Spiritual abuse is an unfortunate reality for millions of people of almost every religious affiliation. It is a source of deep spiritual, psychological, and even physical trauma that can cause a lifetime of distrust, pain, and turmoil. How can we, as Christians, respond to people who have been hurt when our religion has been used as a weapon against them? Here’s how.
What is spiritual abuse?
Spiritual abuse occurs when anyone—clergy or layperson—uses religion as an excuse to harass, humiliate, or harm someone. It is usually psychological in nature, but can leave the victim terrified, traumatized, and unable to speak up about what is happening to them for fear of reprisal or even damnation. It can happen when a clergy member uses their position to intimidate an individual or even a whole congregation, or restricts an individual’s access to mental or medical healthcare.
It can happen when parents force extreme religious practices on their children, or when laypeople exclude, marginalize, and harass an individual and justify their behavior with “Scriptural” or “magisterial” evidence. Spiritual abuse is devastating to the victim’s psychological and spiritual well-being, and often results in the victim losing faith in religion altogether. Jesus has strong words for those who drive His own away, saying that it would be better for them to be violently drowned in the sea than to cause someone to stumble (Matthew 18:6).
How to help
DO listen—just listen
When encountering someone who opens up about spiritual abuse, one’s impulse can be to offer words of comfort, wisdom, or pertinent Bible verses. However, what someone experiencing and talking about trauma truly needs is someone to actively listen to them and validate their experiences. Let them know you’re a safe person to confide in by simply quietly listening, keeping their confidence (certainly don’t tell anyone who could use the information against them, and NEVER tell the person they claimed hurt them), and giving advice only when it is asked for.
DON’T try to re-convert them
Trauma is a complex phenomenon, not even fully understood by neuroscience. But what we do know about trauma is that it is a survival mechanism that keeps us from being harmed by something that has made us feel deeply threatened. We have about as much control over how it affects us as we do our genetic predisposition to high blood pressure or poor eyesight. It can completely rewrite a person’s neural pathways to avoid anything related to their trauma at all costs. People who avoid religion and the Catholic Church in particular after being spiritually abused are simply doing what their neurology tells them to do: avoid being traumatized again. It is not a logical reaction, but is a deep-seated one that they may have very limited control over. Therefore, attempts to re-evangelize a person after they have left the Church will likely only push them further away. It’s okay to be concerned about their spiritual well-being, but their mental health is also important. Simply being a good friend by demonstrating kindness, mercy, and love can go much further toward making a person feel safe in the Church again than evangelizing or trying to convince them to come back.
DO pray for them–and don’t make a fuss about it
We believe as Catholics that intercessory prayer is powerful, especially when directed toward the Virgin Mary or particularly beloved saints like St. Nicholas. However, when we tell people “I’ll pray for you,” or “you’re in my thoughts and prayers,” it can come off as condescending, trite, or even vain if done in a particularly public or showy way. This is especially true for someone who has experienced spiritual abuse and probably had some version of “I’ll pray for you” or “let’s pray together” used against them. Instead, let the person know you care about them and their mental health, and pray for them privately. Only pray with them if they initiate it. Your prayers will be effective whether or not they know you’re praying for them!
DON’T be defensive
If a spiritually abused person is upset, it can sometimes seem like they are unfairly attacking the Church, its members, and/or its clergy. When this happens, it’s important not to get defensive, especially if you know or are acquainted with the person or people who hurt them. Like I said above, trauma isn’t logical, but it is powerful. Try to discern the feelings the person is trying to articulate—betrayal, confusion, anger, sadness—and let them know those feelings are valid (note: all feelings are valid, but not all are justified). It can be very upsetting when someone accuses a respected member of the community of any kind of abuse, but keep in mind that a person’s exemplary public behavior doesn’t preclude them from committing abuse. As with any form of abuse, not all abusers are universally abusive. Most only abuse certain individuals, but present a very respectable public face and are wonderful human beings to their friends and people they like. When a person opens up to you about spiritual abuse, put your own emotions and reactions on the back-burner for a moment and try as best you can to empathize with them.
DO encourage them to seek help
Spiritual abuse is a complex form of abuse, involving a gut-wrenching blend of spiritual as well as psychological trauma. Usually the psychological trauma is the one that needs the most immediate and urgent attention, since it can severely impair a person’s daily life. If someone opens up to you about spiritual abuse, encourage them to seek counselling, and help them find a trauma specialist. While it may seem prudent to also help them seek spiritual counselling, depending on where they are in their recovery, that should be their call to make. Exercise discernment when recommending spiritual help, if at all, since being alone with or opening up to a clergy member may have been a feature of the abuse the person experienced.
While spiritual abuse is a heartbreaking reality in our churches, it doesn’t have to be. If you know of someone who is being harassed by clergy or laypeople, speak up. Defend them. Let it be known that humiliation and psychological torment have no place in the Church, which should be Heaven, and not Hell, on earth.