Religious Abuse
Jesus factor
Judge Bartell
The spiritually vulnerable:
Exposing religious abuse
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock

“Knowing the world in shades of gray, as we now see it, has been like waking up a cold, hungry, abandoned infant. It’s such a vulnerable feeling, the responsibility to think for oneself, question concepts and ideals and ultimately live with the repercussions of your choices. We weren’t prepared to live real lives, filled with decisions, situational morals and inner dilemmas; we were only prepared to do as we were told without question.”


-          Rebekkah



Today, Rebekkah struggles with difficult choices. But for most of her life, choices were made for her. The world was simple – black and white, right and wrong. But she wouldn’t trade the complexities of her life today with the simplicities of her former life. Today, she is free.


Rebekkah (all names in this article are pseudonyms) – who was raised in a tightly controlled Fundamentalist Christian sect and is now an agnostic – considers herself a survivor of religious abuse. Her story is hardly unique, but the topic of religious abuse is rarely broached, even though it is amazingly common. Few counselors are trained to recognize or treat the phenomenon, and even many clergy are unprepared to face it.


One difficulty is in the definition of “religious abuse.” The problem can take many forms, and – to some extent – abuse is in the eye of the beholder. Over the past few years there have been hundreds of headlines about children who were sexually abused by clergy, but this type of abuse (sexual molestation of children in a religious context) represents only a small percentage of the cases of religious abuse.


For some survivors, religious abuse takes a comparatively obvious form. People can be sucked into cults, whether Christian or non-Christian in nature. They can be manipulated into giving large sums of money, or providing sexual favors, or even physically abusing their children, to please a leader they perceive as somehow connected to God. Those who leave such groups may be able to find support groups that have been organized specifically for ex-members of those groups.


Less obvious forms of religious abuse may take place in legitimate or mainstream religious groups when a particular individual takes advantage of members in some way; when the theology of a church or group is fear based or “performance based” (such as when members are judged according to the number of “converts” they bring into a church), or even when an individual is a member of a healthy religious group but develops scrupulosity (an obsessive-compulsive response to religious indoctrination resulting in emotional and spiritual trauma).


Moreover, one person’s religious abuse may be another person’s dogma. So the boundaries of religious abuse can be hard to define; however, professionals who work with survivors know that the problem surely exists.


“When I went away to college, I had been very comfortable in my hometown church. But on campus there were several evangelical groups pressuring people to be “born again” and saying our previous religious experience wasn’t good enough. One group in particular was extraordinarily zealous. At one point, they placed an open coffin in the middle of campus with a sign that read, ‘Where will you spend eternity?’ I was going through a tough time then, asking questions about my faith and feeling very vulnerable. The sight of the coffin – and the thought of my parents, my sisters or myself burning in hell – literally threw me into a panic. I couldn’t sleep for weeks, thinking that I would have to try to ‘save’ all my loved ones.”


-          Chuck


Sharon VanderZyl, MSN/RN, refers to herself as a “counselor who is a Christian; my work is informed by my faith.” Of her clients who are religious, she says, more than half have suffered some form of religious abuse. “Of course, there is a continuum,” she says. “Some people are very damaged, and some less so; but some don’t have any understanding of grace at all. And that seems abusive to me – something went wrong in the process of their learning about God.”


The concept of grace – defined in Christianity as unmerited blessing or forgiveness by God – is something VanderZyl sees as a spiritual imperative. And yet grace is what’s missing in many churches and religious groups.  For groups that base their theology on a wrathful God, or on the necessity of following a particular formula and rigid rules set up by the church’s leader in order to be “saved,” grace is underplayed or absent altogether.


Shame is another red flag signaling religious abuse. “Guilt is about what you DO,” says VanderZyl, “and shame is about who you ARE.” VanderZyl acknowledges that “true” guilt, resulting from the violation of one’s standards or moral codes, is a necessary part of being human; but “false” guilt – guilt resulting from violation of a non-universal or non-moral rule (such as wearing pants if a pastor demands all women wear skirts) is not; and shame (a “lasting sense of unworthiness; hating yourself for who you are at your core”) is indicative of abuse or trauma.


“The church we attended was a spirit-filled, non-denominational type of fundamentalist church. I can tell you about a young girl who had her breasts felt up by the church school’s principal and then was beaten by him for ‘causing him to sin against God’ when he touched her. I can tell you about another girl who was forced to kneel in front of the pastor – just inches from his overtly hard crotch – and be hit on the head over and over by him because her skirt didn’t touch the floor. I can tell you about a girl whose own mother beat her in front of a group of children – on the pastor’s advice – for sneaking gum in … We all lived these stories and many more.”


-          KaraLyn


VanderZyl has her own memories of a rigidly religious childhood. Raised in an extremely conservative Christian denomination, one of her earliest memories is of watching her stern pastor and whispering to her mom, “ ‘Who’s he mad at?’ I was sure it was me.”


