Profile of an Abuser

Be careful who you leave your children with. This is at least one take away from high-profile sexual abuse cases like Jerry Sandusky. Parents everywhere will think twice before entrusting their children with authority figures like coaches or priests. Parents sometimes trust these people to seek special advantages for their children, but you cannot be too careful these days.

Even before his conviction on 45 charges, including child rape, I was inclined to believe that former Penn State assistant coach Sandusky was guilty of sexually abusing young boys. As a father of three sons, all of whom were athletes at the varsity or college level, I cannot imagine what I would do if I learned that someone had abused one of them. Frankly, it scares me to think about it. Like many parents, I wonder how such abusers can be identified.

In his book, Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse, Steven R. Tracy identifies four general characteristics of abusers. If we hope to protect our children and society from abusers, we need to be aware of the traits that make up their profile.

What Parents Need to Know

Before outlining this profile, I should say that I have no interest in looking for an abuser behind every bush or being unnecessarily suspicious of those who display these characteristics. Yet I believe that parents need to know some of the warning signs in order to protect their children. And they also need to know many abusers are groomed in particular kinds of homes with certain character traits. Parents must become aware of how to raise their children to protect them from becoming abusers. They must provide the kind of healthy love and nurture to fortify their children against such evil. Parents need be able to detect early and correct the traits that lead to abusive behavior.

The application of these characteristics extends beyond sexual abuse to all forms of abuse. They are also useful for protecting people in relationships that may potentially lead to marriage. If you read what follows and believe you’re with a potential abuser, seek counsel and accountability immediately. Don’t downplay or ignore what you see. Save yourself and many others untold trouble by seeking help from a trusted counselor.

Four General Characteristics of Abusers

1. Pervasive denial of responsibility — “The single most consistent characteristic of abusers is their utter unwillingness to accept full responsibility for their behavior,” Tracy says. Abusers are full of excuses, rationalizations, and justifications. They play the blame game by projecting on others responsibility for their actions.

2. Bold deceitfulness — Tracy identifies this as a “skill” abusers use to “maintain their innocence, avoid the discomfort of changing long-established patterns of behavior, escape the painful consequences of their actions, assuage their own nagging consciences.” Abusers create their own self-serving reality and expect others to affirm it. They can be “masterful at manipulating words and actions to confuse, confound, and put others on the defensive.”

3. Harsh judgmentalism — To deflect attention away from themselves, abusers will often be judgmental and harsh toward others. They use this mechanism to maintain their “moral facade” and to perpetuate denial of responsibility. They replace their shame with blame to escape a guilty conscience. “This harsh judgmentalism is also a godless method for unrepentant abusers to deal with their own shame, much of which is a gracious, God-given, internal witness to their sin,” Tracy notes.

Legalistic religious communities can be both breeding grounds and also havens of protection for undercover abusers. In contrast, communities with gospel clarity where people celebrate God’s grace in a context of humble transparency will not be safe places for abusers.

4. Calculated intimidation — As can already be seen, abusers’ lives are “built around twisting reality” and “avoiding consequences.” Intimidation is their weapon of choice for keeping people from knowing the truth. Abusers are notorious for threatening their victims into silence and submission. But they also use what might be viewed as a positive means of manipulation. Abusers often target people who are needy or come from difficult homes. They buy them gifts and shower them with affirmation as a means to control and abuse them.

It’s not surprising that some abusers are drawn to religious communities with hierarchies of authority. The Catholic priests who abused young boys leveraged their authority to intimidate their victims. Power without accountability can easily lead to corruption and abuse.

Some Additional Traits

An abuser often has an inordinate need for affirmation and praise. This usually connects with deeper levels of insecurity or a history of rejection. It is often displayed in a tendency to project onto the words or actions of others motives and messages of acceptance or rejection. Abusers also typically have unhealthy attachment and detachment issues. They generally refuse to seek help and prohibit their victims from seeking help.

