This post and series deal with various types of abuse,
including sexual abuse and abuse perpetrated by clergy.
Please read with caution.
What Are We Looking For?
But what does spiritual abuse look like, or consist in?
Most kinds of abuse try to take on the colors of normal behavior, at least in public and other settings where getting caught is a serious possibility. Most abusers will try to persuade their targets that the abuse is normal behavior (or even better, prevent them from ever raising the question). Spiritual abuse is no different in this respect. The language it uses may be couched in Biblical, theological, or devotional terms, but the aim of that language will be to increase the abuser’s power and shut down questions and disagreement.
In Christian contexts, spiritual abuse tends to rely heavily on Christian morals. This gives abusers an advantage, because Christian morals (especially Catholic morals) are a vast, complex system. It’s much easier to highlight someone’s flaws in a system like that, without even needing to tell any lies. Spiritual abuse therefore often takes the form of shaming—though it usually touts itself as “correction” or something similar.
We all know what “Let’s get coffee” means. Find a better lie.
Correction Versus Shaming
Now, as with so many tactics of abuse, correction is a genuine need in some circumstances. Everyone screws up sometimes, and one of the functions of authority is to protect and heal people who’ve been injured. Moreover, the experience of being corrected is rarely pleasant. But genuine correction has certain distinguishing marks that set it apart from shaming. Among other things, correction:
- is proportionate to the offense
- puts the victim’s needs first
- focuses more on amendment than guilt
- sticks to relevant facts
- tries not to inflict unnecessary pain
Shaming, on the other hand, is about the abuser’s power, not protecting anybody. Shame is a social tool meant to encourage public conformity; it isn’t about correcting a problem, it’s about making it look like there’s not a problem. People who’ve been in awkward, hard-to-explain situations may recognize that “making it look like there’s not a problem” can actually be important, even when there really isn’t a problem—but obviously the ability to produce that kind of spin is very easy to misuse.
Moreover, shaming is just as easy to employ against victims of wrongdoing for “making a fuss” as it is against people who’ve actually done something wrong. In church contexts, this will usually appear in the guise of “counseling” or “reconciliation”; some unlucky penitents may have met it in the confessional.
Some significant signs that what’s going on is shaming rather than legitimate correction include:
- harsh rebukes or penalties for trivial infractions
- treating rumors or speculations as facts
- violating reasonable privacy, such as rebuking private offenses in public
- demanding confidential information without reasonable cause
- punishing or penalizing people without explaining what they’ve done wrong
- refusing to meaningfully punish or restrain known offenders
- ignoring or downplaying the needs of the victim
- telling victims they deserved, wanted, or are responsible for what happened to them
- centering the abuser’s or institution’s reputation, prestige, or power
- bringing up unrelated episodes to embarrass the offender or the victim
- shouting, swearing, or cursing (beyond what is socially normal)
- threatening or resorting to physical violence
Christian Twists on Spiritual Abuse
A lot of these traits may sound pretty familiar. “Centering the abuser’s or institution’s reputation” is an exact description of both the Catholic hierarchy as a whole, and of many individual bishops in this country, with respect to the ongoing priestly sex abuse crisis. Fundamentalist parents threatening their children with hell for same-sex attractions is a trope so common it should be stale, if not for the fact that it keeps getting fresh blood. These are typical examples of abusers manipulating doctrines to prop up their own power in a relationship.
Ministry, as I’ve said, is a difficult part of the discussion. Most communities have some kind of authority, especially churches; visionaries and mystics are rare, but they do pop up now and then; and for Catholics, we literally need the priesthood in order to access six of the seven sacraments. But the sacred character of priests (in sacerdotal traditions) and prophets (in charismatic traditions) often makes it extremely hard to hold them accountable. My own experiences with charismatic Catholicism have been entirely positive, but then, I’ve remained at its fringes. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that a lot of people have been horribly abused in multiple ways in such circles.
A twist on spiritual abuse that, as far as I know, is uniquely Christian is the role that forgiveness can play in abuse. This deserves a post of its own, and I’ve written about aspects of it before. For now, I’ll limit myself to the following.
The Delicate Problem of Forgiveness
For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. —Matthew 6.14-15
The unconditional duty to forgive is part of the DNA of Christianity. It brooks no exceptions or limits, because it is simply one of the many forms taken by unconditional, universal love. Christ pre-eminently models it by asking his Father, while his executioners are pounding the nails into him, to pardon them: “They don’t understand what they’re doing.”
Abusers often use this precept for a different and malicious purpose. They make it an instrument of control rather than an invitation to love, ignoring the fact that repentance has to come first.1 Usually this pseudo-forgiveness is used against victims, to silence them: Well, it wouldn’t be very loving to report him to the police, would it? He’s apologized to you; I think you should do the Christian thing and forgive him. This technique may be used to shield a friend or ally, or to justify the abuser’s own bad behavior.
But here’s the thing: forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean letting someone off from consequences. Disciplining or firing an employee, leaving a parish, breaking off contact with someone, even taking legal action—these measures may (or may not) be extreme, but they are not in themselves unloving, and they can be appropriate. Releasing someone from consequences is an indulgence, which is a gift over and above the love and good will that forgiveness express. Christian charity is entirely compatible with wanting someone to experience consequences if that’s really what’s best for them; and it often is. Don’t trust anyone who denies it.
Continued in Part 5: Saint Disney.
1This is true not because the offender needs to earn forgiveness by feeling bad, but because acting out forgiveness toward someone who isn’t sorry enables the original bad behavior. Not only does this underrate the victim’s dignity and put them in further danger, it also doesn’t help the offender.