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An Institute publication entitled “Lessons From Moral Failures in a Family” [Click here for the full pdf document] was first mailed to Advanced Training Institute (ATI) families in the late 1990s, and it has been periodically distributed at conferences since. Recovering Grace does not know the identity of the family members who shared their story in this document, so we don’t know whether, or how much, the two first-person accounts in the document were influenced or edited by Bill Gothard or other Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) staff. As we examine the message of this document, we understand the young man and his mother may have been under pressure to present a certain type of message at the time this was written, and that their views might be very different today. So it’s the influence of the words, not the family itself, that we wish to examine. The entire document is available at the link above, and specific quotes are reproduced below. It’s helpful to read the entire original document before proceeding to our analysis.
“The parents were shocked and grieved as social workers visited their home and confirmed reports that an older brother was guilty of sexually abusing younger ones in his family. The damage to the younger children, the ridicule to the cause of Christ, the shame of detailed publicity, and the scars to the life and reputation of the boy were indescribably painful to the family and their friends.”
It’s interesting to note that of the four listed consequences of sexual abuse in this case, three concentrate on damage to public image. The abuse is presented as tragic, but public exposure of the abuse and the resulting damage to appearances are presented as at least as tragic. The piece uses the humanizing language “scars to the life and reputation” to describe effects of the abuse and its subsequent exposure on the young perpetrator, but uses the term “damage” to describe effects of the abuse and its subsequent exposure on the much younger victims. Hopefully unintentional, this subtle yet troubling choice of language presents the young victims more as harmed goods than as harmed people, and they remain almost abstractions throughout the piece.
“The boy did repent of what he had done; now that time has passed, he was asked the following questions:
1. What were the early indications that you had the problem?
2. What conditions or circumstances contributed to the problem?
3. What steps could your parents have taken before it happened?
4. What could have been done to avoid it?
5. What teaching could have been given to each child to resist evil?
6. What factors in the home contributed to immodesty and temptation?
The boy wrote out the following answers to these questions. The information he gives is so helpful that every parent should read it and diligently apply the lessons that this family learned the hard way.”
In this list of questions, “immodesty” in the home was presented to the young man as a leading question. It’s assumed to be a motivating factor for his sexual abuse of his siblings, and he was asked how not only he, but also his victims, could have been trained to “resist evil.” This is the first time the piece displays a presumption that the very young children were somehow complicit in their own abuse by exhibiting “immodesty” and/or not effectively resisting the sexual assault of a much older and stronger perpetrator — let alone their very own brother whom they knew and trusted. The implication that the younger children were “immodest” and did not adequately “resist evil” will be made explicit by the young man’s narration later in the piece, and the suggestion that the younger children were “immodest” and inadequately resistant due to their lack of training does little to blunt this subtle assignment of blame to child victims.
The bulk of the piece is then turned over to the young abuser to get his analysis of what led to his actions, as well as his speculation of how the abuse might have been avoided by his parents or his victims. His insights are described as “so helpful” and are clearly meant to be prescriptive in nature. He is always assumed to be a reliable narrator, and his words are elevated to an authoritative status. At the end of the document his advice is reworked into a list of direct action steps.
“I think that the laziness I demonstrated toward my responsibilities around the house and towards other people who asked me for assistance, was probably the only symptom my parents saw that would have shown any problem in my life. One way I showed this laziness was by arguing with my parents when I was asked to help around the house.
“This behavior of course did not help me and only created strife between my parents and myself. The root problem of moral purity created in me a lack of self-control. With the arguing that I did with my parents, I became depressed. I tried to fight it by trying to make myself feel good. This only led to immoral habits that eventually led to offending.
“Laziness is similar to slothfulness, and both words point to the spirit of doing what I want vs. doing what I ought, or better put for me, obeying the flesh vs. obeying Scripture. In my case, it was displayed physically and morally. If a parent sees that his son is showing signs of being lazy, it is highly likely that his son is also struggling in other areas of his life.”
While this self-examination was doubtless a valuable exercise for the young man, the unclear application for parents seems that any young man who struggles with laziness, argumentativeness, or depression may also be a sexual predator. These common teenage struggles are suddenly all likely indicators of extreme danger to younger siblings. While this portion of the letter is narrative, it directly follows an exhortation to parents to “read it and diligently apply the lessons that this family learned the hard way.”
“I was expected to baby-sit and change diapers, etc. Baby-sitting gave me the opportunity to offend; without it I think it is possible that I might not have offended. I would still have had a problem with the immorality, but I do not think I would have violated my sister in such a way.”
