What is Spiritual Abuse?

Perhaps you have stumbled upon this website, because you are looking for answers. Maybe a little red flag raised itself in your mind causing you to question the behavior of a religious leader. Maybe you even feel a little bit guilty for being here.

First of all, I want you to know that you are not alone. You are not crazy. And you have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about. The fact that you clicked on this link might be a sign that you want some relief from the suffocation of the secrets you have been asked to keep. Maybe your are searching for some answers about what is happening to you. Here are a few questions to consider.

Are tired of the confusion, the doubt and the chaos inside of your mind?

Do you struggle with making decisions?

Do you wonder if you even believe in God anymore?

Several years ago, I was in this place. Sometimes I still go there.

The Bible says that God is not the author of confusion. He is the author of peace. The Bible also says that God wants us to know the truth and to be set free.

What is spiritual abuse?
Religious abuse is abuse administered under the guise of religion, including harassment or humiliation, possibly resulting in psychological trauma. Religious abuse may also include misuse of religion for selfish, secular, or ideological ends such as the abuse of a clerical position.

Religious leaders, according to scripture, are placed in a position to watch over God’s people.

Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. I Peter 5:2,3

A religious leader is in a position of power. This position was given to serve others and God. If he is using his position to abuse, he is breaking the law of God and man. If you believe you are being spiritually abused, I have linked places on this site where you can go for help if you do not know anyone in your area who is safe. I also encourage you to be careful about approaching others in the church where the religious leader is in control. Many times his/her faulty leadership patterns have resulted in a damaged community.

But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. Ephesians 5:13

Understanding Adult Vulnerability – From SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)

What Makes Adults Vulnerable?

  • Desire for community, connection, belonging Belief that church is a safe place
  • Culture of submission, especially for women
  • Life circumstances (season of transition, loss, isolation, etc) Desire for a spiritual mentor
  • Victim’s belief that he/she is bad or more sinful than other

5 ways religious leaders create an environment to abuse adults:

Isolate │ Create Doubt │ Praise Submission │ Foster Fear │ Secure Silence


  • Create opportunities to be with the victim one-on-one (phone calls at work or after hours, working together on a project, counsel/support the victim through an issue)
  • Share ‘privileged’ information with the victim
  • Make the victim feel special through praise and recognition
  • Pull the victim away for group events or other priorities because there is a greater need (work, emotional support, prayer, etc.)
  • Discuss marital issues
  • Criticize friendships and family

Create doubt:

  • Compliment the victim in ways that seem flirtatious
  • Touch the victim in ways that seems sexual
  • Ask the victim to share his/her interests; discuss their dating relationships/marriage, sexual history

Praise submission:

  • Teach the victim the virtue and necessity of submission. This may include:
  • A spiritual authority or covering is biblical – it is helpful for spiritual growth; it is a form of protection
  • Submission to a religious leader honors God
  • Submission maintains unity within the church
  • Women are called to be submissive; it shows they trust God
  • Failure or refusal to submit to authority is failure considered rebellious and sinful

Foster fear:

  • Remind the victim of consequences and punishment that could come by refusing the submit to the abuse, trying to end the abuse or telling anyone about the abuse. This may include:
  • You will be punished by God
  • You will be held responsible
  • You will be excommunicated from the church
  • You will be labeled a whore; held responsible for seducing/tempting a religious leader
  • You were the sinful one (victim believes their behavior was sinful)
  • You will be ostracized by friends and family
  • You will be responsible for the religious leader losing his job/livelihood

Secure silence:

  • Shame the victim (this is your fault, this is what you wanted, etc.)
  • Equate silence to trust
  • Express sorrow/regret, which the victim should forgive
  • Tell the victim that he/she will not be believed
  • Tell the victim that he/she participated and enjoyed it
  • Lead the victim to believe it was consensual or in response to the victim’s need

Terminology: clergy sexual abuse of adults

  • Clergy Sexual Misconduct: Minister, priests, rabbis, or other clergy persons or religious leaders who make sexual advances or propositions to persons in the congregations they serve who are not their spouses or significant others.

(Baylor University, School of Social Work, Clergy Sexual Misconduct Study, 2008

  • Sexual Abuse: When a person in a position of power such as a therapist, teacher, pastor, etc. sexually exploits a patient, counselee, vulnerable person, etc. in order to satisfy the abuser’s needs. Sexual abuse includes any sexual activity—verbal, visual or physical, i.e., lewd remarks, pornography, fondling, sexual contact, etc. It is illegal. (The Hope of Survivors)
  • Abuse of Power: Religious leaders are by definition community leaders who carry spiritual as well as organization and community leadership roles. They are expected to be compassionate, ethical, and moral leaders who hold the well-being of those they lead as a sacred trust. The differential of power between a religious leader and a congregant is like that of a physician and patient or counselor and client, although with the added dimension of sacred trust. Because of the power the leader holds and the attachment of congregants to their leaders, the congregant has much less power to say “no” to sexual overtures, rendering the concept of “consent” virtually meaningless. Any sexual relationship between a religious leader and a congregant is thus more accurately described as “abuse of power” rather than “affair,” which implies mutual consent. (Baylor University, School of Social Work, Clergy Sexual Misconduct Study, 2008)
  • Offender: The religious leader has committed an offense. The term “perpetrator” implies crime punishable by law. It is not a crime in 48 states, so at this point, the term “offender” is a more accurate term.

(Baylor University, School of Social Work, Clergy Sexual Misconduct Study, 2008)

  • Survivor: Those who are on the receiving end of the offending behavior will be referred to as the “survivor” or “offended.” the “primary survivors,” those who directly experience the sexual behavior of the offender, and the “secondary survivors,” those who indirectly experience the leader’s sexual misconduct, such as primary survivor’s spouses, children, and fellow congregants. (Baylor University, School of Social Work, Clergy Sexual Misconduct Study, 2008)

Resources: understanding & healing

  • Don’t call it an affair. Call it abuse of power By Diana Garland, Baylor University, School of Social Work www.apbnews.com
  • Wolves in shepherds’ clothing: Helping women survive clergy sexual abuse Social Work and Christianity, 33(1), 1-35 www.baylor.edu/clergysexualmisconduct
  • The Silent Majority: Adult Victims of Sexual Exploitation by Clergy www.adultsabusedbyclergy.org
  • Sharon’s Rose: sharonsrose.org
  • FaithTrust Institute: Go to Resources, Learn the Basics, Abuse by Clergy FAQs www.faithtrustinstitute.org
  • Predatory Pastors predatorypastors.com
  • Is Nothing Sacred?: The Story of a Pastor, the Women He Sexually Abused, and the Congregation He Nearly Destroyed By Marie M. Fortune Paperback, April 1, 2008 (available at amazon.com)
  • Male Survivor malesurvivor.org
  • 1in6.org: For men abused as children 1in6.org
  • American Association of Pastoral Counselors Code of Ethics
  • Go to About Us, Code of Ethics www.aapc.org

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