SPIRITUAL abuse is a topic that the Church has fought shy of over the years, and the reasons are easy to see. It is an imprecise term, bordering on incorrect in the literal sense. Yet, as researchers at Bournemouth University conceded, it is the phrase that we are stuck with. Although they might understand it to mean different things, 72 per cent of the 1600 people who took part in an online survey said that they were confident that they knew what it meant — most of them at first-hand. The commonest interpretation is abuse by someone in spiritual authority, and it is fair to say that, among the 1002 respondents who said that they had experienced spiritual abuse, most will trace the abuse to an authority figure in their church or, just possibly, in their family. The Oxford Bishop’s Disciplinary Tribunal, which provided a timely illustration of a form of spiritual abuse, spoke of “the abuse of spiritual power and authority”.
At this extreme end, coming up with a definition is less problematic than securing a conviction. Abusers, as a rule, are not stupid, and the worst abusive situations take place without witnesses. Even in the case of the Revd Tim Davis, the tribunal had to decide between different accounts of his bedroom relationship with the boy, “W1”. What made this spiritual abuse rather than any other sort was the means Mr Davis used to retain his influence over the boy. The boy’s mother told the tribunal that Mr Davis (“TD”) “would say that he was God’s anointed and a person had died because he did not do something that TD wanted”. Mr Davis denied using the phrase, but the tribunal chose to believe the mother. Few cases provide such a textbook example.
What makes spiritual abuse harder to tackle as a concept, however, is the wider, vaguer, but higher incidence of parochial mismanagement. Hundreds, probably thousands, of parishioners move church or stop attending altogether because of a priest who is overbearing, dictatorial, partial, or simply neglectful. Scores of priests move or take early retirement because of individuals or factions in the congregation who are difficult or abusive. In most instances, the fault comes down to personality or character. The spiritual element is introduced when authority is shored up with either ecclesiological convention (“Father knows best”) or misapplied scripture (“the Holy Spirit has given me authority over you”). But any dispute or disagreement within a church can damage people’s spiritual lives. We expect our churches to be places of spiritual nourishment, and our priests to have not only integrity, but a sense of proportion.