Understanding Sex Abuse: An Interview with Cyndie Randall, MA, LLPC

Understanding Sex Abuse: An Interview with Cyndie Randall, MA, LLPC November 26, 2018

Image credit: Pixabay

If we want to fight sex abuse in the church, the first step is educating ourselves. We have to understand what abuse is and how predators operate. I asked Cyndie Randall, MA, LLPC to answer some questions so we can be better equipped to fight this evil. As you read, look out for links to resources she’s provided for us so we can learn even more.

We hear a lot about sexual abuse, but sometimes people have different definitions of that. How would you define sexual abuse?

“Sexual abuse is unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent” (“Sexual Abuse,” 2018).

This is how the American Psychological Association defines sexual abuse. I think their definition encapsulates it well, and because I’ve seen how common it is for victims, perpetrators, and the broader culture to either minimize or normalize this type of harm, I’d like to unpack some of the concepts a bit.

Unwanted sexual activity: In his book, The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse (2008), Dr. Dan B. Allender describes sexual abuse as any contact or interaction – visual, verbal, psychological, or physical – in which the victim is being used for the stimulation of the perpetrator or any other person. He also distinguishes between “contact” and “interaction” behaviors.

Contact behaviors include forcible or non-forcible rape or penetration, sexual kissing, or clothed or unclothed touching of any kind (ex: breasts, stomach, thighs, legs, buttocks, genitals).

Interaction behaviors are things like direct or subtle solicitation or innuendo, sexual language or descriptions, and exposure to pornography, sexual acts, sexual organs, or provocative attire. It can also include psychological components such as boundary violations involving menstruation, clothing, development, or the use of a child as an intimate or emotional confidant or spouse surrogate (Allender, 2008).

Perpetrators: Perpetrators of sexual abuse can be children or adolescents who are in positions of power or control over another child or adolescent, or adults who are acting out upon a child, adolescent, or another adult.

Force/Making of threats: This can range from overt threats of danger (including the use of actual weapons, physical force, or direct threats to personal or familial safety or life), to manipulated, coerced, or pressured unwanted sexual activity.

Taking advantage of victims not able to give consent: Perpetrators of abuse take advantage of power differentials and vulnerabilities that make consent to sexual activity diminished or impossible. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN)  offers a clear picture of the legal role of consent and the factors that can affect this capacity.

In short? Age, developmental disability, intoxication, physical disability, unconsciousness, level of dependence, mental illness, and other vulnerabilities can impact the ability to consent. The relationship between the victim and perpetrator must also be considered, particularly if the perpetrator is someone in a position of power or authority over the victim (“Legal Role ,” 2018).

The church is dealing with two types of sexual abuse: child sexual abuse and adult sexual abuse. I think most people understand child sexual abuse, but they can be confused about adult sexual abuse and how that differs from something like an affair. Can you explain what would make a situation between two adults abusive?


The obvious answer to most people would be situations of domestic violence or forcible sexual assault or rape. Many may assume that if overt violence is not involved, the only factor to consider concerning adults and sexual activity is legal age. However, when an adult in a position of power, leadership, or influence uses their impact to gain sexual access to another adult, he or she is abusing that person. Because it is the responsibility of the one who holds the power to maintain the integrity of the relationship, situations like these are not “affairs” in which the victim is equally culpable, but abuses of power that have devastating effects (Langberg,  n.d.).

In her book Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited (2005), Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune emphasizes that consent rests upon equality of power in a relationship and cannot be confused with giving in, going along with, or submitting. Both parties must have the power to choose and the freedom to have that choice be respected. The possibility or reality of punishment or consequence for saying no ultimately communicates to a person that he or she cannot say no (Fortune , 2015). Here are a few examples of adult relationships in which the power differentials impact the capacity to consent:

  • Boss-Employee
  • Mentor-Mentee
  • Counselor-Counselee
  • Teacher-Student
  • Coach-Player
  • Doctor-Patient
  • Commanding Officer-Soldier
  • Police Officer-Civilian
  • Clergy-Congregant

A predator in these relationships may not threaten the more vulnerable party with a weapon or overtake them with force (though he may), but will exploit a direct or indirect implication that if the victim does not allow sexual advances or participate in sexual behavior, she could lose her job, academic grade, health, career, future, dreams, favor with God or others, reputation, freedom, relationship with the perpetrator, or anything else that is greatly desired or needed. To put it simply, it often feels impossible for victims to say “no” to someone who has emotional, physical, or positional power over them.

Can you explain how grooming works? What are some signs an intended victim may be being groomed by a predator?

