How do you talk to someone who has been hurt by church?

by

Image from the Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month campaign. The campaign takes place every January.

It can be hard for people who have suffered abuse to speak about their experiences, and it’s important that when they do, we find a way to listen and support them.

Writing in Relevant magazine, John Hollingsworth explores some unhelpful responses to church abuse stories, inspired by the manipulation and exploitation he experienced during a mission trip.

The responses range from compelling the abuse victim to think about unity and reconciliation instead of their hurt, to direct admonishment about the tone or emotions of the person sharing their story. In each example, a common theme is that the person hearing about church abuse is worried more about defending the church than supporting the person sharing their story.

Read the six responses, and let us know what you think; if you’ve had these experiences, what happened, and how did people respond to you? How do you think people should respond?

 

Posted by David Streever

 

Dislike (0)
Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmail
newest oldest
Notify of
Paulina
Guest
Paulina

What do you say about a Bishop who is loved by the congregation of his own Diocese being hurt? Recently, due to a financial dispute which occured in a leading school a Bishop of the Diocese was compelled to give in his voluntary resignation which is said to be a result of disciplinary action taken against him. The accusations levelled against him are false and biased, and we can prove it, however, the Arch-bishop of Canterbury is not willing to reverse the situation. The irony here is that the comissary who was sent to look into the matter is a friend of the people who have truly misappropriated the missing multi millions and so is the provincial registrar. The whole church is in turmoil and disarray. All our communiques on the truth of the issue has fallen on deaf years. We have a true apostle of christ crucified by the church!!!

(Please use your full name (first and last) when commenting in the future - thx, Ed.)

Like (0)
Dislike (0)
Cynthia Katsarelis
Member

Paulina, that sounds very sad. I don't know the situation. I have followed the Church of England to some extent and I can't fathom many of their ways. They just picked a bishop who advocated for "male headship" for example. In America that is unthinkable, partly because it's theologically and historically untenable, but mostly because we would consider the fruits of that decision on women and girls in that diocese. We have MLK who said that it's immoral to ask anyone to shoulder an unjust burden for the comfort of the few. So the pick of that particular bishop is spiritual abuse of girls and women, from an MLK formed viewpoint.

Perhaps there are times when leaders suffer injustice, but they need to leave so things can be brought right again. However, I can't say that I've witnessed rigorous moral thinking from the last two ABCs, so I wouldn't trust that this is the case in your situation.

Like (0)
Dislike (0)
Babs
Guest
Babs

I survived what I considered to be a spiritual massacre by a prayer group. They felt that their spirituality was right on target but that we (two of us) were misguided/satanic/whatever because our prayer practices were different . . . we were contemplative and intercessors. They started spreading rumors around the church. The priest did nothing about it (not surprising) and others thought that we should just accept that criticism and change our ways. I came out of it feeling like my soul had been placed on their altar, brutally sacrificed, and left there to bleed out and rot. I ultimately let them know that was how I felt . . . their response was that I was a bad person for saying that about them.

I got a lot of the platitudes discussed in the article. The only real help I got was from a therapist who was familiar with the parish. He said, "churches are like hospitals for sick souls. Unfortunately, your parish is the intensive care unit." It finally gave me perspective and internal permission to walk away and not look back. This was 30+ years ago. To this day I am still told that I need to forgive the perpetrators and understand their perspective as less mature christians.

I have never been able to totally walk away from what happened - it affected so much of my life and that of my children. It was the mother of their friends who started it and the priest who allowed it to perpetuate. (He was later turned into the bishop for sexual inappropriateness.)

I will most likely go to my grave feeling guilty that I couldn't reconcile with those people because I have heard it over and over that I needed to do that and forgive them. It has been easier to release my feeling about my father's inappropriate actions with me than releasing this issue.

Please post using your first and last names when commenting at the Lead. - ed

Like (0)
Dislike (0)
Eric Bonetti
Member
Eric Bonetti

Babs,

There's a difference between letting go and moving on, which is essential to closure and itself a form of forgiveness, and feeling guilty because you've been hurt and still feel the pain. Based on what you've told me, you've done nothing wrong. If you can, pray for the perpetrators, move on, love life. But don't feel guilty.

