Individuals with psychopathic traits are often attracted to affinity groups – religious, political or social groups of people who share common values, beliefs or interests. The collective trust that members of these groups have in one another and their common belief system provides a perfect cover for the person with psychopathy. The psychopath has an ability to accurately mimic the group’s beliefs or values while in the presence of its members. As a result, trust is easily gained and the true motives of the psychopath are less likely to be discovered. Their true motives may include, but are not limited to, financial support (including investment fraud), establishing personal credibility, access to vulnerable individuals who can meet their sexual needs, power and control in volunteer or paid leadership roles, or whatever may meet their needs at the present time. Those who are most adept at perpetrating affinity fraud are psychopaths who gain entry into the group by developing an acquaintance with a member who then introduces the psychopath as “one of us.” The result is a “fox in the henhouse.”
Religious groups, in particular, can be easy targets for manipulation because of shared qualities like acceptance of new members from a variety of backgrounds and lifestyles, the ability to forgive past wrongdoings, and a tendency to assume that those who join have similar beliefs and values. Members of addiction recovery groups, especially newcomers who may be in a state of crisis, can be vulnerable to psychopaths. The common practice in recovery groups of sharing personal stories and struggles may increase this vulnerability. Even sophisticated members of financial and business groups – such as investment clubs – can fall victim to the charm and seduction of a good-looking, well-dressed, charismatic, and apparently well-connected psychopath. Unfortunately, even after being victimized, many members of an affinity group might refuse to face the truth about the psychopath for a variety of reasons. Often they will rationalize why he or she took advantage of the group, and continue to believe that the person is basically good at heart. Some members of affinity groups could go as far as taking up the cause of the psychopath, and defending him or her when anyone questions their actions or motives.
There are several reasons why psychopaths are attracted to churches, synagogues and mosques; and they can be targeted on several levels. Attendees may be psychopathic. Those in leadership roles – both paid and volunteer – may be psychopathic. Church splits can be led by psychopaths who may then lead the newly formed group. The structure of many churches places their spiritual leaders in positions of power – something that psychopaths seek. Some psychopaths may attend seminary or other formal education, and unless their true motives are exposed, they might graduate and go on to lead churches. In addition, less organized denominations don’t always have formally trained leaders (e.g., ordained ministers or priests) making it easier for the charismatic psychopath to rise to a leadership role where charm and manipulation can be effective tools. While more structured churches may be less vulnerable, others that use volunteers in significant lay leadership roles may enable psychopaths to preside over the group for the power and attention it draws to them. Individuals often turn to their religious communities for support during stressful times, when they may be feeling spiritually and emotionally weakened. Psychopaths often take advantage of this situation and use religion as a ruse to prey on people. Singles groups, especially at more affluent churches, are often targeted. There is wisdom in affinity group organizations taking a suspicious view of newcomers until they prove their trustworthiness. This practice may help but is no guarantee of immunity to infiltration.
Note: This FAQ was written based on the experiences of victims and survivors.
Babiak, P. & Hare, R.H. (2006). Snakes in suits: When psychopaths go to work. New York: Regan Books/Harper Collins.
Carozza, D. (2008). Identifying psychopathic fraudsters: These men know ‘Snakes in Suits’. Fraud Magazine. http://www.fraud-magazine.com/article.aspx?id=404
Schug, R. & Ricke, J. (March 9, 2011). Psychopathy and the ministry. How vulnerable are you? Aftermath Radio. http://aftermath-survivingpsychopathy.org/radio/index.php/2011/03/09/ aftermath-radio-psychopathy-and-the-ministry-how-vulnerable-are-you/