It’s now impossible in Australia to get a job working with children without a Working With Children Check. And a good thing too.  Churches have had to line up with this also, and not without good reason.  The sexual abuse scandals that have hit churches around the world show that the toxic mix of naivety among adherents and the complicity  – whether wilful or not  – among institutions has resulted in some terrible and systemic abuse.  We need to weed out sexual abusers in institutions, expose and prosecute the abusers.

But what about spiritual abusers?  There is no Working With Spiritual Children Check card that I can carry around in my wallet to show that I should be let loose with the children of God. At least with an institutional church there are checks and balances (whether or not they are implemented), but with the sudden proliferation of independent church plants, increasingly the case in Australia at the moment, such checks and balances are not always in place.

As I stated in my previous post, spiritual abuse in churches is both rife, and has startlingly similar effects to sexual abuse.  Whilst sexual abuse gets the headlines, my wife, in her role as a clinical psychologist, assures me that the most common form of abuse she sees among religious people who seek her out and are suffering depression, is spiritual abuse. She sees clients who have suffered from sexual abuse as well as others who have suffered from spiritual abuse, and has noted the similarities between both the experiences and the presentation of the client.  And because sexual abuse has a spiritual component, she’s not surprised when the two go hand in hand.

So what similarities are there between sexual abuse and spiritual abuse? What are the warning signs that spiritual abuse is happening?  What should we look out for when considering who should receive a Working With Spiritual Children Check card?

1. Spiritual Abuse As Power

Institutional sexual abuse is not about the sex, it is about the control.  So too spiritual abuse.  The relationship between the victim(s) and the perpetrator is a one way street.   Whilst at some stage sex happened because the victim often did not at first protest (too scared to, caught in the headlights of shock etc), do we really think that was because they did not wish to?  Spiritual abuse matters are just the same.  Many report that they knew they were being abused, they felt the sting of it, but were powerless – or felt they were – at the time.  The truth is that in church situations, because common spiritual connections are such a strong bind between people, victims assume they cannot leave because it would be too difficult and would result in too much emotional and relational trauma. They cannot stand up to the abuser because that person is in too powerful  a role within a community that the victim, despite everything, still cares deeply about. Often they don’t want to be responsible for tearing down what is – to many people – still a wonderful community. Which brings us to…

2. Blame of Self

In both sexual abuse and spiritual abuse much of the reparation begins when victims realise that they were not in fact the problem.  If someone is slightly unsure of themselves when they find themselves in a sexual or spiritual abuse situation, you can bet your bottom dollar that insecurity will increase exponentially as time goes on and the abuse continues.  Consequently when in therapy or talking it through with someone they trust, it takes some convincing that their complicity in the events was not because they, in some small way, asked for it, or were in some manner, the problem, but were indeed victims of a power play.  This second-guessing of oneself usually begins early in the abuse, but is dampened down either because the victim is unsure how to extricate themselves, or they hold the perpetrator in some regard, because of their institutional position or their personality.  The dam wall only breaks when the level of cognitive dissonance becomes so great that the victim has to flee the abuse, usually in a church setting by packing up every family member and doing a “moonlight flit”.

3. Public Vs Private Persona

When much loved entertainer, and now convicted sex abuser, Rolf Harris shot a video for children explaining how to avoid sexual abuse, the irony for his victims must have been great.  So too the confusion.  And that is often the case with spiritual abuse.  The confusion of hearing how YOU are the sinful problem, whilst seeing the perpetrator’s own abusive behaviour is bad enough, but to see that person hold a public office in which they excoriate the type of behave they privately display, brings the level of cognitive dissonance to a new height. This is especially so if outsiders speak well of the abuser and you have to nod your head in agreement.  But the fact is, we are who we are, in private.  No more and no less.  God demands an account for our character.  He is far less interested in our conference talks, book deals and public personas, in fact he’s not interested at all. Trees are known by their fruit, not the number of their blog post hits.

4. Intimacy Boundaries

It goes without saying that sexual abuse crosses intimacy boundaries.  So too spiritual abuse.  The powerful personality of a perpetrator of spiritual abuse can result in someone disclosing too much about themselves to the perpetrator, thus finding themselves in the situation in which intimate information about themselves is now out in the public. And I say “public” because often the perpetrator can keep victims on their toes by holding that “dirty little secret” over them.  Conversely the perpetrator, despite having information revealed to them, rarely gives any intimate information away.  This results in a one-way-street of accountability (a term never used in the Bible btw in relation to leaders and their people). On a one-way accountability street, with intimacy boundaries crossed, the stage is set for a power relationship to play out.

5. Enablers

Perpetrators of sexual and spiritual abuse are never one-man shows (and it is mostly, but not exclusively, a man).  In fact many would not get away with what they do if they did not have a system or person of enablement to allow them to do the same thing over and over again.  A perpetrator who breached someone’s trust, but who has no system of enablement usually does not last very long.  The anguish for many victims of sexual abuse in religious institutions is that the institution played the role of faceless enabler, moving the perpetrator on to another location at the first sign of trouble.  The enablers in spiritual abuse are generally not faceless, but rather, the second level of leadership handpicked by the perpetrator. These enablers act as conduits, excusing the perpetrator, and cosying up to them, usually by showing how they are different to the victim, more humble, more godly, more spiritually minded; whatever it is that the perpetrator is looking for that will elicit approval for the enabler.  That may be actual approval, but it could simply be disapproval directed towards the “sinner/unspiritual person”, clearly indicating to the enabler that they are higher up the system’s food chain.

Which simply tells you that enablers are generally people-pleasers with a level of insecurity about themselves that the gospel has not dealt with.  Often they are not bad people and indeed often they are the “face” of the organisation, but they are scared people themselves. Toxic leaders never have a second tier of strong leadership, because they know that strong leaders will stand up to them.  Strong leaders fight with the perpetrator once, then leave, regardless of the PR disaster it is for them. They have enough confidence to know from day one that THEY are not the problem.  Interestingly, when enablers see that the ship is either sinking, or they feel the force of the perpetrator themselves, that they then abandon to the life-boats and things start to unravel.

Next time: What NOT to do if you are the victim of spiritual abuse.