Monthly Archives: February 2018

Towards healing for Church Abuse Survivors

For a half hour last Saturday, I mingled with the group of spiritually and sexually abused survivors who were demonstrating their concerns to the Church of England General Synod. My presence there was not as a survivor but to express solidarity with them and their cause. I realise now that I was also saying something else. In an indirect way I was there to help represent the many other courageous survivors who were not present. In particular, I was there for the individuals whose abuse and pain have been shared with me personally over the past 25 years. The group at Westminster were all men but the people I have known have been mostly female. Something was missing in that demonstration, the survivor women.

I can of course think of many reasons why an abused individual would not want to appear in a demonstration at Church House. Part of the legacy of being abused in the context of a church is the way that you have in many cases taken on a mantle of shame. Abusers are very good at making their victims feel guilty. When the abuser is a church leader it is not difficult to use the power given to you to put the victim in the wrong. Even when the victim makes good progress in recovery to become a survivor, the shame placed there at the time of abuse lingers on. Women are especially prone to adopting this legacy of shame when they have suffered at the hands of a male leadership. Notions of male authority over women are easily found in Scripture. The man’s scriptural role is to dominate and control the woman in a variety of ways. This sense of victimhood is hard to shed.

A further question that I have been asking since the demonstration is to wonder where the small army of counsellors and psychotherapists needed to help survivors is going to come from. In Synod we were given the figure of 3000 people who have cases against the Church and have yet to be heard. If even half these complaints were to result in a payment of money to receive psychotherapy, are there in fact sufficient skilled people able to pick up this enormous task? One of the things that I have learned in my association with the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) is that the care of spiritually damaged people is of a different order to those who have suffered trauma in other contexts. When people are betrayed and abused within the setting of their faith communities, something deeply precious has been damaged. The literature around helping people who have been members of cults is probably relevant here as it embraces spiritual issues. The problem is that very few psychotherapists specialise in this area so that they can help rebuild the spiritual as well as the emotional core. The little that I have heard about psychotherapy for spiritually abused people suggests that they receive help only up to a point. The conventionally trained counsellor or psychotherapist is much to be preferred to so-called unaccredited ‘Christian Counselling’ but they may not be equipped to help to rebuild the core self of the person who has been abused by a maverick Christian leader.

The problem that we have in Britain with spiritually abused survivors of churches is of course dwarfed by the situation in the United States. But, as we might expect, the counselling industry there has developed much further in the way that it cares for survivors of cults and extremist groups. Many of these individuals have been sexually and emotionally abused. Some American congregations make it their business to reach out to abused survivors to help them recover in an atmosphere of loving acceptance. There are also centres, a bit like rehab retreats, where an abused person can go to stay and receive support, therapy and acts of kindness. If the church is to do more than pay compensation to spiritually abused people, then it needs such centres and trained individuals who understand the spiritual dimension of church abuse.

I was recently in touch with someone who feels that he and his wife have a calling to set up a centre for people who have been through spiritual abuse. They know that they will have an enormously uphill task in getting the funding to equip and staff such as centre. The support of such an initiative by central Church authorities might be a helpful first step to show that the church is really serious in wanting to undo some the damage of tolerating abusive cultures in the past.

My second suggestion is that the Church sponsors in a conference for professionally trained people who are interested in supporting this group of survivors as part of their work. This would bring them into touch with the small number of psychotherapists in the UK who have made the treatment of spiritual abused their speciality. There could be a sharing of resources and information given out about the work being done elsewhere in the world in this area. I personally know several of these American specialists even though I have no expertise in their area of work.

I have one further idea to throw into the pond which may help a process of healing for some survivors. Although I have played a small part in supporting survivors over the years, I have not had any professional skill to offer in this area beyond basic pastoral competence. In the past 12 months however, my wife and I have been training to be EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) practitioners. We hope to complete our training sometime in the spring. The technique aims to relieve an individual of the emotion and pain which are often contained in traumatic memories. To simplify, I can explain that there are two key components in this treatment. One is to tap on certain meridian points which are connected to the brain. The other part is to allow the client, during the tapping, to make affirmations about the past trauma. I was drawn to the training because it is used to help army veterans affected by Post Traumatic stress. The case studies that I am offering in order to qualify as a practitioner have all been focused on spiritual abuse cases and the results are heart-warming. The treatment can be offered through Skype and some have even used it successfully over the telephone. Please contact me if you would like to hear more.