Grooming is the process by which a predator chooses his victim, draws them into a sexual relationship, and then maintains the secrecy of that relationship (Welner, 2010). It is about gaining trust (of the victim, family, community) so that trust can be exploited for the purposes of the perpetrator. Grooming also strengthens the predator’s version of the story and creates a way for him to justify or deny the abuse – i.e. “It was consensual” … “I was just being a mentor” … “I was being helpful, see?” … “She loves me! Ask her!” (Winters & Jeglic , 2017). Not every predator uses a grooming process, but it is extremely common, especially with predators who have narcissistic or psychopathic personalities (Freeman , 2013).

In my experience, one of the dynamics that makes grooming behavior so devastating and confusing for victims is that it mixes positive behaviors with elements of abuse. Grooming feels good to the victim – that is the whole point! They may feel chosen or special, often for the first time in their lives, and they often feel a love for and/or a bond with the perpetrator, even after the abuse begins or ends. Many victims will grieve the loss of the positive behaviors or aspects of the relationship. These elements can cause the victim to believe they are at fault for the abuse, which is the narrative the abuser prefers, and one in which he may have even deceived himself into believing.

When abusive elements are added, they may surprise the victim, but they may not seem that alarming when considered in light of the positive behaviors (Samsel , 2008-2018). Over time, the inappropriate or abusive behaviors can begin to feel normal. Sometimes victims will even participate in or initiate the abusive behavior, which can be a way of pleasing the predator or of finding control in a situation that has them feeling powerless. Again, although they are not at fault, this can cause victims to feel even more shame and confusion, further burying them in silence and secrecy (Samsel, 2008-2018).

Some signs of grooming? There’s a lot of literature out there suggesting that grooming is almost always implemented in stages, and research also tells us that most people struggle to differentiate grooming behavior from normal interaction (Winters & Jeglic , 2017). Why? Because predators are often charming, well-liked people who seem “normal” but use their charm for deceptive purposes. And guess what? It works! Many people side with the perpetrator when his abusive actions are exposed: “I don’t believe it. He’s such a good guy!” (Tchividjian, 2018).

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner (2010) describes six stages of grooming; I’ll summarize them here:

The predator will usually choose a child or adult who is vulnerable or who has soft boundaries for any number of reasons. The process often starts with friendship, and with getting to know the victim and/or his or her family and building trust. The predator will then often fill a need for the child, adult, or family through generous acts or favors. Special attention, gift-buying, and compliments can all be a part of that.

Predators try to learn about their victims’ likes, dislikes, hobbies, etc. so they can exploit that knowledge in relationship building. Exchange of personal information and then contact at odd or “secret” times will often begin. This is an attempt to isolate the child or adult, and to further a bond. The perpetrator will often continue to make the child or adult feel extra special or chosen, and may begin to desensitize them to touch and physical affection (e.g. hugs or shoulder rubs, even in front of others).

The victim will often feel or express love or attachment to the perpetrator, and vice versa, which will then be exploited as grooming continues and moves on to overt isolation and sexual activity and abuse. The abusive relationship is then often maintained and controlled by the predator through a combination of continued grooming behavior and manipulation.

All of these behaviors may be utilized over a long period of time, or only a few over a short time. Again, the goal of grooming is to maneuver the victim into an isolated, dependent, bonded place so they are vulnerable to continued abuse and silence.

(While grooming is common, some predators do not draw their victims in this way, but instead control them through fear, overt threats, and coercion.)

Most people have heard of the “fight or flight” response. Can you explain how a person might react to sexualized violence in the moment? Does everyone react the same way?

Really great questions. Most of us have heard of the “flight or flight” response because it is the body’s physiological reaction to threat or danger (“Fight or Flight,” 2018). In fact, we’re so familiar with this response that when a person is abused, harassed, or raped, public commentaries will often accept or reject that victim’s story based on his or her behavioral response: “Why didn’t she run when she had the chance?” … “If it was really rape, why didn’t he fight back?”

While the answer to those questions can be complex, my first response to them would be simple: Because reactions to real-time trauma are not a conscious process (Levine, 1997; van der Kolk, 2014).

Our bodies, specifically our autonomic nervous systems, may react to trauma in specific ways physiologically, but this response does not always look the same behaviorally. While some victims may run or fight back because of hormone release and other automatic changes in the body, others may respond to those changes by freezing, which is exactly what it sounds like – being quiet or still, or feeling paralyzed by fear or overwhelm, often in a dissociative state that protects from physical and emotional pain (Levine, 1997).

