Why it's hard to tell others about spiritual abuse
This summer I’ve spoken with several different people who reached out to talk about spiritual abuse they’ve experienced in the Church. They were lay people, religious sisters, parish ministers, Catholic school staff, and diocesan employees—all of them sharing stories of harm they’ve experienced from people and institutions who were supposed to take care of them.
After one of these conversations, a person said to me: It was a consolation to talk with you, to be understood so deeply with little explanation. That's rare.
A few days later, I was talking with a friend about this remark. Why is the experience of feeling understood, without having to explain yourself, so rare?
Spiritual abuse is a kind of psychological abuse where spiritual beliefs and/or religious authority is used to control or manipulate others. Spiritual abuse causes real harm and is often perpetrated by individuals in positions of power.
Like other forms of psychological abuse, spiritual abuse doesn’t leave any physical marks. You can’t point to a bruise on your body and say, “this is where I was hurt.” And with spiritual abuse, the abuser is often a religious leader who holds a position of authority or respect in the community.
In general, Catholics want to believe that their pastors, bishops, school principals, and diocesan leaders are good people. In part because most of us want to presume the best of others. And in part because, given what we believe about Holy Orders and Church authority, accepting that Church leaders can do terrible things can cause a lot of existential discomfort. Often it’s easier to just presume the best of those in positions of power.
I think this may especially be the case for people who work for the Church. If I have given years of my life serving a bishop or a pastor because I believed in them and their mission, then my own identity is caught up in those leaders being good and decent people. Believing someone who comes to me and says, “your bishop hurt me,” can cause cognitive dissonance and anxiety. It takes courage to enter into that dissonance for the sake of the truth. It takes courage to believe survivors. It takes even more courage to do something about it.
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So when someone comes forward and says, “this paster spiritually abused me,” they are often met, even from family and friends, with defensiveness because the truth of their experience feels, to the hearer, like an attack on the legitimacy of the Church. It shakes the hearer’s sense of security. So the hearer often responds, intentionally or unintentionally, by questioning the survivor’s experience:
That seems like such a small thing though
Why didn’t you just talk to him about it
Aren’t you making a big deal of this
Maybe he was just having a bad day
He’s done so many good things though
Priests are human too
Being asked to explain yourself feels like, and often in fact is, being asked to defend yourself and legitimize the harm you’ve experienced. Because of all this, telling other people about your experience of spiritual abuse can end with you questioning your own reality and second guessing the harm that was done to you.
If someone is sharing an experience of spiritual abuse with you, it’s essential to listen without getting defensive about the Church or the particular priest/minister who the other person has said abused them. Their story isn’t a threat to God or the Church. Know that Jesus is, in fact, always on the side of the vulnerable and marginalized, and you can ask him for the grace to keep space for the real wounds people have suffered at the hands of those in the Church.
When we encounter someone who is sharing their stories of harm, like Moses before the burning bush, we are standing on holy ground. We must remove the sandals of defensiveness and discomfort, and show the utmost reverence, gentleness, and respect.
May the holy Spirit free me from the fear that causes me to disbelieve survivors, defend institutions, and protect those who are abusing their power. May the Holy Spirit allow me to see Christ himself in the face of my brothers and sisters who have been abused in the Church.
I wrote an in-depth research article last year titled, The Place Where You Stand is Holy Ground: Recognizing and Preventing Spiritual Abuse in the Catholic Church. This resource offers more examples of healthy and unhealthy spiritual communities/leadership, as well as a more detailed explanation of spiritual abuse in the Catholic Church: