He was a lay leader in my family’s small church. A gray-haired single man in his 50s. He taught Bible classes. He held positions on church committees, served communion, and made sure there was a huge celebratory cake in the fellowship hall on the Sunday when I was baptized along with several other church members. He was friendly with the kids and teenagers, taking us out for ice cream after youth group and giving us books from his personal library.
He also tricked us all.
At some point during my senior year in high school, his attention became hyper focused on my family. He began spending large amounts of time with us, giving us gifts, leaving cough drops and decongestant pills on our porch when everyone in my family had bad colds, and giving us plants from his own garden for our yard. He gave me generous gifts of money and jewelry for high school graduation and for my birthday, gave me rides home from work, and sought to spend time alone with me. My family grew so comfortable with him that I was sometimes left at my home alone with him for brief periods; after visiting my family, he would linger and chat with me for 10 or 15 minutes after my mom left to drive one of my younger siblings to a sports practice or to drop off a bill before an office closed.
In hindsight, it was classic grooming behavior, in which a predator seeks to gain favor and trust with the victim and their family. My family viewed him as safe because he was older, was an active leader figure in our church, and seemed to really like kids.
One day, he took me alone out to lunch, to a mini-golf place, and to the local botanical garden. He called it a “date,” but my family and I interpreted that wording more like an innocent grandfather/granddaughter date; none of us was thinking of anything more sinister at that point. And besides, I had a boyfriend; he attended our church and was active in the youth group, and everyone knew we were a couple. At one point while we walked through the botanical garden, this older man took my hand in his. I thought it was a little weird, but I still didn’t acknowledge it as anything beyond a grandfatherly type of affection.
I graduated from high school and then turned 18 a few weeks later, and soon after that, this man who was more than three decades older than me called me and told me we needed to have a “face-to-face, heart-to-heart” talk. He picked me up from my house and brought me to his house. While we sat on his couch, he told me he had romantic feelings for me and had hopes of marriage. Then he leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. This man had been grooming me as a minor but had waited to make this move until just after my 18th birthday, when I was considered a legal adult.
I felt paralyzed by shock, shame, and disgust. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to tell him off soundly, but I never have zingers at hand when I need them. Instead, I simply asked him to drive me home. I immediately told my parents what happened, but I was never able to tell them how he had kissed me on the lips. That detail was too humiliating to share at the time, and I simply said he kissed me on my cheek, which was still enough to make my father enraged about the man’s actions.
The next Sunday, I left church a few minutes early because I had to go to my part-time job at the local mall. This man followed me out of the building and to my car, where he asked if I had thought about what he had said. I told him bluntly that I was not interested, and that he was too old for me. He said, “Boaz was older than Ruth,” referencing the well-known Old Testament couple.
I noticed around this time that he had cleared all of his things out of the church building. He had been downsizing his personal home library and had set up a table full of books on faith and theology in the fellowship hall, free to anyone who wanted them. They suddenly disappeared, and not because church members took them. He also was absent from church on the following Wednesday night when adult Bible study, youth group, and children’s ministry took place, and it was unlike him to not be in attendance. My guess is that he knew he needed to lie low and make preparations to get out of dodge.
My parents decided we needed to meet with our church’s pastor. Together with our pastor and another lay leader serving as a supportive witness, we called this man in and we confronted him. As we all sat in a small church office room, the pastor told him he was no longer welcome in our church. The man was extremely defensive and insisted he had done nothing wrong, that I was a legal adult. Immediately before he stormed out of the church doors for the final time, he stated that my parents and church leaders had created a “tempest in a teapot.” This denial – either flat out, or an insistence that it wasn’t that bad – I have since learned is typical of most sexual predators.
I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but my experience aligned closely with the classic textbook descriptions of grooming behavior: he was someone my family knew, and he was a respected member of our church community. He befriended my entire family to gain everyone’s trust. He gave gifts, helped our family during challenging times, and then sought to spend time alone with me.
