Normalization of Risk

By Joe Trapp

Normalizing risk is a term frequently applied in some industries. It is the leading root cause of many industrial failures, from the space shuttle challenger accident to many large airlines accidents to surgical mistakes, oil and gas industry failures and a host of many other catastrophic incidents, including sexual assault.  

Normalized risk essentially means exactly what it sounds like. Doing things routinely that make risky tasks or activities seem normal. This can be anything from minimizing how we look at risk, taking unsafe shortcuts, not following a procedure or checklist, or allowing things that routinely put people in harm’s way. It is almost always an indicator of a poor safety culture and leadership failure. 

Normalization of Risk is being applied when communicating about the child sexual assault/sexual abuse issue in the 2×2 church. In my opinion, the latest Guidelines for CSA for MO-OK-AR recently distributed by George Peterson and Craig Winquist are nothing more than a risk normalizer.  (Link to Guidelines at end)

It’s not our fault that risk has been normalized and that leaders and governments have been complicit in creating a culture of normalized risk. But we can raise awareness and help put a stop to it.

How does this apply to the subject of sexual predators in the 2×2 church? Consider what has been done historically in this space.

– There has not been transparency about the risk. This ranges from deliberate cover up to just not talking about it, not notifying people, and transferring workers to other fields without notifying friends of the risk that has arrived in their area.

– The perpetrators have been allowed to remain in meetings and/or even in places of authority. (Elders, workers, overseers…)

– Workers with allegations or complaints of sexual abuse are routinely moved from one state/region to another rather than dealing with the issue.

– The severity of the crime is minimized by using acronyms or soft language.

– Predators are more or less endorsed by allowing them to attend meetings, inviting them to share in preaching in gospel meetings, talking about the good they have done, continuing to communicate with them, having worker visits with them, sharing a mailing address with them, and posting pictures when they visit as if they are celebrities. All of these things have happened within the last year.

– There is reluctance to use their names and instead there is talking in code saying things like “DB, LW and IH have been involved with SA.”

– Some governments, especially those with English roots, Canada, Australia, etc., protect predators by forbidding speech about them. If your response is “that is necessary to preserve the investigation,” then you have bought into normalizing risk. That’s how it works.

So, when the workers make a statement like, “We want you to report these things to the authorities, and after you file a police report, please tell us about it,” they are normalizing a risk. Yes, it’s a big step that they are now saying “report the matter to the authorities.” After all, this was strongly discouraged for many years. However, regardless of intentions, the problem here is that the workers appear to be indicating that they don’t want to hear about allegations unless they are reported to the police. This essentially normalizes weak signals and little things, so that sometimes someone is raped before it is noticed that there is a problem. This is not acceptable.

What Can You Do?

– Don’t be afraid to use your voice. Believers in Christ are equal in God’s eyes—all are children of the King of Kings.  The overseers and/or their overseer are not closer to God, more holy, smarter or wiser than you are (1 Peter 2:9). You have a right to talk to them using plain language and tell them how things should be done.

– Demand transparency. Just like there is a registered sex offender list available to the public, you have a right to know who and where the predators are in your church.

– Demand there be a clear and concise policy that provides for transparency and includes clear and strict consequences for sexual predators and their enablers.

– Demand there be established a country-wide or world-wide method whereby people sexual harassment can be reported, tracked, and weak signals are given close attention. This church should establish or work with a current third party to develop this.

– Insist the workers and overseers work with the third-party investigators and act when a credible predator is determined.

– Stop minimizing crimes using language like “double lives” and “indiscretions.” Stop talking about the good someone has done after they have been revealed to be a sexual predator. Speaking well from the platform and being a “nice guy” while raping children is NOT a “double life.” It is an evil person who appears to be good while perpetuating evil by grooming others.

– Realize and accept that it may be some who appear to be the nicest and most loved who turn out to be the evil ones. Don’t let your feelings for someone fool you.

– Stop speaking in code and using initials and acronyms. Using polite language normalizes the risk while direct speech does not. What does that look like? Don’t say “JD has been accused of SA.” Instead say, “Many parents have reported that John Doe was abusing their children by rubbing his clothed but erect penis against them.”  Obviously, we need to be aware of our audience and use care not to retraumatize victims, but in most cases, plain language has more impact.

– Educate yourself on the subject. Not all sexual assault is violent rape, and other forms of assault should never be dismissed as “less serious.” The worst thing that one person experienced might have been repeated, violent rape. The worst thing for another might have been being fondled under the dinner table by a respected brother worker. Don’t try to grade the abuse and judge one above another. Both were the worst assault that each victim ever experienced, and both were VERY wrong and completely unacceptable. Treating one as “lesser” normalizes the risk. And the risk of the normalized activity could very well escalate and become worse if not addressed.

– Don’t be afraid to speak to people about these atrocities. Speak to people in the church and help them understand the magnitude of the problem. Speak to workers and overseers. Help them to understand and demand real solutions that include transparency, consequences that hold perpetrators and their enablers accountable and support for survivors of abuse.

– Don’t do anything illegal if you live in a country that imposes gag orders to protect predators but do call it what it is and petition for change. Push the boundaries without breaking the law.

– And most of all, don’t wait until your child or grandchild becomes a victim to get involved in helping solve this problem.

Normalized risk not only creates a culture that allows for the continuation and escalation of the problem, but it is also harmful to past victim survivors. We sometimes think that we are being sensitive to victims when we use soft wording, but that can impede the healing process for a victim because it minimizes their trauma.

Just to be clear, we should never talk publicly about specific acts that have happened to specific victims. It is not our place to do that. And we shouldn’t be trying to judge different perpetrators by the violence of their acts with some misguided need to say that this one is worse than that one, or vice versa. And we certainly shouldn’t be comparing the severity of one victim’s experience over another’s. What is and what is not sexual abuse is easily researched, and we should all probably refresh ourselves about that from time to time. 

The point is that sexual abuse has been historically and is presently being normalized in the 2×2 church. This must cease!  Speak up and take action to stop this normalized risk culture from continuing—many voices are stronger than one!

By Joe Trapp
Posted November 17, 2024

LINK to AR-MO-OK Guidelines:

TIMELINE OF EVENTS since the Doyle Smith’s letter to Friends dated March 23, 2023.