The Church of England, if it is to come through the present crisis of abuse allegations needs to come up with some proactive ideas. It cannot buy its way out of the problem. It has to be committed to the idea that the Church can indeed be a place of safety and healing. It needs to sponsor institutions and individuals who will help to heal the enormous hurt that has been created over past decades. Defensiveness and protectiveness of the institution will fail as policy aims. What is needed is something visionary which will show that the Church means business in wanting to promote the health and wholeness of all.

General Synod 2018 on Safeguarding: Despair and Hope?

Readers of this blog will know that I was present at a demonstration outside Church House Westminster as General Synod met for the final day of its February session. This was to show support for survivors of sexual abuse who had suffered within the church. It was a good experience to greet in person individuals whom I had never met beyond the virtual world of the Internet. With the survivors were other supporters like myself. Some were lawyers who had represented the survivor victims in their struggles to achieve justice.

After the demonstration was over, most of the demonstrators opted to sit in the public gallery to watch the Synod presentation on the topic of Safeguarding. I have never been a member of General Synod and it was of interest to be part of it for the hour and a half of the presentation. The speakers were keen to show that the church was doing a great deal to improve procedures for protecting the vulnerable and investigating past episodes of sexual abuse by its own employees. We were told in one statistic that the amount being spent on Safeguarding had increased five times in a few years. This money was being spent on ensuring that every member of the clergy or officeholder in the church was to attend training. No doubt this is a worthy effort but there was still something that I felt to be missing in this careful presentation.

Every member of Synod had received a short booklet entitled We asked for Bread but you gave us Stones. The booklet’s message, collated by Andrew Graystone, reveals the challenges of being a survivor and dealing with the procedures set up by the church. The common demand by those wounded is that the church needs an outside independent body to deal with complaints and the needs of victims. The complaint that is almost universal is that dealing with insurers and church lawyers is a worse ordeal than the original event. On paper things are progressing in the right direction but there is still something in the system that perpetuates and exacerbates the suffering of survivors. I have been struggling for the past 24 hours to articulate what might be wrong. What is it about the well-intentioned system that fails to engage the confidence of survivors so that they do not feel that things are genuinely getting better?

One of the slogans that permeates the discussion on survivors is that we need a ‘change of culture’ in the church. Evidently from Graystone’s booklet the legal and compensatory atmosphere of the current arrangements is failing to reach the survivors’ deep need for compassion and understanding. I have been reflecting as to what may be missing in the current ‘culture’ and how Church and victim could really meet in a place of healing. I am asking myself whether the traditional culture of the Church of England is similar to that of an old-fashioned English public school. Such schools are often an embodiment of a strong male attitude to life. In such places things like perceived weakness or vulnerability are typically ignored or despised. Such an all-male environment also does not value empathy and compassion. Success, especially physical prowess on the sports field, is celebrated. In contrast pain and failure are quietly pushed under the carpet. Thinking back to my own schooldays in a minor public school, I became aware of how important it was ‘not to let the school or house down’. Stories about individual pain, abuse or bullying did not fit the narrative of achievement as defined by this system. The culture wishes to make these stories go away or disappear. Looking at the church today, whatever may happen in the future, there has traditionally been a strong tendency to bury or avoid bad news. One of the complainants I met had spoken to a number of different bishops about his abuse. He was told later that there were no written records of these conversations. They had simply been forgotten. This is the kind of thing that perhaps is typical of a male-dominated institution where values of success and achievement are placed right at the top. Failure is forgotten or denied.

