I’m afraid that most of us don’t know the signs of grooming behavior when it comes to sexual abuse. 

I know I didn’t! But sexual abuse, especially in churches, has been in the news a lot lately, and I thought it was worth doing a post on recognizing grooming behaviors, because then we can be more aware ourselves if something fishy is going on, but also more vigilant for those around us.

But first, here’s the podcast.


What are the Signs of Grooming?

In the podcast, I went over what grooming was. Essentially,

Grooming is a process in which a perpetrator gains a person’s trust, breaks down their defences and then begins to manipulate them for sexual purposes.

Essentially, they’re making people think that something that is not normal is totally normal and okay, and then they escalate from there. And specifically in this podcast I was using the church scenario, although the steps are common no matter what environment the abuse is in. I want to point out, too, that clergy sexual abuse is real and it’s wrong. In many states, it’s against the law for clergy to have a sexual relationship with a congregant because of the power differential, which I explained in this video about the Andy Savage case.

So, here are the nine grooming steps that I could identify:

  1. Make yourself indispensable and trustworthy to the bystanders. A perpetrator starts by making themselves beyond suspicion. They’re skilled at learning how to deflect and how to simultaneously make themselves seem very spiritual.
  2. Identify a victim. Sometimes this is opportunistic (people who come to see them in a certain setting), and sometimes they’ll seek out the marginalized.
  3. Start doing odd things in public to see if others notice, and to acclimatize others to these things (eg. being very hands-on with children)
  4. Form a bond with the victim by sharing something special 
  5. Force an intimacy by sharing a secret or struggle
  6. Move the encounters to a different place–ie. a different physical place, or progress to texting or social media
  7. Break personal space boundaries, for instance by texting late at night or early in the morning
  8. Break other boundaries, often regarding substance abuse (ie. offering alcohol or showing porn)
  9. Confess a huge struggle and show the victim that you need them.

Throughout the podcast, I quoted several high profile cases that use all of these examples. You can read them here:

Rachael Denhollander and Larry Nassar–read Rachael’s book What Is a Girl Worth?

John Crist sexually harrassing and abusing women for years

Wes Feltner being accused of sexually abusing two young women in his youth group

Rev. Jervin Weekes getting his credentials removed for sexually grooming women in his congregation

Andy Savage–My initial story about him and my recent video about how Savage should not have a new church

I hope you listen in to the podcast and share it with others, because we need to learn how to recognize grooming behavior. These books are also awesome to help with this:

That was it for the podcast today! Let’s keep our churches safe places and be aware of what’s happening. Our churches will have more abusers than you’d normally expect to find in a group of people, not because Christians are more evil, but because we’re more trusting. And churches give great access to children, teenagers, and vulnerable women. So we need to be vigilant. We need to be wise. And we need to be discerning.

Recognizing the 9 Signs of Grooming Behavior for Sexual Abuse

Would you add anything else to my list of grooming behaviors? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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