Like (0)
Dislike (0)
Eric Bonetti
Member
Eric Bonetti

A good amount of spiritual abuse comes from clergy who will not act to set boundaries, whether around their own behavior or that of parishioners or staff. Our schools, for example, often prohibit bullying and harassment. Corporate America does the same. But complain about this sort of behavior in a parish setting and you will be told that you are "not calm," or that you should not take it personally. Or that the clergyperson can't address the issue because he or she doesn't like confrontation.

Jesus overturned tables, but all too often, our clergy's primary role is to afflict the afflicted and comfort the comfortable.

Like (0)
Dislike (0)
Linda McMillan
Member
Linda McMillan

“When a part of the Body is dis-membered, it’s almost impossible to re-member them, because their memory of that is just too painful; one of shock and shame and horror and grief..."

Shock, horror, shame, grief.
Yep.

Like (0)
Dislike (0)
Cynthia
Guest
Cynthia

A priest in another parish asked me not to attend mid-week services there because of my rector's "need to worship away from parishioners." The shock and shame of being excommunicated is a strong memory. I'm a very active lay leader as well as a professional, so realizing this could happen to anyone frightened and angered me. I decided to stay and help prevent this for others, and it preaches like a dream: "When a part of the Body is dis-membered, it's almost impossible to re-member them, because their memory of that is just too painful; one of shock and shame and horror and grief. People do not un-church themselves. We do it." So don't! Amen.

(Cynthia, we ask that you use your full name (first and last) when commenting, thank - ed.)

Like (0)
Dislike (0)
Katie
Guest
Katie

I am an episcopal priest who wants to better understand spiritual abuse. I know that there's the obvious tradegies of sexual abuse, but I have trouble understanding what less obvious spiritual abuse looks like. I know that even though I don't fully understand the problem, the problem is real and a true experience for many people. I imagine it can be thought about in a similar way as physical abuse versus emotional abuse, both equally damaging, but differ in signs of abuse.

I would benefit from an informed person writing something such as, "How to identify spiritual abuse."

(Katie, we ask that you use your full name (first and last) when commenting - thanks, editor)

Like (0)
Dislike (0)
Cynthia Katsarelis
Member

Clear examples of spiritual abuse include refusing to baptize the baby in Florida. Exclusion of LGBT people is abusive. It tells us that we aren't Children of God, or are lesser; that calls into question our relationship to God and our sense of belonging in the Body of Christ. Hate language, like saying that God calls us an abomination, is spiritual abuse. It has led to awful things like LGBT teen suicide.

All of those things that reject a person for who they are created to be is abuse. Anything that is dehumanizing to anyone is amplified if it's done in the name of God or church.

Further, one can look at spiritual abuse through the lens of power. When there is a power imbalance and the person or family on the low power end are mistreated by the high power end, that can be spiritual abuse. Especially when the church institution engages in the practices mentioned in the article.

If we are the Body of Christ, then when the leadership of the local Body hurts one or more of it's members, it has a spiritual dimension. Being alienated from the Body is horrible. It has an effect on ones relationship to the community, which might be your support network. Often, those are the people with whom you've prayed, cried , told stories, and shared the Journey dealing with faith, purpose, and the ultimate questions of life.

I can't adequately express how this feels. You think you are on the path of life with your peeps, and you're suddenly shoved in a ditch, watching them journey on and unable to re-join them. And even if you manage to re-join, it's not the same.

Lies, betrayals, passive aggressive behaviour, etc., that happen from church leadership are not like work or political situations, painful as those can be. It impacts a range of relationships, perhaps even ones relationship with God.

Like (0)
Dislike (0)
J Goodwin
Guest
J Goodwin

I recommend The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen. Although its language is heavily evangelical, its analysis of the phenomenon is very good.

Spiritual abuse contains elements of emotional abuse/bullying and also has unique characteristics. It is evident when someone is harmed by an institution and then told the situation is "God's will" rather than that the human beings involved are accountable, but there are many other manifestations. If you do a web search, you will find many good sources, but the book is still the best I have found.

Like (0)
Dislike (0)
Karen Ann Wojahn
Guest
Karen Ann Wojahn

When our two little girls were both molested (on separate days) by their Sunday school teacher, the first person I called was our pastor. He said, "On Monday morning, call the police, but do NOT identify yourself. Tell the detective what happened, and ask WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE CHURCH if there is an arrest."

The second thing he said was, "Do not tell ANYBODY in the congregation about this."