Deep fear of rejection makes abusers unpredictable and volatile. It’s common for them to carry inner rage they periodically unleash on those close to them. Not surprisingly, abusers have difficulty admitting to failure or weakness. But, after unleashing rage on others, they can become profusely apologetic to atone for the damage they’ve caused and to manipulate their victims. Any repentance that does not lead to change must be seen as a means of manipulation.

Honest people will recognize that some of the characteristics of abusers can be found to certain degrees in nearly everyone. Parents must correct their children when they exhibit behaviors associated with abuse. Children learn early in life how to avoid responsibility for their actions, blame others, and manipulate those around them—even their parents. Firmly correct them if they tend to bully others to establish feelings of superiority, or if they make fun of others to feel better about themselves. Help them see through their selfish motivation and lead them to build their security in God’s love displayed in Christ and exemplified through your love for them.

Because abusers prey on vulnerable people, victims often enable their abusers by making excuses for their behavior. If you’re doing this, please break free from the deception and recognize that it is neither loving nor wise to allow yourself to remain in an abusive relationship. Insist on getting help whether your abuser is willing to or not.

  • jessy

    So in other words beware of Pastors.

    • Steve Cornell

      Jessy, Yes, with grief, some pastors are guilty. I hope your comment doesn’t reflect a bad experience from your journey. There are plenty of pastors who can be trusted. A key question I would ask is: “Does the pastor lead the way in fostering a community “with gospel clarity where people celebrate God’s grace in a context of humble transparency”?

  • Aimee Byrd

    I read this article on Steve’s website a while ago; glad to see it here. Very valuable information.

  • Ian

    Some great advice but the truth is that many abusers are so good at covering up what they are up to and who they are that they are extremely difficult to spot. I used to work professionally with such people – some of them are superb actors.

    As well as keeping their eyes open, the best thing a church community can do is to protect everyone is to ensure that there are excellent basic safeguards in place. People who are persistently non-compliant with such procedures should always be viewed with suspicion. Such safeguards also serve to protect the innocent who might be falsely accused of abuse.

    • Steve Cornell

      Ian, Good advice! Like many other churches, we insist on background checks for all children workers. We also appoint a deacon to monitor all facilities during each of our gatherings. Sadly, you cannot be too careful these days. Churches and Christian schools and camps should be leading the way in policies and practices designed to protect our precious children.

      • Cherie

        Excellent! All organizations that work with the vulnerable (children, elderly, disadvantaged, etc) need written policy and procedures which include MANDATED reporting. To place the onus solely on the parents will not work. At risk individuals (and their families) rarely have the opportunity, means, or where-with-all to be as diligent with protection issues.

  • mel

    Beware of ANYONE that wants to spend time alone with your child. That is just NOT normal. Doesn’t matter if it is a pastor, priest, teacher, coach or boy scout leader, ect. Those kind of people are everywhere and they look like every one else.

    Background checks are only good for telling you if someone has been caught or reported before. Sandusky would have passed background checks. It is only a safeguard step. It does not relieve you of keeping an eye out.
    If a youth pastor is mentoring your child then it should be in public places.
    The diaper changing areas at church should always be out in the open. And there should never be just one person in charge of a classroom or

    • Steve Cornell


      You make an important point. At our Church, we do not allow only one adult to be with our children in nurseries, classes and youth groups. This recent public focus on sexual assault should serve as a wake-up call to institutions to create better systems of accountability. Because leaders are often overly scrutinized and even wrongly criticized, they easily slip into an insulated demeanor where protecting their own removes accountability. Obviously there’s a balance to find, but the message for everyone is that when it comes to protecting our children extra measures must be taken. Predators intentionally try to appear normal (and even benevolent) to deceive parents and trap victims. Deception is their MO.

      There is a sad downside in this for many trustworthy leaders because suspicion creates a difficult environment for good things to happen.

  • Andrew

    Hi Steve,

    When I was a youth pastor I had an assistant who turned out to have molested an incredible number of adolescent boys.