Pete Walker, M.A., MFT (2003) discusses a fourth response – “fawn”  – which can be described as complying with or participating in what is happening in order to avoid another seemingly worse consequence (death, loss, rejection, humiliation). The fawn response is a way in which a victim can gain control in a situation that feels out of control. Walker proposes that feelings of safety or stabilization can be somewhat achieved by surrendering personal boundaries and becoming useful to the offender.

Survivors who are groomed to flatter their abuser may fall into this category. My experience has been that the resulting shame and self-blame for these victims can feel insurmountable, often leaving him or her struggling to name what happened “abuse.” But, their trauma response, though complex, is no less valid than a “fight or flight” response, and according to Walker, can be rooted in the way they were conditioned to relate to the world. He proposes that trauma responses are influenced not just by our physiology, but also by our personality, our family relationship patterns, and our society.

In short, fight, flight, freeze, and fawn (F4) are the most common responses, and a victim may even react with a combination of them, especially when abuse is on-going.


Sexual abuse is a problem, not just in the Catholic church, but in the entire Christian community. In the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, some priests weaponized the Catholic faith against their victims. I’ve heard similar reports from survivors in other Christian traditions. What are some special challenges when it comes to addressing sexualized violence within a Christian context?

You mentioned the weaponization of faith – I refer to this as using the name of God in ungodly ways. Abusive priests may use God to manipulate their victims (“God wants us to do this” … “You are sinning and will be punished by God if you don’t obey me”), and leaders and congregants may dismiss, excuse, or minimize abuse and shame or silence victims by misusing concepts like forgiveness and grace. All of this is spiritually abusive.

So, the challenges? To put it bluntly, churches and leaders often care more about power, control, and image management than they do about preventing abuse or caring for victims. But if churches want to do better, they must be interested in how to prevent abuse, how to properly respond to abuse disclosers, and how to care for and prioritize victims.

I think prevention comes down to education and fostering healthier church cultures. I’ve talked to many Christians who were never taught about their own bodies or their God-given sexuality, let alone concepts like sexual abuse or consent. But education in these instances leads to empowerment, which in turn can lead to prevention.

Some also suggest, and I would agree, that patriarchal leadership and family structures in which men are at the helm in every area of life make those cultures vulnerable to every kind of abuse (Easter, 2017). Christian organizations in which authority and power are never questioned or held accountable are also ripe for abuse, as are those institutions that try to manage their image by handling disclosed abuse “in house” rather than reporting these crimes to police and prioritizing the care of victims (Tchividjian, 2018).

In his dissertation, Impression Management Strategies Used by Evangelical Organizations in the Wake of an Image Threatening Event  (2018), professor, researcher, and advocate Wade Mullen cites the Catholic Church as an example of such image management, and unpacks the dynamics often involved in cover up. Central to these cover up tactics for many organizations is an attempt to “dilute the negative event by drowning it in a sea of good” so that any internal crisis is viewed by individuals and the public as an isolated incident unrelated to the organization itself (Mullen, 2018, p. 167).

The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report revealed the consequences of such a cover up strategy, as over 300 priests sexually abused at least 1,000 children over the span of seven decades (“The Report,” 2018). The individual and systemic cover up tactics used – for example, moving sexually abusive priests from parish to parish rather than reporting them to authorities – left victims in the dust and empowered predators to continue abusing. If churches want to address abuse responsibly, they must embrace their call to love and care for the most vulnerable, even if doing so causes disruption to their image.

Do you have any advice for regular church members who want to support survivors of sexualized violence?

Yes. First, it feels important to mention that even if you have never been a victim of sexual violence, you probably know many children, women, and men who have. The CDC estimates that in the United States, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact at some point in their lives.  They define sexual violence as “any sexual activity where consent is not freely given,” and state that these statistics are underestimates, as many victims do not report or disclose (“Sexual Violence Prevention,” 2018). It’s worth noting that these statistics also only account for unwanted sexual contact (touching behaviors) and do not include unwanted sexual interactions (non-touching behaviors).

My advice for church members who want to support survivors?

Believe them. Believing survivors when they disclose their abuse should be your default response, especially in light of the incredibly rare occurrence of false reporting. It is estimated that only 3-7% of accusations are false (Tchividjian, 2018), and of those, the accusers usually have very specific profiles and motivations (read Sandra Newman’s article, “What Kind of Person Makes False Rape Accusations?”). Remember that you are not the judge and jury, and it is never your responsibility to police an outcry or to determine how or when a victim chooses to disclose or heal.

Also, sexual abuse is a crime. If a child discloses that such abuse is occurring, or if you are unsure of exactly what is occurring but suspect abuse, it is always better to report to the police and social services and let them do the investigating (some states require such reporting, so learn your state’s laws). In the case of adults who disclose being abused by another adult, their consent may be necessary in order to report.

