Having been involved with youth groups for most of my life, I have come to understand that there are some unhealthy folks out there that would gladly exploit children, given the chance. People in charge of youth groups and people in charge of youth group leaders need to be especially aware of this problem, because creeps often come on as having a natural interest in youth and having time to devote to the cause. They can often come across as quite charming and dedicated.
I know of a number of cases where men who were in youth group leadership positions have exploited children. I am quite familiar with three men who served in such positions and later served jail or prison terms for sexual abuse of (usually male) children. There were warning signs with all of these men. These signs were more apparent to the youth than to the adults, but they were not absent.
Fortunately, many youth groups have instituted a policy of having two adults present with youth at all times. This protects the youth and it also protects the adults from fabricated allegations (which have also occurred). Beyond abuse issues, it provides two adults that can deal with any emergencies and behavior problems that might arise.
In my 3½ decades of involvement with the Boy Scouts as well as my lifelong involvement with youth in church settings, I have noted that adults caught exploiting children have usually had a long-time pattern of exploitation, most of which has been kept hush-hush until after they are caught. It is possible that the 51-year-old ex-choir member simply did something stupid this one time. But it is far more likely that he has been doing stuff of this nature for many years, perhaps even since he was an adolescent.
I have noted several warning signs that can spell trouble:
- Taking exceptional efforts to spend time with youth away from other adults.
- Being friends with the youth on their level, that is, relating to them more as a peer rather than as an adult leader.
- Giving special gifts and/or privileges to certain youth.
- Invitations to youth for activities apart from the group sponsored activities, such as inviting youth to the adult’s home.
- Encouraging youth to expose themselves. Skinny dipping was once thought to be innocuous, but nowadays when it is encouraged by an adult, it more often than not spells trouble. Many Scout camps now have individual shower stalls rather than communal showers for a good reason.
- Hostile reactions if anyone notes that they have broken any of the group’s youth protection policies.
Studies have found that the recidivism rates for child molesters can be as high as 40%. But for exhibitionists, recidivism rates can be as high as 71%. (See here). So people with these problems are not easily cured.
In today’s world, it is not wise to allow someone that has had past problems with indiscretions with youth to spend much time with a youth group. Of course, if the person is the parent (that has legal rights) of one of the group’s youth, you cannot legally exclude him/her from group functions. But if you are aware of such a situation, you should ensure that another responsible adult essentially baby-sits that parent whenever he/she is present at group activities.
If you are a parent of youth, you have a responsibility to ensure that any youth group activity your child attends is appropriately supervised. Know who the adult leaders are and get some idea about why they are involved. Watch for any warning signs. Particularly be aware if your child is invited to spend one-on-one time with an adult leader apart from the normal group activities or if an adult seems to be paying extra special attention to your child.
There are also unofficial youth gatherings, even family gatherings to be aware of. Make sure that the adults present at these gatherings can be trusted. Sleepovers can be a source of problems, so make sure you can trust all of the adults in the home you child is visiting. Remember that there are often warning signs. If you don’t feel right about it, don’t let you child go.
If you are a youth group leader or have responsibility for youth group leaders, be aware that in our litigious society, you could be held liable for a child’s exploitation. So it is really in your best interest to get some training, to follow your organization’s youth protection policies, and to watch for any warning signs.
If you are a child exploiter, STAY AWAY FROM KIDS. And for heaven’s sake, get some professional help. Just because you may have gotten away with something in the past doesn’t mean you will be able to get away with it again. Note the problems the ex-choir member and ex-Congressman cited above are now enduring. Get help before it happens to you.