    He didn’t fit any of the guidelines you laid out.

    1. He was very responsible in his personal life and in his service. You could trust him to get the job done.

    2. He was not boldly deceitful. He was subtly deceitful, artfully, deceitful such that there was never a clear denial of “reality”.

    3. He was fairly laid back not judgmental. We were at a Church that preached the gospel with clarity and where there was room to talk about struggles. People were called to the holy life by grace and given the help they needed. Actually many of the children he got to was by introducing the kids slowly to truly sinful entertainment choices.

    4. The problem with calculate intimidation is that it is calculated! I don’t know if he threatened any of his victims. He seems to have done more positive forms. But he didn’t target the down and out kid either. Investigators said he didn’t fit the typical profile, but had his own. He targeted kids whose parents were busy even thought they were loving, stable, engaged homes. He would eventually be there to offer a ride or whatever.

    The reason I raise this, I suppose, is to say don’t think that these people are always obvious or follow the same profile. I would be concerned that someone would say here is the profile…this person doesn’t fit it…we are good. That just isn’t the case. Everyone was shocked and horrifed by this young, good looking, unbelievably tallented, ready to serve….serial molestor. I NEVER though I could get so completely scammed. Now I know better.


    • Ian

      Your story illustrates very well why having policies in place such as the ones Steve outlined above are so important.
      We cannot trust our judgement or spiritual discernment on this issue but we can make sure we are transparent as possible in all our practices all of the time.

  • ls

    This list could equally apply to other types of abusers.
    Our church has just been through an extremely distressing time which culminated in the departure of a long standing church member. I would describe this man as an abuser, but not of the sexual variety. For years he had bullied pastors, deacons and anyone else who disagreed with him until finally two church leaders were prepared to stand up to him. I think the psychological traits of an abuser are similar, no matter what the type of abuse.

  • Pingback: Profile of an Abuser()

  • Rose

    Several lines in this article stood out to me:

    “They play the blame game by projecting on others responsibility for their actions.” Reminds me so much of “modesty” discussions.

    “Abusers create their own self-serving reality and expect others to affirm it.” Makes me think of preachers who advance their own agenda, expecting the congregation to believe implicitly whatever they (or “the church”) teach.

    “…abusers will often be judgmental and harsh toward others.” This is especially prevalent in circles where “toleration” is intolerable.

    “Abusers are notorious for threatening their victims into silence and submission.” Which category of human being is required to be silent in the church and submissive to her own husband? Does anyone else think these Bible passages have been misinterpreted?

    “…some abusers are drawn to religious communities with hierarchies of authority.” Indeed. Where it is virtually impossible to challenge authority and where no one can imagine what could possibly constitute “lording it over the Lord’s inheritance,” authority is most likely being abused, along with people.

    “An abuser often has an inordinate need for affirmation and praise.” If you know someone in authority who needs to be flattered and affirmed before you can offer the slightest suggestion for improvement, watch out! This stuff is way more common than we may think.

  • Jenn Grover

    The description of abusers in this post doesn’t stop at physical or sexual abuse. These same signs are found in spiritual abuse as well.

    Perhaps Reformed leaders who have given their friends a pass from complaints of abuse against them out to take heed of this post.

  • J

    I’m afraid my younger brother (age 15) may become an abuser, as he shows every single one of the traits. Is there anyone wise I can speak with? Beyond the abuse thing though, I need wisdom on how to cope with the great amount of evil and suffering he has/is inflicting on our family. :'(

    • Kate Johnson

      J, I am so sorry for what you and your family are going through. Please feel free to contact me at katej [at] and we may be able to help. This is a part of our ministry’s purpose. It is very hard for families to set boundaries with an abusive person, but it is possible to lessen the abusive behaviors.

      You and others bring up a good point. Most people who are abusive in the home present very well to the community. We cannot always know just by what we see, but rather it is often what the family sees that is a better indicator.