Five Ways to Spot Spiritual Abuse

Five Ways to Spot Spiritual Abuse February 14, 2021


Many years ago now, I went on retreat for the weekend with my FUS “faith household.”

A faith household is an institution unique to Franciscan University, kind of like a combination of a sorority or fraternity and a mini religious order. The members have mandatory daily prayer, business meetings and once-a-semester retreats; they also hang out together and have a lot of fun.  Each of them has a theme, patron saints and a charism; when I was at Franciscan University, my Faith Household was called Totus Tuus Maria.

I loved being in Totus Tuus Maria. I considered them my family. I had household sisters for bridesmaids in my wedding and we sang the Household song during the wedding Mass. There were so many wonderful girls in that group. I feel that I have to say that first, before talking about faith households. I loved them. I miss them, and I wish things had ended differently.

But anyway, eleven or twelve years ago we went on retreat. We were all excited to go on that retreat. We loved the long weekends we got to spend together like a real family, praying, going to Mass, listening to spiritual talks, playing games and staying up late giggling. We got ready for this retreat like getting ready for a sleepover: packing comfy pajamas, playing cards, and bags full of snacks.

When we got to the retreat, an hour away from Steubenville with no way to get home since we’d all carpooled, there was a surprise announcement that this retreat would be different. The “household coordinator,” a popular young student elected to run the household for a year, had decided that we would have a silent retreat. From this moment until Sunday after Mass, there would be no talking on the retreat. Our cell phones were to go into the basket by the chapel. And we weren’t allowed to eat the snacks we brought, because we were fasting this weekend. Three meals would be served, but we were going to fast between meals as penance. We were doing penance for the sin of always paying too much attention to the refreshments at Household business meeting instead of humbly paying attention to what the household coordinator wanted to say.

We were shocked and annoyed to have our fun weekend turned into a weekend of self-denial, but we all complied. Nobody broke the rules. I actually liked the silence because I am an introvert, but I don’t think most of the other girls did.

You’d think I’d have learned then that the coordinator was a bully and not trustworthy. But I didn’t.  That actually took a long time to catch on. She was more and more overtly pushy as the year went on, and I kept not catching on because of the way she did it– with a smile on her face and a gentle voice, always with the insistence that she was only doing all that she did because she loved us. Eventually she revealed something embarrassing I’d shared in confidence to the entire Household Alumnae email loop, just to be cruel to me, and at that point I realized what I was dealing with. I went over her head and talked to the priest in charge of Household Life.

The priest bawled me out and verbally abused me, yelling until I was in tears and then forced me to resign from being an active member in the household, as a favor to the coordinator, who was a personal friend. And that wasn’t the end of my punishment; I talk about what the priest did next in my book, upcoming in April.

But it also was a good thing that I spoke out, because somebody contacted me privately to thank me for talking about the bullying and secrecy at Franciscan University, which she explained most of the students are too scared to talk about. At first I thought it was just her and me. But then I met another person who had a traumatic experience with bullying in the faith households. And then I met another. And then I found out that I was just one, relatively mild, case in an epidemic of spiritual abuse.

I’m bringing this up right now because I only remembered the retreat with the surprise compulsory silence and fasting a few days ago. And that was the first time in a decade I realized that those penances were themselves a form of spiritual abuse and a warning of everything that came later. I’d thought of it as an annoying weekend before. It took me this long to realize how wrong it was, and how it ought to have been one of the first red lights that the household coordinator was not to be trusted.

I’ve been pondering why it took so long to realize we were being abused, and that it was spiritual abuse.

Why is it so hard to notice when we’re being spiritually abused?

Why is spiritual abuse so hard to name?

I have defined spiritual abuse as abuse perpetrated by someone we perceive as a spiritual authority, using their position as an authority as the excuse. Spiritual abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual, or verbal. Any time a religious authority causes harm to someone in the name of their shared faith, they’re not just committing ordinary abuse.  They’re piling spiritual abuse on top of it.

A priest sexually battering somebody and then telling them it was their fault for being sexy is an obvious, extreme example of spiritual abuse. So is a parent beating a child and telling them they’re “training them up in the fear of the Lord,” or a cult leader starving and beating his followers. These are such blatantly wrong examples of spiritual abuse that it’s easier to recognize them. But spiritual abuse can also be emotional and verbal, and that abuse is also traumatic in a different way. A Charismatic community leader who scares people all the time to keep them on their toes and obedient is being abusive. So is a pastor who spreads gossip about a family of parishioners that leads to their being shunned by the community. So is a catechist who humiliates a student. So is any leader who teaches their followers that they’re bad and evil and only by being punished by the leader can they be good again.

Which brings me back to Franciscan University. A household coordinator might not be someone you think of as a spiritual authority like a priest or a catechist, but at Franciscan University they were. On paper they’re supposed to be more like a secretary, keeping the household organized, leading the meetings and keeping track of phone numbers and birthdays. But, at least while I was there, they were treated like a mother superior– in fact, when I complained about the bullying in the household, the priest in charge ordered me over the phone to “be obedient to your superior.” He viewed that bullying coordinator as my superior in a religious order, and himself as the superior to both of them.