I learned that this man even attempted to groom a group of adults at our church. My family was told about a discussion he initiated one day in an adult Bible study class he taught. He described a “hypothetical” situation in which an older man and his younger partner/spouse/girlfriend who is a legal adult attend the church, and he asked whether the church would do the right thing by accepting and extending fellowship toward this less-conventional couple. One male church lay leader attending the class said he would not find the situation troubling as long as “the girl is at least 18.” When our pastor wanted to include another lay leader as a witness when we confronted the man who preyed upon me, my dad insisted that particular lay leader not be the one in attendance, so the pastor called a different person in.
The news ran through our small church, and there was a rumor of previous troubling behavior from the man in question toward another teenage girl at my church. She reportedly refused to talk about it. I know that other people in my church and some family friends saw the signs that my family and I were being targeted — they told us later — but no decisive action was taken to stop this predator before we reached a crisis point.
Looking back, I’d known something had not felt right for a long time. His attention to my family and me was starting to smother. I had begun to feel annoyed at how frequently he inserted himself into my free time, and I sometimes dreaded the phone ringing on my days off from my part-time job.
However, I had been raised, as many young women are, to be nice, polite, and friendly. To give hugs, be accommodating, smile, and be “sweet.” In this situation, trusted adults close to me specifically encouraged me to spend time with the lonely single older man who had no family and who liked to dote on church youth. Because I was extremely religiously devout, I believed sacrificing my time for this man was the right thing to do and was a way to show the love of Christ. After it was all over, I was embarrassed and felt I was to blame for being naïve enough to allow this predator to wedge himself into my life, but as an adult now I recognize that is a heavy and unfair burden for a 17-year-old girl to bear alone.
My parents lamented that the experience might impede my ability to trust older men in the future, particularly in churches, where many people feel we should be able to trust each other in uncommonly deep ways, and which, by the way, is why churches often are soft targets for predators. I considered the experience to be an honest lesson about real life, about what happens in our communities more than we realize or may want to admit. While it may be uncomfortable for some to acknowledge, it happens in churches, too. And not just Catholic churches, but also Protestant evangelical churches like the ones I’ve attended all my life. It taught me to be vigilant, to not be tricked or lured into complacency by friendliness, respectable appearances, age, positions of leadership or power, or even professions of faith.
I consider myself fortunate. I was not assaulted. Other girls and women have suffered much worse physically and emotionally at the hands of other men. I was mostly shaken and embarrassed.
Now, as a mother of daughters, the experience has motivated me and given me firsthand insight into how to protect them. Perhaps my experience and awareness will make it so my daughters don’t have to go through something similar or worse. I’m particular about who I allow my daughters to spend time with. I have discussions with them about good touch and bad touch, how to protect themselves, and the importance of speaking up if someone tries to manipulate or abuse them or makes them feel uncomfortable in any way. I’m raising my daughters to be kind but also self aware. They know it is appropriate to set boundaries and they don’t have to be friends with everyone.
In this era of the #MeToo movement, we know that this stuff happens. We can’t prevent everything, but it’s up to us to be watchful and to educate and empower our children. Because these people are out there, and they are skilled at flying under the radar and looking, acting, and talking like ordinary, clean-cut, upstanding, family-oriented, morally grounded citizens. A police officer told me that most sexual abuse cases involve men who are not previously known sex offenders. You can’t find them on a registry because they’ve never been convicted of a crime.
That’s true of the man who tried to take advantage of me. I’ve never found his name on a sex offender registry. Because my family and church leaders believed his actions were wrong but probably not illegal, since I was 18, we never filed a police report.
Good article Rachael. Our experience in our youth can certainly arm us in our lives now. Funny how time gives us clairty.
Excellent article. Thank you for being brave enough to tell your story. I hope it helps others who might find themselves in a similar situation.
Thank you, Rachel, for sharing your story and helping to equip all parents to raise their children with this awareness that these kinds of predators are out there.
I would say you *were* assaulted, in a way, because he stole a kiss from you. That would’ve devastated me beyond belief because that’s precious and saved.
