We ask for your discretion: the old white church college predator

by Stephanie Krehbiel, Executive Director

He loves to volunteer.* That’s the first thing you should know. He is a benefactor, a big donor. He’s retired from his career in education or mental health services or church administration, a career marked with inexplicable resignations and abrupt departures. It is considered somewhat ungracious to speculate about the causes of those departures, though some people do.

He is married, usually for many years. His children are grown.

At the college, he is what is known as a fixture. His family connections to the campus are unassailable. He has never been employed there (which is likely to be useful at some point). But he comes to all the concerts and plays. He comes to student presentations. If there’s a coffee shop on campus, he’s there all the time. He shows mentorly interest in students, bestowing career advice, praise, helpful encouragement. He has a knack for finding the students who need it.

He particularly loves exchange students. The people in the study abroad office always know who he is. Sometimes he leads tour groups, service trips. He loves to travel.

He is acquainted with all kinds of powerful and useful people and is eager to let you know it. He is always on the board of something or other, and his wife and children often are too. He can introduce you to so-and-so; he was just talking to so-and-so the other day and telling him what a lovely young lady you are. So talented and promising. He will put his hand on your hand, brush up against your leg.

He is always very attentive to women’s personal appearance. He may occasionally stare inappropriately or for too long, but as a rule, he’s more interested in direct commentary. He’s the one who comments when you gain ten pounds over the winter, who does the “you’d be so attractive if” thing. Under endless cultural scrutiny, women are often rendered speechless by unsolicited commentary on their body size; he knows this and enjoys it. He lets you know what weight he thinks you look best at. He always notices your clothes, your hair.

If there is a church attached to the college, that is probably his church. There is a sizeable group of women who know that he is the wrong person to be alone in the hallway with, and somehow, in the same church, there is a huge group of people who have known him for years, maybe even sat on committees with him, and still have no idea.

They may warn the teenage girls that he is “handsy.” He has a remarkable memory for eighteenth birthdays.

It is not safe to drink at his house, but nearly impossible not to. He makes sure of that.

In public and in church, his politics are liberal. In receptive company, he rails against close-mindedness and conservative stupidity. Sometimes he asks queer people outrageously inappropriate questions, but he likes to be seen as a friend to equality. It serves his purposes, because by and large he isn’t playing to a conservative audience anymore. When the feminists come for him, he wants some gay men who are groomed to defend his character, men whom he believes will identify with his narrative of being persecuted by sexual norms.

He likes to test other white people’s tolerance for racist epithets. He enjoys your discomfort with the n-word. He wants to see if you’re part of the club that will let him get away with it. He is the primary cultural beneficiary of the rhetoric that casts broad sexual suspicion on Black and brown men, and leaves white men free to rape and grope their way through life, unencumbered by ideological violence or the state’s discipline.

Mostly, he gets away with it. He has been getting away with it for a long time. Yours is not the first community he has groomed to tolerate him; your church did not produce his first pack of ardent defenders. When accountability comes for him, limited though it will be, his defenders will frame it as a catastrophe, the ruining of his life. They will do the dirty work of pushing out the people who insisted he be named for what he is. He may well be skilled enough to keep his hands clean; his lawyer will do the threatening. He is a man who is known to know lawyers.

The energy he consumes, behind closed doors, cannot be measured. Between husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, pastors and parishoners. People holding their silence and people trying to break it. It will all be silence until it’s not, and then there will be the explosions: what would you have us do? What in hell do you expect us to do about men like this? Would you like to see him rot in jail? Is that what you want?

And we don’t know. Accountability, it seems, must be built from the ground up–every time. If there is a precedent, we have forgotten. We only remember what did not work. Everyone has always done their jobs. There was never a smoking gun, you know. Do you want to throw him in jail for putting his arm around a girl?

(This is all that most men believe he has done. In their hearts, I think they are convinced that they are him, that this wave of insatiable female rage could crash just as easily at their shores. They think he isn’t up to date on the politically correct things to say or not say; he probably doesn’t know that you’re not allowed to compliment a woman anymore. They empathize. These men, by and large, do not know what rohypnol is.)

He has survived partial accountability before. He may even have had an accountability group at church, an appointed Sunday morning sexual predator babysitter to accompany him. The police reports that never lead to charges (yes, the police always know who this guy is; it’s a small town, after all, and as I said, this has been going on for a very long time). The women-owned coffee shops and bakeries that ban him from the premises, the friends who no longer accept his dinner invitations. His pride is not so great that he can’t search out new horizons. New coffee shops. New churches. New volunteer opportunities. New community arts venues. New quiet hallways. The town down the road. Someday he will be in a nursing home, and God help the nurses.

Nothing sticks, because the only accountability processes he has faced are built on the dueling- yet-complementary premises of outrageously naive optimism and defeatist resignation to failure. Eventually, the fact that nothing sticks will be invoked as evidence that nothing was really that bad and that we have done enough.

***

He preys on girls and women, but his finest work is in playing men for fools. In a more just world, it might be the case that the higher such men sit, the harder they fall. I think we know these are not the usual workings of the world we live in. For these men, there is always a cushion.

These are the men who must manage the liability risk that the predator presents, and if they have one unwavering certainty in life, it is that the world they live in is the realest of real worlds. There is no cold blast quite as bracing as the witless confidence of men in positions of administrative power who believe that they have snapped an effective leash on an inveterate elderly sexual predator. We are to trust their calm objectivity, their discerning balance of competing pressures that only they can understand. When pressed further, they can turn quite rapidly towards belligerence, as can only be expected from men who live with the strain of real problems in the real world. These men would like us all to know that they are getting on with what matters, which is unto perpetuity the work of saving their great institutions from budgetary ruin.

Meanwhile, let me speak of whisper networks, because this story cannot be told without them. They are what every person with a professional responsibility to curtail this predator is counting on to do the actual work of warning potential victims, if they are thinking of potential victims at all. They are likely to deny this. If they are politically astute, they will deny it. It is best not to admit that you are relying on people to do the thing you have asked them explicitly not to do.

There will be scolding in the direction of social media. There will be requests that people not proliferate distressing nonessential and unsubstantiated information outside of an arbitrarily-determined original circle of knowing.

We have followed a policy, they say. Actually, it’s more that we have been guided by a policy. Subtly. We have gestured towards a policy.

Now they need not act further, because everybody knows about him already. There is no one of importance left to inform. Everybody has done their jobs.

They ask for your discretion in this difficult matter.

***

There is an inevitability to this narrative, a sickening sense that some unknowable telos is forcing everyone into predetermined roles. But I am not telling this story at remove from a vantage point in the heavens. The inevitability is a lie, meant to obscure our choices. (There is no grand cover-up. There is only the totality of a thousand small choices.)

With imagination, we could slay the momentum of inevitability. That is within our power.

Still, like most predators, he is a liar, and he needs us to believe that resistance is ultimately pointless. He needs us to resign ourselves to the pull of our collective moral mediocrity; when the storms of accountability break, that mediocrity will remain his best protection.

We sweeten our resignation with a spirituality that speaks gently and generally of brokenness, which, it is agreed, we all share.

 


*The descriptions in this piece are composites, based on multiple perpetrators, institutions, and communities. The details reflect experiences of mine, and of my friends, colleagues, and clients. None of the examples given are singular or unique to any one particular situation. The point is in the patterns. 

Despite how they often seem, these patterns are created by human choices and have no independent lives of their own.