And, at least until I was thrown out of household, I bought that. I tried to obey them for a ridiculously long time. I was downright shocked when it finally sunk in that these people were bullies and abusers, not followers of God at all.

These are some things I’ve discovered in the years since I’ve been at Franciscan University. They may seem obvious to some of you, but for people who have been spiritually abused for a long time, they’re things we have to learn. Learning to spot abuse and to stand up for yourself when you are used to being abused is a process, similar to learning a new language.

The first point is that you are a good person deeply loved by a God Who made you on purpose. God gave you the ability to know love from abuse, and He doesn’t want you to be hurt. We live in a fallen world where nobody is perfect. You’re not perfect either. You’re capable of hurting people and of having bad ideas; you’re in need of repentance just like anybody else. But you’re not uniquely messed up or unable to hear the prompting of the Holy Spirit. You can know what’s good for you, and you can know whether you’re being abused. You have to hold onto that knowledge, because abusers can smell someone who’s uncertain about it a mile away. They will use it to take advantage of you.

Secondly, if you’ve been spiritually abused in the past, chances are you’re accustomed to it, so you have to take special care. My family had been involved in a very ugly sect of the Charismatic Renewal, and then I was briefly involved with Regnum Christi and some other abusive movements, so by the time I got to Franciscan University I was used to being spiritually abused and couldn’t spot an abuser. And I’m not alone; many people have been spiritually abused multiple times. Each time you’re abused it gets harder to spot the abuser the next time, so you have to care for yourself by learning what abuse is all over again.

Third, spiritual abuse can be difficult for us to spot, because it comes to us in sheep’s clothing. Abusers probably don’t look like you think they’re going to look. You’ve been groomed to think that a certain group of people are bad, and another group of people are good– everybody is raised with expectations like that in one way or another. But for those of us who have a history of being spiritually abused that list probably has a lot of random designations on it. For me, for example, religious brothers and sisters who didn’t wear habits were presented as bad and disobedient, but the ones who walk around all day in a strict habit are obedient and good. People who pray the Rosary every day were “real Catholics” and people who practiced a different devotion were fakes. Maybe you’ve been raised to believe that priests are always trustworthy and another group of people are always not, or that Franciscans are good and Jesuits or bad, or something like that. Spiritual abusers take advantage of sets of rules like this by being ostentatious about outward signs that code as “good.” In order to protect yourself, you need to look at outward signs of piety as neutral rather than a good sign of trustworthiness. Abusers can take advantage of any good thing for their own purposes. Both trustworthy and untrustworthy people can join religious orders and wear habits. Both saints and abusers pray the Rosary after Mass. Both kind and unkind people wear scapulars. It’s how people treat one another that tells us if they’re trustworthy.

Fourth, spiritual abuse is usually committed in the name of love. Spiritual abusers are great at saying they love you. They’re experts at making you feel deeply loved one minute and torturing you the next– and, often enough, while you’re reeling from the abuse, you’re still feeling that the abusive person loves you so it must be for your own good somehow. Every single Saturday afternoon Household “Lord’s Day” prayer meeting, we would pass a lit candle to one another and say “you are the light of the world and I love you.”  The household coordinator told us that she loved us all the time. When she sensed that we were going to protest what she was about to say, she’d smile and say “How much do you want me to love you?” and when we answered that we wanted her to love us very much, she said “I just wanted to challenge you…” and then gave us our marching orders. You can protect yourself from that kind of abuse by remembering that love is not just a word. Love is an action. If someone says they love you while acting in a way that hurts, you have to look closely at what they’re doing and exercise sound judgement– because what they’re doing probably isn’t loving after all.

The fifth point is extremely important: pain is a sign that something is wrong. Many victims of spiritual abuse are taught that pain is a sign of love. Pain, we’re told, is something our abusers inflict to help us be good. We’re only suffering so much because we’re bad people they’re trying to fix.  But remember the first rule: you’re already a good person. You’re capable of mistakes and sins just like anybody else, but you can look at what’s going on, and at your own feelings, and make good choices. God made humans capable of feeling pain because pain is  a barometer. We have to listen to our pain, to try and figure out what’s happening to us. Sometimes pain will point out our own flaws. Sometimes we’re in pain because we’ve done a bad thing and now we’re confronted with the consequences of our actions. Sometimes we’re in pain because we’re unused to doing a good thing and the unfamiliarity hurts. But often, pain is a sign that we’re being abused. If being with a person makes you deeply uncomfortable, listen to that discomfort and ask yourself why. If something a spiritual authority is asking you to do feels painful. humiliating or unfair, chances are that that authority is being abusive.

If someone is surprising you with penances that hurt, it’s a good bet that that person is abusive. Good spiritual advice and formation come from a place of freedom, not a place of feeling trapped.

If you protest against something that hurts and the authority figure goes on to bully or embarrass you, you can be certain they’re abusive. Even if they have a reputation for holiness and carry a big Rosary.

God loves you, and true love doesn’t want people to be hurt.

There’s a lot more to know than that, and I’m still learning all the time. But I hope this helps.



Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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