This is the first time the parents are indirectly blamed for the abuse by the abuser, and his speculation is not countered or qualified in the document. This is the second time the document uses the term “immorality” (a term generally used within IBLP to describe adultery, premarital sexual activity, use of pornography, and other voluntary sexual behavior) to also describe one person sexually assaulting another. [It’s interesting to note that this document (and other IBLP documents that Recovering Grace is aware of) never distinguishes between morally objectionable (but not illegal) consensual sexual activity and the illegal activity of child molestation. Instead it categorizes all of these activities under the same generic term of “immorality.”]
“Modesty was a factor. It was not at the level it should have been in my family. It was not uncommon for my younger siblings to come out of their baths naked or with a towel.”
This is the first time the extremely young sexual abuse victims are indirectly blamed for the abuse by their abuser, and his speculation is not countered or qualified in the document.
“They would often run around the house for the next twenty minutes until my mom or sister got around to dressing them. Changing my younger sisters’ diapers when they were really young may not have been a big thing, but it really did not have to be that way (if we had only applied Levitical law).”
This is the second time the parents (and now an older sister) are indirectly blamed for the abuse by the abuser, and his speculation is not countered or qualified in the document. His reference to Levitical law presumably refers to Leviticus 18, which prohibits “uncovering the nakedness” of various family members. However, Bible commentaries interpret this often used phrase in Lev. 18 as actual acts of incest/sexual intercourse — not simply an innocent uncovering of nakedness by a child.
“My younger sisters used to wear dresses often, but as they were young and not aware of modesty, they did not behave in them as they should.”
This is the second time the extremely young abuse victims are indirectly blamed for the abuse by their abuser.
“Mom did not push the modesty unless we were in public, and Dad only had the opportunity to mention it during weekends. Little people do not realize their nakedness right away. It takes several years before they grasp it. It needs to be taught to them. My mom is a nurse, and the human body was not a big deal to her. I guess she didn’t want it to be for her children either.”
This is the third time the parents are indirectly blamed for the abuse by the abuser.
“She and I have talked about it. She explained to me that she had no idea how visual male sexuality is, compared to women who are mainly by touch. I am so grateful my parents have changed so much of this area in our home.”
The narrator inserts observations on very normal male sexuality into a story about very abnormal sexual abuse of young children, suggesting a link. In this document, the young man’s specific sexual attractions and interests are not at all presented as abnormal; if anything, they are presented as part of an expected continuum of unchecked sexual interest.
“This was not a major reason for the offending, but it allowed my little sister to be open to what I made her do.”
Even with the mild concession that his parents’ lack of conformity to (how he interpreted) Levitical law was “not a major reason for the offending,” this is the third time he indirectly blames his abuse on his victim, and his speculation is not countered or qualified in the document. The author’s description of his sister as “open to what I made her do” is especially disturbing, as it implies complicity and guilt on her part, an implication never countered in the document.
“I don’t think so much teaching was necessary because everyone was so young. However, a different lifestyle, with more modesty, might have prevented what happened”
This is the fourth time the parents (and by implication the young victims) are respectively blamed for the abuse by the abuser, and though he offers some qualification to his conjecture, his speculation is not countered or qualified by any more authoritative voice in the document.
“Pornography has been a stumbling point for me for a long time. It started when I was working at a store near my home. They did not have porn there, but a customer would use the dumpster as a place to get rid of his. It was late January 1993. I had just been working there for two months or so when I went to take out the trash, and I looked in the dumpster and saw a pornographic magazine. It hit me hard, and temptation came over me like a flood. I could not believe the war that was going on in my head. Should I look or not was the question, but I had already given ground through other things of a sensual nature.
“I had not gained this ground back. I had seen movies when I went to friends’ and relatives’ houses where there was not the same standard as in our home. I had the desire to look for sensual things, and I did, but this was a boundary that I had created, like a line I promised never to cross. Funny thing was I had never had the chance to cross it before, so it was easy to keep. I thought that I could look at ‘just one.’ That was not the case. I became a living testimony of what it says in Proverbs. ‘The eyes of man are never satisfied.’ It didn’t satisfy me, and it seemed to just bring more temptation.”
The potential effect on adolescents’ exposure to sexually explicit material is certainly relevant this story. What is interesting in the broader context of ATI-published anecdotes is how this story conforms to a certain expected pattern. Often ATI anecdotes will describe young people working jobs or interacting with friends and relatives outside of the influence of immediate family or IBLP, and almost always involve the ATI student being exposed to, falling victim to, or perpetrating some moral evil as a result. The only regular exception to these type of anecdotes is the category wherein the ATI student is intentionally ministering to outsiders and sharing biblical principles or Commands of Christ; all other interactions outside of ATI’s influence are almost invariably portrayed as catastrophically destructive. Here the student is not only exposed to sexually explicit material, but this sets in motion a chain of events that ends with child molestation and public humiliation of the family.
