At my first zone conference nearly 16 years ago, my mission president calmly took a piece of chalk and walked to the chalkboard. He then proceeded to pound a word into the chalkboard, and I do mean pound. The chalk was breaking, the chalkboard was moving backwards (it was a rolling chalkboard), and you could see the anger in his face.
The word? PREDATOR.
He sat the chalk down and said, You all know who I'm talking about, and you'd all better stay away from her!
Being a new missionary, I didn't know who he was talking about, but I soon learned. There was a young woman (I believe around 20) who was an excommunicated member of the church, who had made it her mission to entrap missionaries and get them sent home. She was successful on several occasions. She was apparently sneaky (hiding in closets and coming out when the companion was in the shower, etc.) and pretty straightforward about what she was doing, and yet she was able to convince these elders to commit immoral acts with her. She would even call sister missionaries and pretend to be an investigator so that she could get phone numbers and addresses for elders. She was, indeed, a predator.
Several years ago, while serving as a Primary president in Utah, our bishop received a letter that men should not serve alone in Primary, citing the risk of abuse to children. My bishop decided to go even a step further and not allow men to serve in Primary or cub scout callings at all, even with a partner. It was, and is, discouraging to me that we have come to these measures to protect children. Indeed, I don't believe we are truly protecting many children through measures such as this. Since then, I have seen wards adding peep-holes or windows to classrooms, or requiring doors to be left open during class. While these measures are appreciated, again I don't believe they are really protecting many children, and here are the reasons why:
- Not all predators are men.
- Not all predators are adults.
- Not all victims are children.
- 4. Not all strangers are bad.
- Familiarity is not necessarily safety. A predator could be your super-nice next door neighbor. A predator could be your babysitter. It could be a family member. It could be anyone. And more likely than not, they seem like a very nice person.
- Abuse, particularly sexual abuse, is very unlikely to happen during class. More likely is that the primary class would be the grooming opportunity for a predator. It is the place to gain a child's trust and friendship, setting up a situation outside of the church building for the abuse to take place. In the cases that have been reported in the media of abuse taking place in church situations, I can think of only one where it actually happened during class.
- Posting sexual offenders names and addresses on websites, conducting background checks to serve in scouting, etc. are helpful, but not foolproof. Every predator has a first time offending or could have been doing it for years without being caught.
So, given those circumstances, how do we protect our children and ourselves?
I think the answer lies within us. Every protection that could be put in place is never a substitute for teaching our children and ourselves to follow the spirit and trust our instincts.
Several years ago, Gavin de Becker published a book called The Gift of Fear. It's been years since I read it, but it made an impact on me, and I would recommend it to anyone who hasn't read it. A quick search on the internet brought up another book by de Becker called Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane)). I intend to check that out or buy it as soon as possible to read it as well.
The point of The Gift of Fear is that nearly every victim you talk to had some sense that something evil was about to occur. Something about the predator didn't seem right or feel right. We as Latter-Day Saints might call that the Spirit instead of instinct, but whatever we call it, it is important to listen to that instinct to protect ourselves and our children. We are hesitant to do this sometimes because we are afraid we might offend.
Have any of you ever met someone that you just didn't get a good vibe from? I have, and for no good reason other than the Spirit told me to, I have kept my children as far away from that person as possible. That person may or may not be a threat, but something was telling me to use caution.
I'm no expert, but as a mom, my gut instinct is telling me that the only way to truly protect our children is to prepare them to recognize unsafe situations, to trust their instincts or follow the spirit when it is telling them that something isn't safe, and to tell a trusted adult if anything ever feels unsafe. Whether that adult is a stranger, a primary teacher, a neighbor, a scout leader, a teacher, a relative, or even a parent tell your children that if something doesn't feel right to them, they need to remove themselves from the situation immediately.
From the time my children were very small, they have known the proper names for their body parts. They have learned about touch that is appropriate and touch that is not appropriate. I don't dwell on it or make it a scary thing for them, but they know that they can trust me if they ever find themselves in a situation that they do not feel comfortable with.
Unfortunately, I don't think there is any 100% foolproof way to protect ourselves. Sometimes we may become a victim when there is absolutely no fore-warning. But I believe there is much more merit in teaching ourselves and our children to trust the Spirit and our instincts than in banning men from Primary, putting windows in doors, or doing background checks on leaders. The answers are more within us than through external measures.