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Spiritual abuse research shows 2/3 say they've experienced religious coercion

Sun 07 Jan 2018
By Cara Bentley

Research into 'spiritual abuse', often defined as coercion or manipulation in a religious context, says only 33% of those surveyed said their Church or Christian organisation had a policy that included spiritual abuse.

Research on behalf of the Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) into spiritual abuse reveals that most people need a better understanding of the term. 

Dr Lisa Oakley from the University of Bournemouth says in her report that key characteristics of the term are: "coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring of individuals, control through the misuse of religious texts and scripture and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behaviour."

The Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service are recommending more training. They say: "Awareness of what is often referred to as spiritual abuse is increasing in the UK however findings from a new study into this issue highlight big gaps in understanding around the topic."

"Findings indicate the need to develop a fuller understanding of this very real experience, to assist in developing effective responses and help develop safer and healthier cultures across the Christian community."

Initial results show there is recognition that coercive controlling behaviours do occur in churches and other religious settings, but more needs to be done to understand and address the issues.

Of the 1,500 participants surveyed as part of the research, only 33% stated that their church or Christian organisation had a policy that included spiritual abuse, and only 24% had received any training on this issue.

Justin Humphreys, Executive Director at CCPAS and co-author of the research said: “A distinct lack of research available on this subject in the UK has necessitated this study to understand people’s experiences, and to help Christian communities create safer and healthier cultures. This includes the need to develop appropriate responses to this form of abuse.

"Growing awareness around this issue has meant it is now being recognised, but defining what it is and what it isn’t needs further careful and considered work to be done. We owe this to those that have suffered spiritual abuse and we owe it to those involved in the wider Christian community to work constructively towards creating safer places for all.”

Dr Lisa Oakley said: “There has been a focus in previous work in this area on leaders controlling and coercing those they lead, but a strong message in this research is that ministers and leaders also experience this form of abuse.

Any work in this area needs to ensure there is recognition that this behaviour can and is experienced by leaders as well as congregational members. These are complex issues and more work is needed in this area to reach better understanding for all concerned.”

The term itself raised concern for some respondents and again highlights the need to understand this experience better.

One said: “The phrase spiritual abuse is powerful in that it has two opposite words. Abuse is ultimately negative and most people view the word spiritual in a church context as being closer to God so ultimately positive. The very hearing of the phrase sends people not confident with safeguarding into a spin and fully understanding or being able to quickly define it would help.”

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