“One of the problems that came with this immorality was guilt and hiding my problem. I should have spoken to my parents and told them all that was going on in my life, but I didn’t. I felt I would be rejected by them and not understood. The arguing I was doing was pride. I was not going to humble myself before them.”
Here the young man takes responsibility for his own actions.
“Before the problem had gone this far, I wish that my parents had established a mutual trust so that there could have been open communication between me and them. I wanted to be able to tell them anything and feel like they would help me through the problem and not just give me a consequence for it. I believe that would have made a difference.”
The young man articulates a desire for a closer relationship with his parents, and his description is quite poignant. He also, however, begins a subtle shift of blame back to the parents, a shift that intensifies in the next line.
“I might be asking too much, but at the least it would have challenged my thought life—asking me what I thought about when I went to sleep, if I had any immoral thoughts, or were there any challenges that were a struggle for me.
“I think my dad asked me once how I was doing and hinted about that area, but it was not direct and to the point. I can remember thinking, ‘Does he really want to know about that?’ I went on to tell him, ‘I’m fine,’ while thinking, ‘If he would ask one more time, a little more directly, then I would know if he really wanted to know.’ I should have told then, but I didn’t. (My fault.) If the question was constantly before me and asked regularly of me, I would have begun to feel as if it really mattered. I think it would make me feel as if I was being held accountable. For me that would have brought guilt, forcing me to confess my faults.”
In a document explicitly designed to advise parents, the young man professes responsibility for withholding information he says he should have given to his father, while simultaneously asserting that regular rigorous interrogations would likely have prevented him from becoming a sexual molester. How is a parent meant to apply this insight? Should all parents of teenagers question their sons and daughters daily about sexual thoughts, or is this only applicable to parents of young men, or of troubled youth, or of troubled male youth? If the cited warning signs displayed by a potential young abuser are sloth, depression, or argumentativeness, should any young person displaying one or more of these characteristics be persistently questioned as a suspected sexual predator? The stakes for younger children in the family are very high, and the desired scenario the young man describes is extremely accusing and intense for older children, while the instructions are not clear.
“Sex was not and is not a major topic in our family, not that it should be, but I felt that the subject was not allowed as far as what I could bring into a conversation. Maybe if my parents had told me about sex around age twelve or so, I could have asked a lot of questions, and maybe I would have had something to go on. As it was, my sex education came from what I pieced together from movies, friends, and the jokes that I heard.
“If I had a twelve-year-old son, I don’t know how I would tell him about sex, but if I didn’t, someone else would, if they hadn’t already. I would guess he would already have some questions. I think that most problems in families start with poor communication between people. I see a need for ‘open, honest communication,’ the freedom to be listened to when needed, and to have questions answered in an understanding way. If started at a young age, it could be a foundation when they get older and problems get more difficult.”
This section is notable as a rare (perhaps unique) promotion of sexual education in ATI families, and the young man once again expresses a moving desire for better communication with his parents. He makes recommendations without explicit blame shifting. Nevertheless, it is once again implied that if the parents had just provided precisely the right kind of (unspecified) sexual instruction, the abuse would not have occurred.
“One of the things that I learned about in the two years of counseling was personal boundaries. There are some basic steps to keep the opportunities of offending away from young men. For example, not letting myself baby-sit, have little kids sit on my lap, or hang on me, or even be alone with a little person. There is also no roughhousing or wrestling that could encourage inappropriate touching.
“If I had applied these before I offended, it would not have been easy to offend. The simplicity of these boundaries is a small price to pay for such protection. I don’t want to say I forbid my younger sisters to touch me, but I do make sure that when we make physical contact with each other it is done properly.
“For example, if the little people want a hug, I get down on one knee and hug them on their level. I don’t pick them up or let them hang on me. My mom thought I should mention that one should ask when you want a hug or when you want to be in someone’s personal space (within twelve inches of their body), or touch them.”
