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Recognizing and Preventing Spiritual Abuse in the Catholic Church
I’ve believed that ministry is my vocation since I was just out of high school, and I have worked as a lay minister in the Catholic Church for over eight years. About a year and a half ago, however, Jesus put a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling in my path and opened the doors for me to begin this program.
Alongside that, the Lord put on my heart the desire to integrate ministry with mental health counseling. In particular, I want to work with people who have been harmed by the Church, and to assist in the formation of ministers and clergy to help them—frankly—be less harmful to the people they serve. These desires have been reaffirmed over the past year, both from what I’ve learned in my graduate program, but also with the experiences of spiritual abuse that the Lord has allowed me to witness during that time.
Throughout this past summer I have been working on creating a resource for lay ministers, clergy, and any Catholic who cares about safe and healthy parish communities about how to recognize and respond to spiritual abuse and the abuse of conscience. And now, it’s finally ready to publish.
I reached out to a couple of faculty at my local seminary to review this article, and they gave wholehearted endorsements.
“Paul Fahey has written a clear, well-researched, and illuminating essay on the reality of spiritual abuse in the Catholic Church. As Fahey shows, spiritual abuse occurs when there is manipulation through guilt or some other form of psychological control. Some religious leaders have unrecognized narcissistic tendencies, and they give people the impression that their voice is the voice of God. Fahey provides examples of vulnerable people who have been harmed by spiritual abuse (while respecting confidentiality). This essay should be read by religious leaders, seminarians, and priests who need to be attentive to the reality of spiritual abuse.”
Dr. Robert Fastiggi Ph.D.
Bishop Kevin M. Britt Chair of Dogmatic Theology and Christology
Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit MI
“Because of the deception that is part and parcel of spiritual abuse, it can be difficult to identify. This article gives us both a lens to see and tools to respond to spiritual abuse. With this article ministry leaders will now be equipped to cultivate a more safe, healthy, and effective ministry.”
Dr. Timothy Hogan Psy.D.
Author, “The Gift of Cultural Hurricanes: Tools to Rebuild Authentic Spirituality”
Part-time faculty at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit MI
The article is available for free online and as a downloadable PDF.
Here is the introduction:
It is through the Church, the sacrament of salvation, her Scriptures, her Tradition, her prayers, and her liturgies that all people can encounter the living Christ and experience his love, healing, and transformative grace. But what happens when the men and women tasked with mediating God’s grace, appointed to preach God’s word and preside over the sacraments, do so with carelessness or malice? What untold harm can be done when the place of healing becomes a source of harm? The goal of this article is to help clergy, lay ministers, and all faithful of goodwill to recognize, prevent, and appropriately respond to spiritual abuse in the Catholic Church.
In the past few decades, most of the focus on abuse that happens in the Church has zeroed in on the protection of minors from sexual abuse. This is absolutely necessary. However, sexual abuse is not the only abuse that those with spiritual authority can inflict on others, and children are not the only people who are vulnerable. This article will first define and explain what spiritual abuse is before focusing on one particularly insidious form of abuse: the abuse of conscience. From there, this article will explain the inherently vulnerable nature of pastoral relationships and outline the trauma and other negative consequences of spiritual abuse. It will end with practical suggestions for clergy, lay ministers, and anyone involved in the Church to prevent spiritual abuse and respond to those who have been wounded in a way that promotes healing without causing more harm.
My friend and colleague, Kayla Nelson, did the editing and layout design for the beautiful PDF version of the article. And my wife, Kristina, painted the cover art. You can check out the rest of her artwork here!