Investigating an abusive church

churches thatIn my last blog post I referred to the division that exists between so-called critical ‘cult watchers’ and people in academia who want to describe controversial religious groups with the neutral title of ‘New Religious Movements’. I have been reading further on this subject to discover how it happens that intelligent people who investigate a group or church can come to such different conclusions as to what they find. I suggested in my previous post that it was as the result of the nature of the particular academic discipline in which the researcher has been trained. Sociologists and social psychologists will see quite different things from psychotherapists and psychologists. That observation, I believe, remains true. But there are further reasons for differences among researchers and students of religious groups when they investigate an abusive organisation.

I want us to imagine the task of researching the true nature of a large organisation, whether a church or a firm. How do you find out what is really going on in such an institution? Do you go to the very top and question the managing director or the minister in charge and ask them to tell you the true story of the dynamics of that institution? Most people can see that the only thing that you would learn from this approach would be the perspective of the person in charge. This may or may not be an accurate one. The same thing would happen if you meet up with the officers or members of a governing board. Whoever you spoke to in that group, at whatever level, would be anxious to put on a good defence of the institution. It is likely that whatever was told to you as an outsider would, up to a point, be biased and not totally reliable information. Anyone who belongs to a church or another organisation will normally be defensive in their support of the image and reputation of the group. If they are being paid by the group, then their very livelihood depends on the need for people on the outside not uncovering any skeletons. If their membership is voluntary, they still have an emotional reason for belonging to the group. This has created a loyalty, a loyalty not necessarily compatible with totally objective and clear-sighted truth.

From what I have said, it will always be difficult and often impossible to find out the inner dynamics of an organisation by just speaking with its members and its leaders. Whatever discontent an individual may feel, he or she, while they are still part of the organisation, is never likely to open up to a stranger. The same thing applies in a family situation. As long as the family is physically together in the same place, it is difficult to see how any member will find it easy to express unhappiness even in a situation of violence and emotional abuse. It is only when a child or mother escapes out of the situation that the catalogue of horrors can normally begin to be uncovered. The task of extracting the truth from an abused mother or child still within a family setting is one of great complexity and requires considerable skill. Somehow the barriers created by loyalty and tribal identity have to be penetrated and overcome so that truth can be told.

The great debate among cult apologists and cult watchers, as we shall call them, is over the question as to whether the testimony of leavers can ever be trusted. I have already suggested that cult apologists are an unreliable group of witnesses to tell the truth about a high-demand group. There are many well-attested allegations that in some cases such scholars have taken money from the very people they study. But a further cause for concern is that one of the main contentions of ‘cult-apologists’ is that testimony from ex-members must be disregarded and ignored. It fails the test of academic objectivity. Common sense, on the other hand, suggests that the evidence of a mother who has fled to a refuge should always be taken into account when deciding on the guilt of a violent husband. The same principle would seem to apply when trying to evaluate a particular group or abusive church. Speaking merely to existing members would be unlikely to penetrate any possible collusion on the part of those who are still in the group. Of course there are many groups that operate without any guilty secrets or abuses of power in their current practice or history. But when there are serious complaints by former members it should be possible to evaluate these and to see whether there is a case to answer. At present we are in the middle of various investigations connected with the sexual abuse of children in churches, homes and other institutions. Some of these claims have been shown to be false. But even when one false claim is found this should not stop investigators believing that it is normally possible to evaluate witness statements and get to the truth. It takes the application of common sense together with a skill, not compromised by credulity on one hand, or weighed down by cynicism on the other. It must be possible to find individuals who have these skills. Not everyone can be said to have a vested interest in either finding abuse everywhere or always denying that it exists.

The refusal of the cult apologists to engage with ex-members, because their perspective will be biased, seems to fly in the face of common sense. Are we to refuse to speak to victims of sex abuse in case their evidence may be confused and muddled? It is a position which to me completely lacks integrity. This observation has made me far less likely to read those authors who approach the whole subject of cults and extreme religious groups in a way that wants to deny the reality of pain, emotional devastation and long-term post-traumatic stress. They do not speak to the victims so they do not acknowledge what they suffer. The Langlois report in this respect possesses enormous value because of the way that it presents clearly the evidence of ex-members. Church officials at Trinity Brentwood were given every opportunity to respond to all these allegations but they never availed themselves of that opportunity. If the present generation of cult apologists had been given the same opportunity to study Peniel/Trinity Church, we would probably have a laundered anodyne account of all the wonderful things that the church had done – i.e. an account of the way that the church and its leaders understand themselves. What we in fact have from John Langlois is a presentation of many normally excluded testimonies but which have all passed through a strict forensic process. As a lawyer John was able to see that the testimonies of those who had left were coherent, consistent and highly credible. His report, in other words, gives the lie to the position that it is not possible to listen to the evidence of survivors and ex-members of an abusive group or cult. It is, to repeat, impossible to see how any organisation can be studied only by listening to the official line of leaders and members. They obviously will always have a vested interest in presenting the best possible perspective on their particular group.

