Rachel Mitchell is the Sex Crimes Bureau Chief of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, Arizona. She has extensive knowledge of the field of child sexual abuse in general as well as its impact on religious organizations. On November 3, 2011, Ms. Mitchell gave a lengthy telephone interview with FrontLine magazine. Below are extensive excerpts from that interview.
Part 1 of this interview appears here. Parts 1 and 2 appear in the Jan/Feb 2012 edition of FrontLine. UPDATE: The article has been updated to include additional content left out of the print version.
FL: A clinical psychologist who works with sex offenders commented that even after twenty years of study she cannot spot a child molester from casual observation.
RM: Right, because as part of their manipulation they manipulate those around them. It is not just the child that is manipulated; it is everybody around. And so what you’re seeing in a sex offender is a façade, and you don’t realize that.
FL: There have been many high-profile cases of molestation in churches and other religious organizations. Is this a problem unique to churches? Are there things that make churches in general and conservative churches in particular especially vulnerable?
RM: It is absolutely not unique to churches, and it is not unique to particular denominations. We have seen every denomination. I think that churches that take on a larger part of a person’s life than just Sunday morning might be particularly vulnerable. It is not because the church is doing anything bad, but it is just a matter of accessibility. When a church is a big part of a person’s life, to where they are there Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night prayer meeting and where their social and cultural life revolves around the church, there is just more access to that person. The church then becomes more of a community, and so (1) there is trust that is built between the members of that community that may or may not be warranted, and (2) when a report comes out about a close–knit community like that, there tends to be more disbelief because they see that person in church all the time, so how could he be an offender? I don’t think its bad to have a culture or community like that, but it does make them vulnerable.
FL: You have said that child molesters “use religion.” Could you explain what you mean? How do they do this?
RM:They use religion in a number of different ways, and this goes back to the manipulative quality. It is a good place to access children and to gain the trust of both the children and the parents. Oftentimes just gaining the trust of the parents is all you need to gain access to the children. The church is going to be more skeptical about any abuse reported because they trust the accused. Also the community as whole will trust a person more because they are a “good church-going person.” There are more opportunities to isolate a child in a church because there are nooks and crannies in the facility where the offender can be alone with a child.
Sometimes offenders will use religion in a more direct way. I have seen them blame their religious upbringing for their being sexually deviant, saying, “I was brought up sexually repressed, and so this thing that I have done is an attempt to break free of that repression.” They might blame God for their offenses, saying, “If I wasn’t supposed to do this, then why did God put this person in my pathway?” I have seen some engage in more mysticism, where they will say that they have special powers or special knowledge, and a special “in” with God, the hierarchy of the church, and that sort of thing. They will use that special “in” to intimidate or silence the victims.
Finally, if they do get caught, they will use churches to get character witnesses to testify on their behalf, to speak on their behalf at sentencing and that kind of thing.
FL: Could certain kinds of religious leaders fit under the category of those claiming special knowledge or power?
RM: Cult–like leaders would fit into that because they claim to have special connections or to be closer to God or to have special knowledge from God, and that could speak to control.
FL: Could this also be a potential danger in churches where the authority of the leader is viewed as such that you just don’t question the leader?
I do think that if the abuser is in the position of a clergy member, in churches that have that unquestioning following, that is going to make it harder for the victim to report; it is going to make it very difficult for the victim to be believed and taken seriously when you just don’t question authority figures. In other churches where that is not part of the culture of the church, that is not going to be as difficult. But when you have kids that are troubled—and that is why they are chosen because they are vulnerable—and they are having to report abuse at the hands of an unquestioned leader, a lot of kids are not going to report.
FL: Do you think that it is possible through appropriate training to learn to spot a likely child molester? Why or why not?