VanderZyl’s father was an extraordinarily gentle and loving man. It’s been said that people tend to view God in the way they view their own fathers; perhaps that’s why VanderZyl questioned the rigid rules and punitive environment of the church of her childhood early on. But her husband, raised in the same denomination, had a harsh father; for much of his life, he saw God as angry and unforgiving. “He has described it as ‘soul murder,’ “ says VanderZyl. “He says, ‘It’s as if they took my soul.’ And it’s only been in the past few years he is willing to say what he believes.”


“The risk of spiritual abuse is inherent in the very job of clergy because the nature of ministry is about intimacy…Mine was the first of many instances of this church leader (in a mainstream Lutheran church) abusing his authority and devastating many lives. And my rough estimate is that a very high percentage of those experiencing spiritual abuse are also victims of childhood abuse and/or spousal abuse…What is it in abuse survivors that alerts spiritual abusers?”


-          Stephen


The Rev. Fr. John-Brian Paprock, an Orthodox Christian priest, certified pastoral counselor and director of Inroads Ministries (an organization dedicated to spiritual recovery and renewal), has noticed the same thing Stephen has. “I started Inroads because I was encountering so many people who were suffering from religious trauma,” he says. “And almost all the cases were familial in some way.


“Maybe the father beat the kids because ‘God told him to do it’ and forced their hands together to make them pray, or maybe a religious trauma has resulted in a dysfunction that has gone down the family generations like a curse,” says Paprock. “Perhaps, due to family dysfunction, a young adult entering college is unable to discern a healthy religious group from an unhealthy one. In counseling survivors, I often have to deal with family of origin issues.”


What kinds of religious groups are more likely to be abusive? It’s a hard question to answer. Millions of healthy, happy people are involved in non-denominational, fundamentalist, charismatic or evangelical churches, the vast majority of which are legitimate, safe organizations. But those who have studied the phenomenon of religious abuse have noticed that a significant proportion of survivors come from such churches.


There may be several reasons for this. Non-denominational churches may be led by pastors with no formal training, affiliation, or accountability to a board or a bishop; such “free” churches allow the clergy to interpret Scripture as they wish, which may result in extreme interpretations; and charismatic churches attract charismatic leaders who may be able to sweep their congregations away in intense emotion. In addition, individuals and families who are already dysfunctional may gravitate toward black-and-white belief systems. According to Fr. Paprock, “The more conservative the belief system, the more an already dysfunctional family may fit into it – because both are closed systems.”   However, he adds, religiously abusive churches and individuals can be found in every religion and in every denomination. “There are crazy people everywhere,” he says.


Deborah Sampson has been studying religious abuse in Christian churches for a number of years and has developed the following list of characteristics of an abusive religious group. They include:


                     Unconditional submission to authority (submission to pastoral authority over Biblical authority)

                     Fear of social disgrace, separation from God’s love, or being without spiritual direction

                     Taking blame for perceived failures

                     Dependence on the pastor for assurance of salvation

                     Inability to see alternatives – no forum for complaint or resolution

                     Continual excusing of the offender

                     Secrecy, silence or shame

                     Eroding of support system


“If I had to come up with a single red flag for anyone in any (Christian) denomination, it would be, “When the pastor’s view of the world and interpretation of Scripture becomes more important than Jesus, it’s time to go,” Sampson says. But just like leaving an abusive spouse, “going” can be as scary as staying for many survivors of religious abuse:

“Because of the systematic undermining of the support system and of the personal belief in grace, victims can despair of salvation,” says Sampson. Those contemplating leaving an abusive church may worry that their choice is tantamount to leaving God; they fear putting their eternal soul in danger.


Recovery from religious abuse can take months or years, and may require counseling from a trustworthy therapist or minister. The act of seeking outside help can be complicated by a belief that getting help from a psychologist or a psychiatrist – or even from a minister of a different church or denomination – will lead the individual away from spiritual safety.


VanderZyl remembers the painful story of a client who had was regularly being raped by her husband; her husband and the pastor both told her that her husband’s actions were mandated by the Biblical verse about wives being submissive to their husbands. By wanting to refuse her husband, says VanderZyl, “she felt she was condemned to hell. When she came to see me she figured she was going to hell anyway, so she might as well break another rule and get counseling.”


Often, VanderZyl says, her new clients are clinically depressed or even suicidal but don’t recognize the role of religious abuse in their lives. “As part of my screening process I do a spiritual assessment,” she says. “That’s when some of the odd and ‘not true’ beliefs come up. They might begin asking themselves for the first time, ‘What do I believe?’ And they might suffer tremendous guilt – and that would be false guilt.” In truth, VanderZyl says, there is no spiritual harm in asking questions and discovering new truths; “If we believe all truth is God’s truth, then it’s a wonderful thing to question and to find out more,” she says.


It can be challenging to find the right therapist or minister to deal with religious abuse, VanderZyl points out. Some psychotherapists, for instance, dismiss the importance of religious faith entirely; on the other hand, some religious counselors “may have their own axe to grind.” She suggests locating a counselor through the American Association of Christian Counselors and finding someone who is nonjudgmental and accepting. Most importantly, VanderZyl says, “Don’t be afraid to make your faith your own. God created variety, and there is variety in how we express our faith.”



Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in The Phoenix. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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