I want to draw your attention to an important article by Dan Sealana, about a pastor in Lansing, a Father Jim Rolph.
Dan writes that Rolph had allegedly been spiritually and emotionally abusing a woman named Nadja, through a kind of manipulation known as “deliverance prayer.” Deliverance prayer, at least the kind practiced by Rolph and many others, involves convincing the victim that they are being “oppressed” by a demon and that only the person doing the praying is qualified to order the demon out. Nadja blew the whistle and fought with all her might to get Father Rolph curtailed after he abused her for a long time. I admire Nadja’s courage and tenacity and I’m so sorry for what she went through. She is a hero.
Father Rolph allegedly claimed Nadja needed deliverance prayer to rid her of supposed demonic oppressions, instead of referring her to mental health treatment when she was in a mentally fragile state. He gradually gained control of her life; he recruited other Charismatic Catholics to further manipulate her; he hurt her relationship with her family and further traumatized her. He is now on a leave of absence.
As someone who grew up in Charismatic Catholic circles and ended up at Franciscan University of Steubenville, this article was hard to get through. It sounds so painfully like things that were done to me and a host of other vulnerable people, in the name of “deliverance prayer” and ridding us of our demons. Father Rolph reads like he was cut from the same cookie cutter as a lot of abusive priests around here.
I think the chicanery of deliverance prayer is a very good example why I keep referring to the Charismatic Renewal as a cult, despite the fact that it doesn’t have a single powerful leader that everybody answers to.
Because, when you are Charismatic, you are forever falling under the spell of people like the description of Father Rolph. These people are legion in Charismatic circles. They are most often a priest but they can be a religious sister like the person I’ve referred to as “Sister Angeline,” and they can sometimes be a lay leader as well. They prey on people they see as having a weakness, like a mental illness or autism or being in an abusive family. They inform the person their weaknesses are due to a “spiritual attack.” They present themselves as the only way out of the attack. They act like a combination between a counselor and an exorcist. And they gain total control over that person’s life.
Dan’s article begins “Sexual abuse is not the only type of abuse that a priest can inflict upon a parishioner. This is a story of alleged, prolonged, subtle spiritual abuse by a priest upon his parishioner under the guise of “deliverance” ministry. One can be guilty of moral crimes even if no secular laws have been broken, and a priest’s “good intentions” do not lessen the harm he may inflict.” This is an extremely eloquent expression of something I’ve felt is true for a long time. Some of the priests and other religious authorities who groom and manipulate people, end up being sexually abusive. But many more abusive religious leaders are just spiritually abusive control freaks. Sexual abuse is just one, particularly horrific, injury that these types of people can inflict. And we have to look at all the ways they abuse, if we’re ever going to understand this type of person and rid our communities of them. I believe that safe and healthy religious practice is possible, but only if we understand how abusers take and maintain power so we can fight them.
This type of spiritual abuser takes over somebody’s life by claiming they have the answer to that person’s problems. They claim that the vulnerable person’s issues are actually due to a “spiritual attack” or a “demonic oppression.” I have often found that their technique involves praying over the person, asking leading questions, and subtly violating boundaries until the victim has a panic attack, a flashback or an autistic meltdown, Then they tell the victim that the intense suffering of those events is actually caused by a demon. They keep praying over the person until the panic, flashback or meltdown subsides and then claim they made it go away with the deliverance prayer. They claim the person has to return to them for more “deliverance” or the demons might come back, and that they have to obey them and do everything they say in order to avoid another demonic attack. When that person inevitably has more symptoms, they return to deliverance prayer and the whole cycle starts over again. They’re not manifesting a demon and having the demon exorcized, they’re being goaded into extreme stress, blowing their top, calming back down, and then being told the manipulative person cured them. That’s a very common pattern.
This doesn’t mean you can’t ask for prayer or get prayed over if you’re suffering from panic or PTSD or if you’re an autistic person, of course. But be very careful if someone tries to tell you that these symptoms are actually demons. I’m sure the devil likes it when people suffer, but that kind of freakout is actually a physical and emotional response, not a preternatural one.
Once the prayer charlatan has their victim coming back for more and more deliverance prayer, they will start condemning random parts of their lives as conduits of the demonic.
The person will end up withdrawing from things they used to do. They might end up losing their social circle or their family entirely. And then the person is caught, with only the manipulator to help them instead of a normal support system (if they ever had one– remember, these abusers are experts at seeking out lonely people or people in abusive families). This relationship becomes a kind of mini cult between two people. It can also involve the charlatan recruiting others from the Charismatic community to pray over the person in a group, leading to the whole community finding out sensitive information about the person’s issues and everyone being recruited to bully the victim. This often happens in the “covenant communities” I’ve written about before. And that’s one way a single abusive person can manipulate a group of people into a full blown cult in the more conventional sense.
This kind of abuse is obviously very damaging, for a host of reasons. It strips a person of family and friends. It discourages them from seeking effective treatment for the reasons they’re suffering. It traumatizes just like having an abusive partner or parent. But in my opinion, as a person who still believes in God and is trying to see if I have a place as a Catholic now that I’m no longer Charismatic, it also harms people by taking away their own ability to discern in their spiritual life. Now that I’m no longer under the sway of any kind of spiritual bully, I’m often terrified that I can’t possibly know what God wants. I ignore my gut instincts and tend to trust people I shouldn’t because I was so often told a feeling of apprehension was really a demon. I’m terrified to go to confession because of how I was manipulated there. That’s just me, and I’m a comparatively mild case. Nadja seems to have suffered a far worse situation. My heart goes out to her. I could name dozens of people in my social circle and here in Steubenville who are severely traumatized and spiritually wounded because of the spiritual abuse of deliverance prayer.
I believe a healthy prayer life is possible, and I’m trying to find one.
Understanding the ways religious leaders can harm people seeking a healthy prayer life, is one of the ways to learn to have a healthy prayer life.