Young men working alone with children is an area of great controversy in many circles, but remember, the narrator of this story sexually assaulted his own very young siblings. His advice forbids most normal childhood physical contact and affection between siblings on the grounds that any older brother may be easily tempted into sexual abuse. In this scenario, parents should treat every older brother as both an opportunistic predator and a potential victim of accidental sexual temptation by his siblings. No distinction is drawn between guidelines for the author, who has a documented history of molesting his younger siblings, and those recommended for all elder brothers. The narrator describes what effectively constitutes an accepted amount of ongoing physical contact between a former sexual abuser and his victims, with no differentiation between healthy, non-abusive sibling relationships and sexually abusive relationships.
The next section of the document is a letter from the mother of the young man, and to her great credit she writes of pursuing a child’s report of abuse, and seeking and accepting help:
“When my daughter had indicated something was going on, and the son denied it, I had no evidence. I thought if I put some fear into him, if it did happen, he would not do anything again. That is not true. The temptation can become an addiction and works like other addictions.
“As Christians in a secular world, we can become fearful of what could happen to our families if authorities or counselors get involved. We want to hide the problem. That may not be God’s best. It would take far too long to go through what happened when the authorities became involved in our problem, but I will say, God was faithful to us. We now have some people we would consider friends that have very difficult jobs in the juvenile system.”
Note that the mother describes having “no evidence” when her daughter told her something of the abuse, as if the daughter’s report did not itself constitute evidence. This may be merely a poor choice of words, but once again the implications are unsettling. The mother then describes more about her son’s case and echoes his thoughts on older brothers babysitting young siblings. The document closes with a broad list of recommendations drawn from this single account.
“Every precaution should be taken by families so that a similar tragedy will not happen among their children. Once it does happen, it can never be undone, and the scars last a lifetime. Therefore, the following factors should be carefully considered for application in every home.
Do not tolerate laziness by any child. Plan a full day’s schedule.
Do not argue with your children over surface problems. Probe for root problems.
Do not neglect moods of depression in your children. Plan a time to talk it out.
Do not allow boys to change diapers, especially of baby sisters.
Insist on modesty at all times.
Teach the children to recognize wrong behavior in moral areas.
Pray for protection from pornography. Prepare them to resist it by reading Prov. 1-7.
Establish open, honest accountability for daily victory in thoughts, words, and actions.
Provide warnings on immorality from Biblical accounts such as Samson, Tamar, etc.
Provide guidelines on all physical contacts between children.
Prohibit roughhousing, wrestling, and inappropriate touching of brothers with sisters.”
Four troubling, recurring themes in this document are: the subtle blame of child victims for inviting their own abuse; the lack of distinction between normal physical contact among siblings and the behavior of a sexual predator; the lack of distinction between normal adolescent interest in sexuality and abnormal sexual interest in children; and the lack of distinction between objectionable (legal) consensual sexual behavior and illegal sexual assault. This list presents a queasy hodgepodge of all of these categories. This is especially important in the case of “Insist on modesty at all times,” which sickeningly underscores the former abuser’s implication that the attire and conduct of young children can make them somehow complicit in their own sexual abuse, as well as “Provide warnings on immorality from Biblical accounts,” which appears to conflate child molestation with the voluntary sexual conduct of adults.
This is an extraordinary document that casts accusatory suspicion on most teenaged boys (all who have demonstrated any amount of laziness, argumentativeness, depression, enjoyment of physical play and roughhousing with siblings, aptitude and willingness for child care, or interest in sexuality of any degree or kind), while shifting part of the blame for the actions of an abuser onto young children’s perceived lack of propriety and parents’ lack of implementation of Levitical law and daily interrogation sessions.
Is it any wonder that so many ATI young people, especially young men, grew up with extreme loathing and suspicion of their own normal sexuality, if so many different common teenaged struggles, interests, and behaviors branded them as potential child molesters? Is it any wonder that, despite this document’s admirable paragraph on reporting sexual abuse and working with professionals, many ATI parents were reluctant to acknowledge, much less report sexual abuse when they learned of it, as they would themselves be strongly implicated as having facilitated the abuse? Is it any wonder that ATI sexual abuse victims were often reluctant to report their abuse not just because of the usual fears and trepidations of abuse victims, but also because they would be in strong danger of being implicated as having invited or inadequately resisted the abuse?
This piece is a strong disservice to parents, to current and former young abuse victims, and to non-abusive young men. And it is, unfortunately, the wrong kind of help to sexually-abusive young men, who can find within this document many ways to assign some blame for their actions to parents who failed to adequately interrogate and Levitically police them, or to young children who accidentally “seduced” them. The quoted young man and his mother were doubtless offering the best advice they knew how to, and this document was doubtless published with the best of intentions to prevent child molestation in families. But its potential to prevent harm is far outweighed by its potential to cause and excuse harm.