I’m so sorry, Rachael. How awful. <3
Thanks for sharing your experience. I am sure it will help somebody struggling to find a way to respond to similar circumstances.
There was more insight into the problem of abuse in churches,etc. in this sentence than in everything else I’ve read or heard. Thank you.
“My parents lamented that the experience might impede my ability to trust older men in the future, particularly in churches, where many people feel we should be able to trust each other in uncommonly deep ways, and which, by the way, is why churches often are soft targets for predators.”
Thank you for the very well written article. Sorry this happened to you. So happy that you had such a good relationship with your parents and felt safe to tell them what had happened. Having that support system is probably what saved the situation from proceeding to something much worse.
I found your online blog today through the Aldi Reviewer page. I look forward to reading your other articles.
Thank you for the kind words, and glad you found our site!
Im 29 and a “lonely” 80 year old man from a church and my neighborhood we moved to last year who had been married several times, in the past year has given me a lot of his stuff. He has given me a lot of food, bought me dinners, etc. He would leave stuff on my familys house porch. He became obsessed with me, texting me a lot. Hed take any chance to touch my hands , legs, back etc. Hed invite me over alone to his house….
After he took me to dinner a few times he forced himself to impose on my time alone at the beach to take me to dinner alone with him. He had sat right next to me touching my back, touching his legs to mine and told me he was falling in love with me. This drove me to a mental breakdown. Not soon before that a homeless man had robbed me. I have lived a life of repeatedly being preyed upon by older men and sex predators/players since I came of age…
I was also preyed on and humiliated for 2 yrs by by a 70 yr old pervert art professor and his colleagues in college, and a 50 year old married man at a job who liked touching on me for a year who i fell in love with, and recently a pedophile from a church preyed on me for sex…
This old man wedged himself into my family, even to where I had him going places with me and my own dad such as baseball games and restaurants…..
Around that time as well a few months ago, I was under extreme stress due to domestic violence with my brother and a 55 year old man had targeted me when i was hanging outside a church, I had sex with him and then I saw a preteens top on his table and womens shampoos I realized he may have been a pedophile. He told me not to tell his boss so I told his boss…
I have autism and have had severe issues with psychiatric drugs and drug overdoses…These predators see my mental disability and sweep in time and time again. I have many other stories as well of men closer to my age preying on me lol..
Every time this happens I realize wayyy too late what this type guy was trying to do….
At least this 80yr old didnt “molest” me but Im sure if I kept this weird “friendship” going that he would have tried something as he clearly has a crush on me and after he told me he was in love with me I told him off but then let him back in a few weeks later because he called my mother whining about being mean to him for telling me he was in love with me which had triggered my 10 year history with sex predators….
I let him be mg “friend” again because he wanted to connect me with his friends and “help” me….He proceeded to continue the script of obsessively texting me even when I was in Tennessee trying to get away from him and my family due to tge domestic violence. A son of the folks I was staying with there (who also own a church…) also took advantage of me for sex . I told the 80yr old that and he insisted me come back and he pay for me to live at this hotel. He also told me anything I wanted to hear. I confided in him about missing the 50 yr old man from my job who had groomed me I had fallen in love with then discarded me…
Im sure he enjoyed every bit of his time alone with me. When I told him off in texts for perving on me he would call my parents whining about it . This guy forced himself obsessively onto my life when Ive already been dealing with so much sexual and emotional abuse trauma … Wow…. He even threw my “rejection” of him back on me by saying the 50 year old predator from my job I had unrequited love for rejecting me, what that man did to me a single young vulnerable girl with no relationship experience, was the same thing as me “rejecting” a 80yr old who was married 3 times and definitely should have known better. Is it dementia that causes this kind of double minded thinking???
Ive sinced blocked him but Im sure he still obsessively watches me as I still live near where he does….. SMH…. WHAT IS THIS WORLD COMING TO… THE LIFE IVE HAD TO LIVE… Im a predator magnet…. And Im almost 30….
Theres my story lol… Thanks