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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.