RM: As I said before there is not a “look” that identifies someone as potentially a child molester. However, there are red flags. This is where churches need to rethink policies. I think that a lot of churches have policies, such as “do not be alone in a room with a child,” that are designed to protect against false accusations. I think policies are very important to set boundaries, not primarily to prevent false accusations, although I think that they will have that side effect. Policies set boundaries. And when you have boundaries, and people violate the boundaries, it gives you the authority to handle it. It is black and white: “You volunteered to work at the church. You read the policy and signed that you understood it. Every year we sign that we understand it, so that it is not just something that is in the past. And you were told that you were not to have sleepovers at your house. You violated that policy.” The normal person is going to be horrified and chastened and is not going to do it again. When you start to see violations of other boundaries, it does not necessarily mean that something is going to happen, but it is a very big red flag. The policy gives you the authority to handle it. There is no argument about whether the worker understood that it was ok or not. It is black and white. So I think that policies are great to set boundaries.
One set of boundaries that needs to be set in this day and age involves technology. One place where trouble seems to happen is subgroups, for example where youth ministers start friending kids on their personal Facebook pages and the kids list them on their Facebook pages. If you want to have a Bible study Facebook page where you talk as a Bible study group or you post announcements of activities and the church is aware of it and sanctions it, that is one thing, but if you have a subgroup of kids that kind of hang out with the Bible study teacher or youth minister, that is asking for trouble—both because this kind of situation increases the risk of false accusations and because it is an important boundary violation.
The boundaries selected are not arbitrary but should reflect common sense and take into account the culture of the church. For example, in the case of boundaries concerning hugging a child, you would want to take account of how the hug is done and who started it. The rule with children is that the child sets the boundaries, not the adults. I mean that it is the child that opens up to a hug not the adult pushing a hug onto a child. Every person has the right to set the boundaries of their own personal space, and a child does too.
FL: Is it possible and advisable to train children to protect themselves?
RM:I do think that you have to teach children about how to protect themselves from strangers, such as, to not go with a stranger. You need to have some safety tips, such as, “Just because someone comes to school and says ‘Mommy was in an accident,’ that does not mean that you go with that person if you do not know them.” I think we are pretty good at doing the “stranger danger stuff,” but how do you teach a child to be careful around everybody else that the child knows?
Instead you need to focus on teaching the child to tell you if something happens. First of all you teach a child the right name for body parts, because if the child cannot communicate what happened to him or her, they cannot report. You need to teach the child the names of the body parts so that the child is able to use them to tell you what happened. You need to tell a child what their private parts are for and “if anyone touches you there, you need to tell me right away, and you are not going to be in any trouble, but I need to know. And if anybody makes you feel uncomfortable, even if they have not done that kind of thing, you need to tell me that they make you feel uncomfortable.” Children do have a sense, just like adults, [and] will say, “He gives me the creeps.” Kids get that sense too, and they need to be taught to heed that, and we should not ignore it. If the child says, “I feel uncomfortable when I am around that person,” or as a little child would say, “I really do not like him,” then as an adult you need to listen but you need to teach the child to tell you. If you cannot talk about it, neither can your child. It does not have to be done in a horrific or graphic way, but keeping quiet about it with your child is keeping your child vulnerable. You can do it in an age appropriate way.
I do not particularly subscribe to the telling the child to “just say no.” First, “no” is probably not going to work, and second it puts a responsibility on the child that they cannot shoulder. Obviously this applies with people that they know. With strangers it is a different strategy—to run, not go with, that kind of thing. But with people they know the strategy is to tell.
FL: What are the most important things that churches and other religious organizations can do to protect their children from sexual predators?
RM: (1) Have a policy that addresses boundaries and mandatory reporting law. Every state has a mandatory reporting law. Insist on compliance with that law. In the policy, make sure to include boundaries that relate to social networking and that kind of thing.
(2) Have background checks. Most sexual offenders that I handle do not have a criminal record of sex offending, but a background check does deter people who do have a record from applying. Background checks also send the signal that we are taking this seriously.
(3) Also, and this is the big one, educate as far as awareness that it happens and what is the appropriate response. You cannot prevent this from happening one–hundred percent of the time, but you can respond appropriately so that it does not happen again.
FL: Among children’s workers there seems to be a common anxiety about being falsely suspected or accused of being a child molester. Do you think that this fear is justified?
