Religious abuse, also referred to as spiritual abuse, is a type of abuse that occurs within religious or spiritual communities. This can range from a pastor condemning a church member based on their sexuality to a minister sexually abusing a congregation member.
When going through a hard time people often turn to religion. However, since most people are vulnerable when they’re in pain, this vulnerability can be weaponized by leaders and peers alike in religious communities.
No one deserves to be abused and mistreated. We often hear about abuse in the home and in romantic relationships. However, religious abuse is a common issue that can result in long-lasting trauma.
Types of Religious Abuse
There may be various forms of abuse that occurs within a religious setting. At times, the abuse may be linked to one’s social identity. This can result in someone experiencing abuse in the church due to their sexual orientation, gender, or race.
For example, members of the LGBTQ+ community can experience threats, rejection, or manipulation at the hands of religious leaders.
As mentioned, sexual abuse of children in the church is another form of religious abuse that occurs. Domestic abuse can also happen in the church.
Signs of Religious Abuse
Spotting the signs of abuse is essential to staying safe.
Control and Manipulation
An early sign of an abusive relationship is subtle forms of control. For example, perhaps the abusive individual has strong opinions about the people you spend time with. They could get angry if you don’t tell them what you’re doing. They might even insult you based on an outfit you’re wearing. This behavior can then escalate, resulting in manipulation, sexual coercion, and physical assault.
Power Dynamics are Present
Now, let’s consider how these signs of abuse may present in a religious context. There may be members of the church who hold a lot of power, like a preacher or bishop. Power dynamics can lead to abuse such as:
- Sexual coercion
- Financial abuse
- Instilling fear
This power can be abused by telling church members that they will be excommunicated unless they provide a sexual favor.
One could be pressured into constantly donating their money to their church. Whenever they begin to question the reasoning, a pastor could begin manipulating them into thinking that they are failing God.
In other circumstances, a clergy member may continually tell someone they’re disobeying God and going to Hell whenever they set boundaries.
Red flags to keep an eye out for in the church include a religious leader using scripture to embarrass or shame you, inappropriate touching, especially between a leader and church members, and insistence on generous financial donations.
Impact of Religious Abuse
All forms of abuse lead to trauma. However, when abuse occurs in a religious context, the trauma isn’t only related to the harm caused. Some may find themselves disconnected from their faith, making it impossible to use their spirituality as a coping tool.
The impact of abuse as a whole can be devastating. For example, those who experience abuse as children are more likely to develop issues with substance abuse, severe physical illnesses, and adverse mental health outcomes.
Others who experience domestic violence face similar outcomes, particularly compromised mental and physical health and decreased productivity, leading to economic insecurity.
How to Get Help
Healing is possible. Whether you feel you may have experienced religious abuse or sense that someone you love has been victimized, below are a few helplines that you can get in contact with.
Hotlines You Can Contact
- Child Abuse: If you are a victim of child abuse or know someone who might be, call or text the Child help National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 to speak with a professional crisis counselor.
- Domestic Violence: If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.
- Sexual Assault: If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member at a local RAINN affiliate.
- LGBTQIA+: If you are seeking support for issues with coming out, relationships, bullying, self-harm, and more, contact the LGBT National Hotline at 1-888-843-4564 for one-to-one peer support.
Trauma often follows abuse, so if you’re in distress it’s important to contact a licensed mental health provider.
You are more than deserving of help and healing and there are many therapists who will support you in your healing journey.