant” predators. In the 1960s, my Evangelical grandfather suggested that my mother see a Christian therapist in Lima, Ohio. According to my grandfather, this psychiatrist was a committed follower of Jesus; a man who would deliver my mom from her psychological demons. Why Mom trusted her father I will never know. After all, when she was a child, he repeatedly sexually molested her. But, trust him she did, and this doctor proceeded to get Mom hooked on powerful narcotic/psychotropic drugs. This Evangelical servant of the Lord, once his female patients were addicted, demanded they provide him sexual favors in trade for the drugs. My mom complied with his demands. Is it any surprise, then, that my mom repeatedly tried to kill herself?

We will never totally put an end to sexual abuse. There will always be men (and, to a lesser degree, women) who sexually take advantage of others. When caught, these perverts should be punished, and anyone who enables their behavior should be punished too. Those whose lives were marred and ruined by sexual abuse deserve compassion and care — not blame and guilt. For churches, in particular, fundamental changes must be made to how pastors and church workers are vetted. As things now stand, Christian sects and churches are viewed as enablers and protectors of “men of God” who sexually abuse and take advantage of congregants. Church leaders whine and complain about being unfairly tarred with a broad brush, but the fact remains is that many sects/churches/pastors remain deliberately deaf, blind, and dumb when it comes to sexual abuse. Until the matter is taken seriously, church leaders might as well get used to being tarred. The damage caused by predator preachers is such that I simply don’t have the time to listen to or worry about hurting the feelings of “offended” church leaders. (Please read How Should Churches Handle Allegations of Abuse?) When my email inbox is filled with mail from abuse victims, it’s hard to give any attention to butt-hurt preachers who think their reputation and the “testimonies” of their churches are being hurt by sexual abuse allegations. All I have to say is this: do better.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Heather K

    So I read the title of the post and the first thing that popped into my head was Wednesday Addams saying” I’m going as a serial killer. They look like everyone else.” That seems rather apt.

    Really, the problem isn’t Christianity so much as it is authoritarian systems. The Penn State abuse scandal is a clear example of that. Conservative churches tend to be very authoritarian and I would wager that liberal churches have much fewer problems of this type.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    We have thus far found no cure for sexual predators. Punishment is God’s way of dealing with those who do what the Authority forbids. The Garden of Eden is a structual paradigm based on Might is Right and nothing more. So, when some sick bastard acts on a sexual arousal and takes advantage of a teen for instance, the only response we manage is right from the garden: Punish!
    Do I have a better way than that Old Testament son of a bitch bastard God and the Garden of Eden? Not yet but I’m trying to look beyond what has been in place forever and not accomplished what we need.
    How about perhaps changing our focus from the caveman idea of God and the garden? How about allowing more open investigation in the world and research beyond one culture (Amurkan) to begin to understand humankind. How about arresting child abuse by focussing on honoring our progeny, respecting and letting them lead us to a better world? We are so fucked up with authoritarian history right back to the beginning that many of us cannot even conceive of the idea of being child-led. Christians mock me for suggesting such nonsense: Children must be taught right and wrong, they cry. Children must be punished when they are selfish or they will become unfit for society! You have to hit a child sometimes and there is no other way.
    The cure for sexual abuse is the same as for all human abuse: Love and respect children from birth. The primary caregiver relationship with children is the most important foundation. On this rock of love, self-respect is a given and respect for others develops there. Children do not need training; they need to know that somebody cares for them more that anything else, more than owning a big house or car, more than their job and yes, more than any God-figure. This is simply the way of nature at its best. A lesser way to exist comes from the Bible, from the Garden of Eden where a God heaps blame and punishment. We can see what that has done for humankind, can ‘t we…. Our preachers are sexually sick. Our police are trained to be bullies with weapons, to crush those who don’t comply. Even our monetary system has us investing to take money from others so that we can increase our own wealth! We call it trading. I don’t have the answer to give you but I can tell you that the preacher preaching obedience to God in the Garden is full of shit and history is my evidence. How about beginning by learning to respect and honor our children, to put them first, to work on ourselves as parents to face our own histories (as Bruce Gerencser is doing today publically, right on this blog) and to thereby not pass on the harm that we have known in our own lives.
    Ha! I sound like a preacher cuz I come from a preacher but my answer is not God and the Garden of Eden, not a Son who will be given over to murder and mayhem. My answer is a question: First, can you do no harm (especially to your children?) Second, can you let a child lead you?

  3. Avatar

    Consider a man who would use his religious power to sexually abuse an innocent child. Now consider a god who would sentence this child to eternal torture for rejecting the religious claims of this man. Tell me who is worse.

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    Authoritarian systems, such as patriarchal churches, breed abuse. There’s little accountability for the ones higher up on the authoritarian ladder, and little recourse for those on the lower rungs.

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    It is really astonishing how long some of these sickos can rape and molest without anyone calling police! I can’t believe that parents did not have some idea of what was happening! Here is one example in the news at the present time:

    ” Central Florida man charged with abusing children for more than 48 years”

    Once it has been proven as to what was done – that person should not and cannot be around any children. They are sick and cannot be cured. Society has to provide somewhere for them to reside together – away from the rest of humanity. I know this sounds very cruel but until some cure is found – it is the only way to keep vulnerable people safe. Punishment does seem to deter this behavior.

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    I’m a nurse, if I treat anyone on the job or off it, in an abusive manner I can kiss my license goodbye. I do not understand how these clerics are not held to the same standard.

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