This suggested understanding of the church having the values of an all-male public school where weakness or pain is despised, leads me to point to a sign of hope. The group of survivors who welcomed me as one of their supporters were given a room in Church House to meet members of Synod who wanted to speak with them. I tagged along and found myself encountering several senior clergy. There were two senior women bishops in the room and I was impressed with their attitudes towards survivors. I discovered that Sarah Mullally, who is about to become Bishop of London, had read my blog post which came out at the time of her appointment. She is genuinely concerned that the Church puts right unhelpful structures and procedures for dealing with abuse. She also wants to see survivors and victims treated with the compassion and understanding they deserve. As she is yet to be enthroned as Bishop of London, she attended Synod as a visitor. In a powerful symbol of solidarity with the cause of survivors she sat in the gallery next to Gilo, one of those present at the demonstration. This was a powerful message to send to the members of Synod down below in the chamber. This speaks well for the future. If I am correct in seeing the reactionary attitudes of the Church of England embodying the masculine values of a public school, then a powerful woman is needed to call out and challenge this culture. The other senior female bishop present in the room was Rachel Treweek, the Bishop of Gloucester. She with Sarah can do a lot to change the culture of the Church of England for the better, especially in this area of Safeguarding.

To summarise, the problem that I was hearing from lawyers and survivors alike is that the church needs to transform its procedures. It needs to lose the defensiveness and culture of denial with which it has worked so long. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is going to reveal massive failings from the past which will do harm to the reputation of the Church. It will need the help of a new kind of input which will enable it to move away from repression and secrecy to express and articulate both genuine remorse as well as proper compassion for the victims. Male cultures of bluster and denial do not serve the Church well. We need the insights of survivors such as Gilo to communicate the enormous seriousness of the issue of sexual abuse. We also need the intuitive, caring and compassionate qualities of senior women in the Church to neutralise the somewhat harsh controlling methods preferred by the male sex. I saw some of this new feminine approach yesterday. It gives me hope that the church may yet survive what may be one of the most profoundly threatening events to its existence.

Evangelical Alliance on Spiritual Abuse -Unhelpful and Confusing

The Evangelical Alliance published yesterday (5th February) a report on recent discussions about ‘spiritual abuse’. This Alliance, representing a large number of conservative churches and groups, appears to be extremely sensitive to the possibility that some of its members may be guilty of spiritually harmful behaviour. The Church of England General Synod recently asked the government to outlaw treatments that claim to be able to change sexual orientation. These are practised by some clinics but also by some EA linked church organisations. Strong Christian belief systems can undoubtedly sometimes create harm and it is this that is legitimately referred to by many as spiritual abuse. The EA Report on the other hand wants to suggest that spiritual abuse is a flawed idea and thus should not be used. The main argument to support this view is that, unlike sexual, physical and emotional abuse, spiritual abuse falls outside the definitions offered by our UK legal systems. Were it to obtain a legal definition, the Report believes that it might be used to persecute conservative churches which possess sincerely held beliefs and practices.

There is in the Report a fundamental confusion because it suggests that those who use the term are seeking to create a new category of abuse in criminal law. This would compare it to sexual abuse, physical abuse or the newly coined notion of ‘coercion and control’. This is an argument that does not stand. People like me who blog on the topic of spiritual abuse know perfectly well that most of the behaviour that we would describe in this way is not actually criminal. People may be damaged, hurt and spiritually destroyed but nothing that has been done to them is deemed to be contrary to the law of the country. Nothing that happens even in the most extreme cults is criminal unless it involves money, property or severe coercion. The harmful effects of ‘brainwashing’ are simply not reckoned in law to be important unless the individual is a minor. Harm, tangible harm, nevertheless happens in many of these groups as we all know. Much of such harm can and should be described as spiritual abuse. The individual has surrendered him/herself to the power of a charismatic leader to direct their life in accordance with a holy book or the whims of the guru.

Let me give an example of spiritual abuse which has been shared with me in recent days. A man with a history of childhood sexual abuse goes to a church seeking support and help. The church incidentally was a member of the Evangelical Alliance. Because his original trauma has resulted in him hearing voices, the leaders of that church assume that he has demons. He is thus suitable for exorcism. After several months of being prayed over by enthusiastic ministers, he finds that nothing has changed. He then suffers a complete breakdown and ends up in a psychiatric unit for several months. By my definition he has been spiritually abused but those in his church have done nothing which is of interest to the police or criminal prosecutors.