The Child Abuse Enquiry in the UK thankfully has not been given to academic sociologists and social psychologists trained in the academic cult apologist style. It has been given to lawyers and judges who will listen to anyone and everyone who has something to say. Then they will assess the truth on the balance of probability and it is the skill that lawyers have for ferreting out the truth. Although mistakes have been made, I for one will always have a degree of confidence in the legal processes to find truth. I certainly prefer their methods to the methods of academics who refuse, on spurious grounds of objectivity, to listen to every source of information from wherever it comes.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

24 thoughts on “Investigating an abusive church

  1. It has been my experience that those at the top of Church groups (Cults) and business have never been aware of the suffering of their hands on workers or members.

    I left school 1962 and experienced 45years of misery in the workplace, disempowered by illiteracy with the inability to think for myself or, be aware that I had that right.
    Stephen is absolutely right to focus us on this. The shear amount of bosses, managers and heads of department that had long ago reached a level of incompetence, I find staggering as I look back, (Something I try to avoid).

    There is and perhaps never will be a level playing field for this discussion to really, truthfully take place.
    Let us face the reality of this head on; people are dying because of this mass evasion of the truth. The Samaritans do not publish the amount of suicides related to work place misery, and I know of no other survey that does. The spiritually abused remain behind a curtain of tragedy.
    We as a society (And Church) must really think about how we reach out to the disempowered, it is a sad fact that this superhuman inhumanity is glossed over with words of limited definition and word painted with catastrophic indifference in the media, and other government departments that, are obviously, purposefully structured to fail! Popularism rules the day.
    For those who think I harp on about this too much, I repeat my question:
    Can you really truthfully get inside the nervous system of the disempowered, can you incarnate yourself in to their every day lives? Do you know of anyone willing to even try?
    Whenever this discussion takes place there is always a threshold beyond which people do not wish (Or Wont) reason.

    Stephen says that he has faith in the legal system to find the “Truth,” I don’t.
    When you have such a camouflage brought about by those who have an agenda to purposefully keep people disempowered for financial business reasons, you are in a fight with a mouse against a Lion! The Professional people at the top do not always, ‘give totally reliable information’ no, mostly its downright lies. As I write this I see thousand of the disempowered groping in the dark for a way out, I am extremely thankful that Stephen has lit a candle.



  2. I think Stephen means that the law is meant to be as objective as possible, and this means all accounts have to be heard. Those who are abused must be given a chance to speak. A proper investigation would do that.
    I would also say that people in a situation often do not see it clearly. It is after they leave that they realise what they were putting up with. And if you’re in that abusive relationship, you usually feel safer once you’re out. After all, the abuser is doing dreadful things to you. Fear will keep you quiet, in case it just gets worse. So you have to listen to the evidence of the survivors. If you only listen to the abusers, what good is that?

    1. There are people across the social spectrum who are disempowered and unable to stand up for themselves. They lack the courage, the money or the ability to do so. This is not just a problem for the working classes.

  3. The law will only adjudicate in cases brought before it. If legal aid has dried up for many people because it is unaffordable, that is one issue. The point I was making is simply that lawyers and judges normally get to the truth in complicated cases because of their intelligence, experience and the skills they possess. We can’t expect them to deal with all society’s ills. That is not their brief. They do a job and most of the time they do it well.

  4. Anonymous,
    May I ask what you think about the ‘Church’ as being part of that oppression, traditionally and with its middle class dominance today?
    Also disempowerment caused by illiteracy is total! And that my friend is a very working class problem, not a debatable point.

    1. You’re absolutely right, Chris. Our education system leaves far too many people marginalised and unable to access a great deal that is in theory available. I have a neighbour who simply never opens any letter she doesn’t like the look of, because she is afraid she won’t understand it.

