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Grooming: the danger signals

16 October 2020

Understanding manipulation is key to preventing abuse. Report by Sarah Lothian

THE word “grooming” is often synonymous with the targeting of children or young people by sexual predators. The NSPCC says that it happens “when someone builds a relationship, trust, and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit, and abuse them”.

But abusers can also groom adults — and sometimes communities — to control outcomes and behaviour.

Cathy Johnson, of the Christian safeguarding charity Thirtyone:eight, says: “Our experience is that adults are as susceptible to grooming as children.”

The psychologist Dr Jessica Taylor has argued that grooming is a part of everyday life, and is often difficult to identify. “Grooming has been used to manipulate you every single day since you were born,” she writes, arguing that all are groomed into adhering to social norms. Sitting on a carpet, cross-legged, with other children who dressed identically, for example, is not evolutionary behaviour.

The convicted murderer Benjamin Field groomed his victims and the congregation at Stowe Parish Church in Maids Moreton, where he was a churchwarden (News, 25 October 2019). “No one who came into contact with Ben Field was not manipulated by him,” the diocese of Oxford said after the verdict.

Field may be an extreme case, but understanding grooming is central to preventing safeguarding failures, both in the Church and in Christian organisations. And the key to our understanding of grooming is an imbalance of power.

In his article “It was not an affair, it was abuse”, David K. Pooler, associate professor at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, in Waco, Texas, argues that the power differential between a priest and a member of his congregation means that any sexual relationship must be abusive.

The joint chief executive of Thirtyone:eight, Justin Humphreys, says, however: “This is complicated. I would say that this could not automatically be abusive. But the nature of the relationship would need close scrutiny to establish whether any vulnerability might exist due to a role/influence/power differential.

“There is a difference that should be noted here between what is clearly abusive — i.e., what can be clearly defined by law and appropriate statutory guidance — and what is misconduct — i.e., behaviour or conduct that is deemed to be outside acceptable parameters. These are not mutually exclusive, but there is certainly often a subtle difference.”

The Revd Jonathan FletcherIn 2012, the novelist and journalist Anne Atkins wrote about the Revd Jonathan Fletcher and John Smyth in response to the unfolding Jimmy Savile scandal. At the time, she did not name them; but she has since written for The Daily Telegraph about Mr Fletcher, one of the Church of England’s most prominent Evangelical preachers, who is accused of abusive behaviour, including intimidation and psychological manipulation, over a number of years at Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon, south-west London. Thirtyone:eight is currently carrying out a lessons-learnt review for the Emmanuel.

Mrs Atkins wrote: “Whether it was consciously calculated or not we may never know, but Jonathan created a multi-strand of dependency.

“One victim said he couldn’t distinguish in his mind between what Jesus wanted and what Jonathan wanted. That is extraordinary and deeply shocking but reveals what a powerful personality he has to exercise that kind of control.”

On grooming, she says: “It’s the same with any abuse: its most characteristic trait is that it goes unrecognised for what it is. Therefore, the only way to stamp it out is to train all of us to spot it: happening to ourselves; happening to others.

“Are intrusive questions ever appropriate? Does a certain person make you feel better about yourself, or worse? Does certain behaviour take place in secret? That’s a warning alert!

“When it comes to church leadership: is the vicar freeing people to do what they want with their lives, or telling them to do what he wants them to do? Is he imposing his will on the church, or freeing the church to discover its own?”


A FORMER staff member at Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon, “Christopher”, refers to Professor Wade Mullen, the author of Something’s Not Right: Decoding the hidden tactics of abuse. Mullen describes “crucibles of charm and condemnation”, and how abusers move their victims from one to the other to exert control.

“At first,” Christopher says, “you’re in the crucible of charm, and you think whoever the abuser is is this great person — generous and kind, thoughtful, and wants to do great things for you.
“Once you start questioning things, or not going along with everything, it all turns sour, and you are moved into the sphere or the crucible of condemnation. And then you get the reverse behaviour; so you get isolation and humiliation. It’s a characteristic approach used to control people — and that will be one of the dynamics involved for many Fletcher victims.

“The other dynamic would be that most people don’t experience that at all. Most people have a very normal experience. There were many whom he wasn’t seeking something from, who failed to see anything but the charm, social polish, and exegetical exhibitions.

“And so, there’s a blanket of believability and credibility over the abuser because most people’s experience seems to be wholesome, and they’re not aware of what’s going on. . .”


CHRISTOPHER described the situation at Emmanuel Church, where young men were securing staff posts after university or promising careers. “As a Christian, you want to do all the right things, and, when you go to Emmanuel, you think that you’ve chosen the church where you can grow.