RM: I think it is a common fear, but I do not think it is a justifiable fear. False accusations are very rare. Also, a boundaries policy in the church does a double job: it alerts you to problems, but it also protects you from this. The reality is that the authorities, if they are brought in to investigate, can weed out false accusations and the criminal justice system can do that. No one can be found guilty unless they plead guilty or are found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It requires evidence. It would be wrong for me to say that no one has ever been arrested who wasn’t guilty, but the reality is that if common–sense principles are followed, the likelihood of a false accusation even going to that point is very low.
FL: What are come common mistakes people in general and churches in particular make in responding to suspicions of sexual abuse of children?
RM: I think one of the big mistakes that they make is that they handle it internally. They “circle the wagons,” and they conduct their own internal investigation. They notify the accused of the allegation. What that does is it thwarts a lot of opportunities for a thorough investigation that is done by trained authorities. It muddies the waters as far as people sharing information when it should be kept pristine as far as what people know and how they found out. When they notify the accused, if the accused is guilty, it gives him or her the opportunity to destroy evidence, influence witnesses, or flee. I guess the worst thing a church could do is to blame the victim or at least partially blame the victim and then cover up. So those would be huge mistakes by the church.
FL: Many recommend that the instant there is an accusation you need to immediately remove the accused from their ministries involving children. Is there any tension between the church’s duty to do so and law enforcement’s desire that the accused not be tipped off?
RM: That can be tricky because law enforcement has to be cognizant that churches need to protect themselves by responding in an administratively appropriate manner. In those situations where the church is saying, “We can’t let him walk back into that Bible study,” for example, they need to advise law enforcement that the church needs to act quickly on this, giving law enforcement the chance to speed up their investigation. So, for example, specialized detectives usually work Monday through Friday, so if you find out about an allegation on Saturday and Sunday is church, they may need to come out on overtime to get that investigation done. So that is going to require communication and cooperation between the church and law enforcement.
FL: Would you recommend beforehand that churches should identify someone in law enforcement that they can contact if there is a problem?
RM: I think it would be a really good idea to introduce yourself to the sergeant or lieutenant over child crimes in your jurisdiction and say, “We want to work with you.”
FL: Is it possible for a case to drag out, and if it does, how does that affect he church’s ability to do things like exercise church discipline?
RM: As far as church discipline, there are a million different scenarios. That is why there needs to be a relationship and a trust and communication established up front so that if something like that happens there can be clear communication about, for example, why things are taking so long. Law enforcement may say, “We cannot talk about it, but you need to wait. We’re going to ask you not to do your own internal church discipline.” On the other hand, if law enforcement is not responsive, and you have done your duty by informing them and by waiting, you may need to communicate with them that you need to move forward.
FL: In a case of alleged abuse in the church what do you recommend in terms of the senior pastor’s role in counseling?
RM: I strongly recommend that the senior pastor not be assigned to counsel the alleged offender. This is because as the senior pastor, you are the figurehead of the church. If the congregation is seeing the interaction between you and the alleged offender, it is going to send the wrong signal. It is going to send the signal that you do not believe the victim, and therefore the church should not believe the victim. Ministering to the alleged offender should be done very privately, and all parties should understand what is being done, and someone else should be assigned to the accused if the victim is also a part of the church.
FL: From your perspective, do you think that it is possible for churches and church leaders inadvertently to send the wrong message to victims of childhood sexual abuse?
RM: They need to view the victim as a victim. They should not treat the victim as co–responsible. That is not a fair way to look at the situation. Also, if it is wrongly judged as a sinful relationship on the victim’s part, for example if the church teaches against homosexuality and if it is a male–on–male or a female–on–female offense, it would be inappropriate to reinforce in the mind of the victim that they have somehow done something wrong.
FL: If there was one thing that you could tell church leaders on this subject, what would it be?
RM: You can deal with this now by putting together a prevention and response strategy or you can deal with it in a time of crisis when you are fighting a fire. The church needs to know that it can happen, and you need to deal with it now.
Part 2 of “Interview with Rachel Mitchell” – Find Part 1 here.
Due to the importance of the issue of child protection, we are publishing in serial format the entire articles on the subject appearing in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of FrontLine. These articles will be made available in downloable format as soon as our serialization is complete.
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