Spiritual abuse

Spiritual abuse was the subject matter of a recent survey carried out by Dr Lisa Oakley of the National Centre for Post Qualifying Social Work at Bournemouth University. The survey found that more than 1,000 British Christians from Anglican, Baptist, Independent and Pentecostal churches reported they had experienced spiritual abuse by leaders. Respondents also said church leaders were also experiencing abuse from members of their own congregations.

The survey identified key characteristics of spiritual abuse as “coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring of individuals, control through the misuse of religious texts and scripture, and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behaviour.”  Justin Humphreys, executive director of charity the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service, who co-authored the research, said priests and other leaders had to be careful about expressing the beliefs of their church to avoid alienating or upsetting others and that individuals should be free to challenge.  He noted many victims had struggled to get help because social workers and mainstream children’s and abuse charities did not understand spiritual abuse and some were unaware it existed at all.

The survey’s publication has coincided with publicity about the findings of a Church of England tribunal which has found a vicar guilty of spiritual abuse. Proceedings brought under the Clergy Discipline Measure found that the Reverend Timothy Davis, vicar of Christ Church Abingdon, was guilty of misconduct and that his ‘intense mentoring’ of a boy between 2012 and 2013 amounted to abuse.

The complaint related to a period of 18 months during which Davis, who is in his 50s, is described in the judgment as having held private mentoring sessions with a 16-year-old schoolboy, whose family were part of his congregation.  Davis moved in with the boy’s family and was described as becoming angry if the boy did not come to services because he was with his girlfriend.  Nightly one-on-one mentoring sessions which lasted for up to two hours were described as having taken place unsupervised in the boy’s bedroom.

Over the 18 month period, the judgment concludes that Davis ‘engaged in mentoring so intense that [the boy] was put under unacceptable pressure having regard to his age and maturity and was deprived of his freedom of choice as to whether to continue’.  The disciplinary tribunal found that under the guise of his authority [Davis] sought to control, by the use of admonition, scripture, prayer and revealed prophecy, the life of [the boy] and/or his relationship with his girlfriend.’

Whilst this judgment has garnered publicity it is sadly not the only recent example of spiritual abuse. Last year 2 men were convicted of prolonged abuse of a number of women who had attended at Pentecostal churches in Keighley. That abuse included physical and sexual as well as spiritual abuse to rid the women of their demons.

Clergy guidelines acknowledge the power that priests can have over others, and state such power must not be used to bully, manipulate or denigrate. They also say that Clergy should never seek to remove autonomy from a person, nor should power be exercised inappropriately.

The potential for spiritual abuse is of course not limited to Christian organisations but may arise in any faith. The lengthy and detailed reports from the Royal Commission in connection with religious organisations contain many further recommendations for how the clergy and leadership of faith organisations should behave.  In considering their application the potential for spiritual abuse must not be overlooked.


Written by Michael Lee,  paralegal at BLM

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