Another individual decides that she though longer trusts the leadership of her EA church. She decides to leave with her family. In doing this she finds that her entire social life is destroyed because people no longer speak to her. Her children were cut dead by their former friends and she becomes a social leper. The message at her church is that she has deliberately cut herself off from God; she is destined for hell and there is nothing more that can be done to help her. Spiritual abuse?

These two stories can be repeated many times and I attempt to reach out to such individuals. It is not good enough for the EA to put out a Report that appears to suggest that people who use the term ‘spiritual abuse’ are only interested in having this kind of behaviour criminalised. We are simply trying to describe a phenomenon which is all too common in our churches. The EA Report attacks Jayne Ozanne who is concerned about the savage treatment meted out to individuals who admit to same-sex attraction in some churches, including those attached to the EA. She uses the term ‘spiritual abuse’ while readily admitting that it is not yet a legally recognised category. One wants to shout out, so what! Why should we expect the law to pursue all bad behaviour? It does not punish other sins such as adultery even though Christian teaching and conscience consistently deem them as wrong. The law only intervenes when it is compelled to for reasons of public order. The attempt by the Report to suggest that liberal Christians are expecting to have all spiritually abusive behaviour criminalised is wrong. There may be some things, such as Conversion Therapy that are arguably potentially criminal. But there are countless other doubtful behaviours by church leaders which we know we will have to live with for a long time. Realistically they will not be easily criminalised. Meanwhile individuals like me will continue to draw attention to such things as inappropriate exorcisms and shunnings. We do not expect the law of the land to take any interest any time soon. In summary, the question whether the law should be interested in spiritual abuse is quite a separate consideration from whether it exists and can be defined. The Report could well spend its time, not on whether its constituent members obey the law, but whether they commit spiritual abuse. In November 2015 on this blog I wrote an open letter to the EA and its Director, Steve Clifford challenging him to take seriously and publicly the 200,000 word Report by John Langlois on Peniel Church. This contained dozens of examples of individuals being spiritually abused by Michael Reid and his subordinates. The fact that these were not criminal or subject to any existing law does not make them any the less brutal or painful for those who suffered.

Let me reiterate some conclusions from a previous blog about why the category of spiritual abuse is a useful one. In the first place it recognises that individuals who enter a religious institution to become members are often already vulnerable people. They may arrive with issues and problems connected with guilt, shame and earlier mistreatment by others. In other words, many Christians begin their Christian life seeking healing. Some, we hope, will find it with the help of pastorally sensitive treatment. The resources of prayer and patient listening will allow a bruised individual to find their way to wholeness. Sadly, the opposite is also true. The same outward resources of scripture, prayer and pastoral practice can batter a person into a place of despair and utter hopelessness. The law has nothing to say at present to distinguish between these two outcomes. Both are outside the scope or interest of the law. Both processes are exercised in a spiritual context and thus each can be described as ‘spiritual’. For the Evangelical Alliance not to recognise the difference between these two outcomes is profoundly and irresponsibly unhelpful.

In the last few days my attention was drawn to a book called God’s Catalyst by Rosemary Green. This book proposes a model of pastoral counselling based on the nouthetic ideas of Jay Adams. I have discussed these ideas on the blog before. In summary I regard them as highly dangerous and potentially abusive. Anyone who experiences this counselling style is likely to feel battered and bruised by their exposure. One particular text that is used by Green are verses from Hebrews 12 where the Christian is encouraged to regard pain and suffering as the ‘chastisement of the Lord’. Can you imagine a sensitive downtrodden individual receiving such advice from their Christian counsellor? It is horrifying to consider. While it is ‘legal’ behaviour, without a doubt it falls into the category of spiritual abuse.

In summary the Evangelical Alliance’s attempt to discuss spiritual abuse only within a legal framework rather than an ethical one makes this Report of extremely limited value. Those who look to this organisation for advice on this topic will remain confused. The rest of us will continue our own search to identify and attempt to outlaw spiritual abusive practices wherever they occur. Tragically and regretfully they are found in churches of all traditions.