Educate yourself, and then share what you’ve learned. Start with the resources I cited. Links are attached throughout, and there is a list of those same resources at the end of this article. Learn about the dynamics mentioned here. Teach and empower your children so they know they can come to you. While you’re learning, begin an open and on-going discussion with your church leaders and peers about this topic.

Understand that healing from sexual abuse is a process and deserves (and often requires) specialized care outside of standard Bible studies, pastoral counseling, and prayer groups. Embrace and encourage resources outside of the church such as trauma counseling. Church communities and pastors, unless they have counseling degrees and specialize in trauma treatment, are usually not equipped to handle it and can cause further harm to victims. Forgiveness or interaction with perpetrators should never be forced.

Offer supportive and appropriate responses to survivors. You can find a list of things to say and not to say here.

Ask your church leadership to connect with organizations that help churches recognize, prevent, and respond to abuse. GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) is one such organization. Here is a link to their resources page. Explore their website and pass it on. You and your church leadership will find invaluable tools and a place to begin this important and needed work.

Thank you for caring about this conversation.

Cyndie Randall is a writer and therapist who lives with her nature-loving family in a small town on Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. You can connect with her on Twitter (@CyndieRandall) or Facebook.

 Works Cited

Allender, D. B., Dr. (2008). The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse (2nd ed.). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Easter, A. (2017, October 16). How Patriarchy in the Church Plays a Role in Abuse. Retrieved November, 2018, from https://relevantmagazine.com/statement/3-ways-womens-equality-can-counteract-abuse-update-oct/

Fight or Flight Response. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/science/fight-or-flight-response

Fortune, M. M., Rev. Dr. (2015, June 4). Consent: Not Rocket Science—Really. Retrieved November, 2018, from https://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/blog/marie-fortune/219

Fortune, M. M., Rev. Dr. (2005). Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited (2nd ed.). Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press.

Freeman, R., PhD. (2013, November 29). Grooming: New Romantic Partnerships With Manipulators. Retrieved November, 2018, from https://neuroinstincts.com/grooming-embarking-on-a-romantic-relationship-with-a-psychopath/

Langberg, D., Dr. (n.d.). Sexual Abuse Within Christian Organizations. Retrieved November, 2018, from https://www.netgrace.org/resources/2018/11/11/sexual-abuse-within-christian-organizations

Legal Role of Consent. (n.d.). Retrieved November, 2018, from https://www.rainn.org/articles/legal-role-consent

Levine, P. A., PhD. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Mullen, W. (2018). Impression Management Strategies Used by Evangelical Organizations in the Wake of an Image-Threatening Event (Doctoral dissertation, Capital Seminary and Graduate School). Retrieved November, 2018, from https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rXrd8MYay5Vg5s7JXFx7S91hDTlm1CVX/view

Newman, S. (2017, May 11). What Kind of Person Makes False Rape Accusations? Retrieved November, 2018, from https://qz.com/980766/the-truth-about-false-rape-accusations/

Report on Pennsylvania Church Sex Abuse. (2018). Retrieved November, 2018, from http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/local/report-on-pennsylvania-church-sex-abuse/2319/

Samsel, M. (2008-2018). Abuse: Grooming. Retrieved November, 2018, from https://www.abuseandrelationships.org/Content/Behaviors/grooming.html 

Sexual Abuse. (n.d.). Retrieved November, 2018, from https://www.apa.org/topics/sexual-abuse/index.aspx

Sexual Violence Prevention. (2018, April 5). Retrieved November, 2018, from https://www.cdc.gov/features/sexualviolence/index.html

Tchividjian, B. (2018, November). The Imbalance and Exploitation of Power: A Recipe for Abuse. Address presented at Convocation in Covenant College, Lookout Mountain. Retrieved from https://www.netgrace.org/resources/a-recipe-for-abuse

Van der Kolk, B., M.D. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, NY: Viking.

Walker, P., M.A., MFT. (2003, January/February). Codependency, Trauma, and the Fawn Response. Retrieved November, 2018, from http://pete-walker.com/codependencyFawnResponse.htm

Welner, M., Dr. (2010, October 18). Child Sexual Abuse: 6 Stages of Grooming. Retrieved November, 2018, from http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/child-sexual-abuse-6-stages-of-grooming/all

Winters, G. M., & Jeglic, E. L. (2017). Stages of Sexual Grooming: Recognizing Potentially Predatory Behaviors of Child Molesters. Deviant Behavior, 38(6), 724-733. doi: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01639625.2016.1197656

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