Grooming and child sexual abuse in institutional contexts

Professor Patrick O'Leary, Emma Koh and Andrew Dare

February 2017

ISBN 978-1-925622-01-0

Executive summary

Recent efforts to clarify definitions of grooming in research reflect an increased awareness of the diverse range of settings in which grooming may occur, as well as the diverse range of targets and purposes of grooming techniques. Grooming can be defined as:

The use of a variety of manipulative and controlling techniques; with a vulnerable subject; in a range of inter-personal and social settings; in order to establish trust or normalise sexually harmful behaviour; with the overall aim of facilitating exploitation and/or prohibiting exposure. (McAlinden, 2012, p.11)

Grooming can involve a range of behaviours that seek to build trust with and increase access to a child, and cement the authority of the perpetrator and/or compliance of a child to perpetrate or continue to perpetrate child sexual abuse.

Grooming and related techniques are difficult to identify and define. Grooming includes numerous techniques, many of which are not explicitly sexual or directly abusive in themselves (McAlinden, 2006). Some grooming techniques can co-exist with other regular behaviour or functions within an otherwise normal relationship with a child. Given this, a key difficulty in identifying grooming is that it consists of many discrete acts that, on their own, are not necessarily criminal or abusive (Bennett & O'Donohue, 2014), and is distinguishable only by the perpetrator’s motivation to facilitate and/or conceal child sexual abuse.

This paper provides an overview of key conceptual issues in the definition and understanding of grooming. It takes a narrative review approach to synthesising key literature, drawing on an understanding of perpetrator modus operandi. It identifies and discusses what is known about grooming, particularly as it relates to institutional child sexual abuse.