    2. I’m not writing on this blog to score points about who is the most oppressed Chris, I just want to point out that the working classes don’t have exclusive rights over difficult lives and being downtrodden and all the rest of it.

  5. “Sociologists and social psychologists will see quite different things from psychotherapists and psychologists” and “The Child Abuse Enquiry in the UK thankfully has not been given to academic sociologists and social psychologists trained in the academic cult apologist style. It has been given to lawyers and judges who will listen to anyone and everyone who has something to say”. In my experience, all disciplines, including jurisprudence, have their strengths and weaknesses. The Law sometimes forgets common sense. To my mind our subject is multidisciplinary and needs contributions from all.

    1. You’re right, of course. Hopefully, the law is “indifferent” in the theological sense. Too many others have vested interests which affect the way they approach information gathering.

  6. Thanks E/A

    Very good point about your Neighbour! So many people live in fear without the ability to think for themselves.There is no ‘Outreach’ to them, they are unseen and unknown.


  7. Anonymous

    When it comes to rights, the people from who’s ranks I come from have none.
    Example I repeat: A care assistant in a residential nursing home is told; “If you speak out about neglect and abuse, we (The employer) will engineer an allegation against you”. Please give me an example of disempowerment worse than this? Finally, my repetition on this point is not to ‘score points’, but to fulfil Edmund Burke’s words, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing”

  8. Working in a mental hospital I witnessed abuse of the nursing assistants. I spoke up and lost my job. However, no one class of people is spared the attentions of bullies; all of us can be targets according to research.

  9. I’ve probably said this before, but bullying is common everywhere, because we are basically chimpanzees. Of course, we are thinking chimpanzees! We don’t have to just muddle along with our instincts. We can and should do something about our inclinations to form castes and bully those below us. The church, it seems to me is unique in that it deliberately places some people above suspicion. And also, the church of all human institutions ought to be better. Chris, of course you’re right. The good people do nothing, and that is the problem.

    1. No, the good people frequently do something. It’s just that they are ignored, bullied or shouted down. The less good people always have louder voices. The good people are too polite to shout.

      1. Well, you have a point. And you made me smile! My experience has been that most people believe what I tell them, but do nothing. Obviously, many people can’t do much anyway. But there are people who could have made a difference, but they chose not to.

        1. These comments caused me to remember a previous comment about insurance companies. They seem to have the final say, and the final say doesn’t seem to be in the target’s interest. In my experience, things seem to move along quite well until Bishops and the Insurance Industry get involved. Until then good people had been involved and saying the right things.

  10. I stand by every word I have said, every word. We seem to be looking down the wrong end of a telescope. It does not matter how you get there, how you fine-tune the language, the fact remains that thousands remain in a totally disempowered state. I personally deal with real people, not a figment of my, (Or anyone else’s) imagination. Scoring points is for those who prefer the mind games and the academic chessboard.
    I don’t want to win any conversation, I do however want to see the captives set free, I possess an iron will on this, but I fear churches and their leaders are content to see the disempowered sleeping on their own gravestones.
    This is my final word on this subject, I withdraw from this to allow the points that Stephen wants to make less cluttered by my graffiti.


    1. I don’t think anyone was point scoring, Chris. Personally, I’m fine tuning my thinking when we have discussions like this. Or sometimes, the way I have expressed it. It’s important to be able to talk things through. I have found what everyone says on these threads very helpful. Including you. There are indeed, many powerless people. But it is not entirely clear to me how Christians can change things in the large sense. What we can and should do, is act in a Christian manner, that is to show God’s love, on an individual scale. If we all did that, it would make a difference. And at the least, it makes a difference to that one starfish! (if you all know that story!)

        1. Oh. Right. After a storm, a beach is covered in dying starfish. A little lad and his Father are walking on the beach, and the lad is throwing them back into the sea. His father says, “It’s just nature. There are plenty of starfish, and it won’t make any difference your throwing them back. There are too many of them to make a difference.” “Well,” said the lad, throwing another one, “It made a *&£* of a difference to that one!”
          Very sound theology. We can make a big difference to one person.

          1. I’ve never quite worked this one out, but here’s Paul in Romans 9.27:
            “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved.”

            1. Fair point. Me neither. But an elderly Reader Emeritus of my acquaintance reckons there is value in ministering to a remnant. Words of comfort to those in very small churches!

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