As a freelance writer and editorial consultant at the time, I had just finished writing a magazine article about "Good Touch--Bad Touch" and about an agency in our county that provided child abuse prevention classes for adults and children in a non-threatening way that would give children the knowledge they needed to stay safe or to get help. When I spoke to our Director of Children's Ministry about this, she told me that the purpose of education in the church was to increase knowledge of the Bible, mission work, and other spiritual activities. Besides, hosting such a class might make people think there were predators in OUR congregation.

When I approached our Associate Pastor, who was in charge of Pastoral Care, about the pain we were in, and about my concerns about the perpetrator being in the classroom and volunteering in the church nursery, he told me that our family was solid, but that the PERP was the one in REAL need, and besides, he couldn't TAKE SIDES or rely on HEARSAY.

When I told the detective covering our case that the church did not want to remove the perpetrator from the classrooms, he called the pastor and said, "We are continuing our investigation because we believe this man may have harmed other children. Either remove him now, or we will arrest him on Sunday morning at the church."

The Associate Pastor then confronted the man, who openly admitted molesting our children, swearing it was the "only" time and besides, what better place for a girl to learn about sex than in the church?

The Associate Pastor told me this, and then reiterated that this man's "needs" were "obviously" greater than ours, and he could not put us "ahead of him."

Then one of my friends from church asked me if there was a problem between the pastor and me. I asked her what she meant. She told me that he had been warning the women in the church not to pay attention to me because I was "one of those hysterical types."

I went to the pastor to ask about that, and he told me it was time for our family to find somewhere else to worship. I sent a letter to the Clerk of the Session (this was not an Episcopal church) asking to be removed from the church membership rolls and explained what had happened.

Then the phone calls began--with members of session talking to me about reconciliation and forgiveness and about responsibility to the community.

Eventually the man was arrested, and again, he confessed, but the police had to release him because they neglected to read him his rights. He disappeared shortly after that, and we've not heard of him since.

Seven or eight years later, after we had discovered the Episcopal Church, both pastors called to ask forgiveness, which I was ready and willing to offer. They also invited us to return, but we were (and remain) a great "fit" with the Episcopal Church.

It's been more than 30 years since those events. Our children spent a significant amount in therapy off and on throughout the years, and still have some PTSD issues, but on the whole, they seem to be doing well. The eldest is a Lutheran pastor, and she has a lovely family.

The younger rarely darkens the door of a church anymore, citing the fact that she has repeatedly tried and has repeatedly been hurt--and so have her friends. The argument that the "church isn't perfect" makes her roll her eyes. "I'm not asking for it to be perfect. I'm asking it to stop hurting people in the name of Jesus!"

I understand that our Diocese has not always had a great track record in this area, historically, but my experience from the very beginning has been one of great support.

As a late-vocation priest, now retired, it has been my privilege to teach workshops on child abuse prevention and sexual misconduct prevention training, and I am pleased to say that our current Bishop certainly takes no prisoners, and for that, I am grateful.

Like (0)
Dislike (0)
J Goodwin
Guest
J Goodwin

The article is very good, but the author leaves out the most common response: exclusion and shunning.

The six (non-) responses he lists are all active attempts to silence the hurt person. They all translate as, "The problem isn't that you were hurt, it's that you are speaking out about it and making us look bad: YOU are the problem." At this point, the hurt person usually leaves the church. If that person continues to speak out, he or she will be silenced by being labeled a malcontent, emotionally unstable, spiritually deficient. He or she will be cut out, ignored, and insulted, if not actually asked or told to leave. When silencing is ineffective, scapegoating and shunning begin.

A dysfunctional church shows the same behavior patterns as a dysfunctional family: secrecy, denial, and scapegoating are its coping mechanisms. Those who offer support to the spiritually wounded will be put under pressure to conform and will have to choose between being scapegoated and being included.

People of faith and courage, both lay and ordained, should listen in depth to the person who has been harmed. They should work to understand how their loyalty to a church may have led them to minimize its problems. They should hold their church to the highest standards of authenticity, transparency, and spiritual care.

Sadly, that courage has been lacking in every case I have seen. The people who help are the ones who have left. The ones still in the institution do whatever they must to preserve their place in it.

Like (0)
Dislike (0)
Chris Cooper
Guest
Chris Cooper

Spiritual abuse? Look into what's going on at Orlando's St. Luke's Cathedral... canceling the baptism of a baby with gay fathers three days before the event... now saying it was just a postponement... . Absolutely sickening. This is spiritual abuse.

Edited.

Like (0)
Dislike (0)