The Rachael Delhollander story -Abuse, forgiveness and church exclusion

Most of us will have heard the story of the sports doctor who abused scores of female athletes in the States over a number of years. This Dr Larry Nassar was recently sentenced to 175 years in prison. The story concerns this blog not only because it was a story of abuse. It was an abuse story with a theological dimension.

One of the unusual features of trial of Dr Nassar was the way that the lady judge allowed each of the victims who wished it to make a statement to the court. No doubt she felt that such a public statement might help them to heal after years of not being believed. It is the statement of Rachael Denhollander who was the final victim to make a speech to the court that is of special interest. Rachel is a committed Christian and she felt able to bring her faith into her court room statement. Her speech has been viewed countless times on Youtube. In an interview with the magazine Christianity Today, she added further to her statement. Two points stand out of great interest. In the first place she explains how she struggled to retain her Christian faith in the face of her deeply wounding abusive experience. She found herself studying the Bible in an effort to make sense of what she had been through. The normal clichés about needing to forgive and move on were not going to help overcome the effects of her abuse. Her understanding of forgiveness towards her attacker which she articulated in her statement was based on a renewed commitment to an understanding that she had to trust God’s justice. Believing in this was the only way to ‘release bitterness and anger and desire for personal vengeance’. She also coupled her public statement of forgiveness with a call on Nassar to repent. This word implied that there needed to be a ‘complete acknowledgement of the depravity of what he had done in comparison with God’s holy standard’. Her personal struggle and need to heal with the resources of her faith has now given her the strength to minister to other victims and survivors.

The second part of Rachael’s story which will concern us all are the comments she made about her own church. Through her experiences she found herself wanting to speak up for other victims of sexual abuse, some within the evangelical community itself. She soon came to realise that while the conservative churches are good at condemning sexual sin outside their boundaries, they are far less able to deal with crimes of sexual assault committed by their own members. Their instinct is to protect the institution at all costs. But there are other factors at work. Rachael believes that in many churches there is poor theology and a poor understanding of grace and repentance. Behind a weak theology of forgiveness, sexual predators can go unchecked, often for decades. She has noticed how in her case Christian publications and speakers have focused on her readiness to forgive. At the same time, they have failed to notice her stress on the existence of God’s justice. A focus on cheap forgiveness allows a Christian to quietly sidesteps the costs that are involved. Also, easy forgiveness can be used effectively as a weapon against victims. Such victims can be made to feel guilty because they fail to forgive and let go as quickly as the leaders would wish them to.

Rachael and her husband have found themselves having to leave their congregation. The leadership of Rachael’s church had been involved in restoring a notorious sex offender from the Sovereign Grace Ministries, C J Mahaney. He had covered up abuse in his church for 30 years. Rachael also witnessed the way that in this process, the suffering of victims was downplayed and vilified. She and her husband were told by church elders that the church was not a place for her. She also had had to listen to lies and untruths being told about what had happened in the church abuse story. Rewriting history, she felt, was a typical reaction by many evangelicals when facing up to painful uncomfortable events. Sexual abuse within its communities in particular needed to be airbrushed out of a church’s story.

Rachael’s witness statement can be viewed on YouTube. It is an important witness to the way that a Christian woman can use the resources of the Christian faith to help deal with the aftermath of sexual abuse. The speech also is also a confrontation with weak systems of oversight within institutional Christianity. These may want to put the institution before the needs and sufferings of individuals. How much have we heard this story in Britain recently?

Christianity Today is a fairly conservative Christian journal and it is interesting that it has carried this interview inside its covers. Perhaps the journal wants us all to hear this message of the importance of the right kind of forgiveness and the importance of proper support being offered by churches to victims of sexual violence. Here in Britain we especially need to hear this message of putting victims and survivors ahead of the institution. Saturday 10th February is a day when General Synod of the Church of England hears a presentation on Safeguarding. This will be an important occasion. We will see whether the Church of England is finally learning to reach out to embrace the needs of abused individuals. Alternatively, is it going to, according to the advice of lawyers, do everything in its power to protect itself and its reputation?