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Spiritual abuse: study suggests two-thirds of Christians could be victims

07 January 2018


The survey by the Child Protection Advisory Service may have been the first opportunity that many victims of spiritual abuse — a form of emotional and/or psychological abuse —will have had to tell their story

The survey by the Child Protection Advisory Service may have been the first opportunity that many victims of spiritual abuse — a form of emotion...

TWO-THIRDS of respondents to an online survey said that they had been spiritually abused, a study has revealed.

Academics from Bournemouth University, who carried out the survey on behalf of the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS), a safeguarding charity, received 1591 responses from Christians, 1002 of whom said that they had personally experienced spiritual abuse.

Caution has been expressed about the figures in the survey, whose results form part of the report Understanding Spiritual Abuse in Christian Communities, published on Sunday. A co-author, Justin Humphreys, executive director of safeguarding at CCPAS, said: “Yes, the results are significant, as [being spiritually abused] was not a prerequisite for participation. Having said this, in some ways it is not surprising, as many will have taken this as an opportunity to share their story in anonymous form, possibly for the first time.”

The study also acknowledges that definitions of spiritual abuse are not clear cut, and suggests that this lack of clarity may be a significant barrier to responding appropriately to its victims within the Church.

“Existing work around this experience (which is characterised by a systematic pattern of controlling and coercive behaviour in a religious context) is still in its infancy, to the extent that there is no currently universal agreement about this as a term,” it says.

“There is some discussion about it being categorised as a form of emotional and/or psychological abuse. However, to date, spiritual abuse is the most commonly used term and therefore the one that is used here.”

Of all respondents to the survey, 72 per cent said that they were “confident” that they knew what the term spiritual abuse meant, however. “Key characteristics of spiritual abuse identified were coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring of individuals, control through the misuse of religious texts and scripture and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behaviour,” the study says.

Mr Humphreys later told Radio 4’s Sunday programme: “We have some definitions that have been in circulation for quite some time. Ours indeed has evolved over time . . . but there is still a need to address the issue, to find a clearer definition that seems to be most appropriate and most encompassing for those who experience it.”

CCPAS promoted the online survey through social media and on other platforms, and through supporter databases, last January. “The respondents were self-selecting and just needed to be interested in the topic area,” Mr Humphreys explained.

“It was very clear, as per the ethics approval [by Bournemouth University], that respondents did not need to regard themselves as victims or survivors of spiritual abuse and that they would not be asked to share their story if they were (although some did).”

Most respondents (69 per cent) were men from Anglican, Baptist, Independent, and Pentecostal traditions, with a handful of Roman Catholics and Methodists. About 17 per cent were Quakers.

But, while 62 per cent were confident that they could respond effectively to a disclosure of spiritual abuse, with understanding and empathy, most said that clearer policies were needed in Churches and Christian organisations.

The study continues: “A key message was that leaders can and do experience spiritual abuse from those they are leading, and this experience needs to be recognised and responded to.”

Another co-author, Dr Lisa Oakley, from the national centre for post-qualifying social work, at Bournemouth University, said: “Any work in this area needs to ensure there is recognition that this behaviour can and is experienced by leaders as well as congregational members. These are complex issues and more work is needed in this area to reach better understanding for all concerned.”

One third of respondents stated that their church or Christian organisation had a policy that included spiritual abuse, and two-thirds said that they knew where to go to find help or support. But only one quarter of respondents had received any training on the topic of spiritual abuse.

The study concludes that clearer policies and greater understanding of the characteristics of spiritual abuse are needed, and that better training should be given to church leaders on the subject.

Mr Humphreys said: “Growing awareness around this issue has meant it is now being recognised; but defining what it is and what it isn’t needs further careful and considered work to be done.

“We owe this to those that have suffered spiritual abuse, and we owe it to those involved in the wider Christian community to work constructively towards creating safer places for all.”

The Church’s response to spiritual abuse has long been the subject of debate. Correspondence in the Church Times in 2013 suggested that spiritual abuse was not being properly addressed in the Church of England (Letters, 1 November 2013).

The Vicar of St Michael-in-the-Hamlet and Christ Church, Toxteth Park, Liverpool, then City Missioner in the diocese, the Revd Keith Hitchman, wrote: “In 2010, I made a formal complaint to my then diocesan bishop concerning spiritual manipulation suffered by a close relative of mine, which had caused untold sorrow for this person and the wider family. Aside from the predictable platitudes, I was largely ignored.”



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