“And then you have this strange experience, where Jonathan is very forceful, and if you start questioning him, you’re put in a very difficult position.

“They’ve been bombarded with condemnation and humiliation and isolation, in order for him to get them to do what he wants.”

Christopher described a process that would start with compliments and an invitation to the sports club for tennis or squash. The young men would share communal showers — but then there was the sauna as well. “And you might think, ‘Well, that’s a bit odd,’ but everyone else seems to trust Fletcher implicitly.

“And then, if you went to the sauna, you’d be quietly harangued into having a nude sauna, and you might ask ‘What’s this all about?’ That’s the way grooming works — you are being moved through the categories and pushed a little bit further each time. ‘So, what’s so wrong with a nude sauna?’ you’d be asked. ‘What are you embarrassed about?’

“It made you feel that you had the problem. ‘Why are you so self-conscious?’ was his gas-lighting technique. It made you question yourself and your perception of reality.”

From there, the track led to a professional massage, and then the suggestion from Jonathan: “I massage you and you massage me.”

“That’s where it stopped for me,” Christopher says. “I passed on the massaging hurdle, and got a mountain of psychological abuse for my troubles as I was moved into the crucible of condemnation.”

Christopher has since spoken to a significant number of victims and survivors. “He would move people along this grooming track,” he said, “little hoops at a time, and then you ended up a long way from where they started, taking part in mutual massage, apparently with a bizarre ritual with towels and then nudity.

“And, again, you’ve got people to this day who’ve gone through this and they think that nothing wrong happened, because they’ve danced to his tune and think that because something is consensual it isn’t abusive.

“And then he’s asking people next whether he could introduce some ‘fun’ forfeits in order to be an aid to mutual godliness, and suddenly the spanking has become part of the equation.

“Again, it’s not everybody that happened to. He’d be very cautious and careful not to create any ripples for himself.”


LAST week, we told the story of Ellen, a young woman who was the victim of a serious sexual assault by her line manager.

“Abusers groom institutions, too,” she says, “psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally; so they are entrenched and blinded to the abuser. In that moment when an allegation is made, leaders need to sit back and say: ‘We might be a bit blind.’

“We might not be, but we just need to remember that, in these situations, it’s common that we ourselves have been blinded, and we’re going to need external help to really see what has happened here.”

For Christopher and Ellen, an understanding of grooming and the power dynamics involved, coupled with a courageous attitude to challenging authority, is crucial to tackling abuse.

Christopher said: “These grooming, abusing, coercive, controlling tools can be used in any sphere, whatever theology you adhere to. No one is exempt: Catholics, Protestants, conservatives, and progressives. This is an issue for everyone.

“If we read our Bibles, we should know that people can use God-given power in a negative way. And we need to know how that works, and we need to know what to do, and make sure the safeguards are in place.”


‘I am profoundly sorry’

THE Revd Jonathan Fletcher was Minister of Emmanuel Ridgway Proprietary Chapel, in Wimbledon, from 1982 to 2012, when he retired.

In mid-2019, the safeguarding officer at Emmanuel, Sarah Hall, published on the church website: “In early 2017, the current vicar [the Revd Robin Weekes, a former curate of the church, who took up the post in March 2013] and the safeguarding officer became aware from two separate sources that unnamed individuals had made allegations about the Revd Jonathan Fletcher. . . An immediate safeguarding report was made to the diocese. . . We are appalled and saddened by what has been disclosed.”

Later that year, Mr Fletcher’s Permission to Officiate was removed by the diocese of Southwark (News, 28 June 2019). Although there was “no criminal case to answer”, a spokeswoman said, and no evidence of a significant sexual or physical risk to children, “there was a risk of him behaving towards vulnerable adults who may be seeking his spiritual guidance in a manner which may be harmful.”

Since the allegations have been made public, Mr Fletcher has declined to answer them directly, but issued a statement through the Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Rod Thomas (News, 28 June 2019), which said, in part: “As part of a long-standing prayer group, I have in the past been involved in a system of mutual encouragement whereby we set ourselves targets in healthy and holy living and then imposed what I thought of as light-hearted forfeits if we failed.

“These included going without chocolate, cold baths and school-type gym shoe punishments. Although at the time we definitely did not think we were doing anything wrong, I’ve seen since that it could have caused much harm both to individuals and to the reputation of conservative Evangelicalism for which I am profoundly sorry. Needless to say, this activity has now stopped.”

Victim groups have accused him of making light of the allegations (News, 27 September 2019).

Since then, The Daily Telegraph (26 December 2019) has carried accounts from five victims, repeating the allegations and describing Mr Fletcher as like a “benign dictator” who ruled with a “thumbs up-thumbs down Caesar-like power”.


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