Dr. Valerie Sinason, PhD
“Spiritual abuse is the use or misuse of a position of power, leadership or control in which a child or adult is made to feel that they, their families or those they love are doomed in this life and in an after-life if they do not follow unquestioningly what they are asked to say or do”.
– Valerie Sinason and Asha-Kin Aduale June 2008
Safeguarding London Families
On Jan 14th, 2015, I gave a speech at a packed meeting in the House of Commons in London. It was a meeting convened by the Whiteflowers campaign to support victims and survivors of institutional abuse under the auspices of Members of Parliament (MPs) John Mann and Sarah Champion (from Rotherham). Amidst the pride and anger many survivors felt, several left in tears, triggered deeply.
“Can you imagine?”, said one woman. “I was abused by an MP and told no one would believe me as he was so important and powerful. And there I was standing in the place that gave him his power, the heart of British democracy and power. Right inside the Houses of Parliament. It is the hardest thing I have done. Do you know, I could not even vote for the last few elections”.
As we all know, the impact of betrayal and trauma does not stop with a physical or sexual act. Everything connected plays its part. For John, aged 9, abused by the Headmaster of his primary school, an act of rape destroyed all belief in education and adult authority for the next thirty years.
For May, aged 15, incest from her father from 5-12 had destroyed her belief in loving families:
“My social worker keeps saying I was a victim of “child abuse” because she cannot bear the idea of incest. How can I get married or have a baby? Mother. Father. The words are full of horror.”
I have deliberately started with secular examples to help us think of how hope and trust in authority is eroded when sexual crimes are perpetrated by attachment figures who have authority and power.
However, from my clinical sample, the level of terror increases with the actual world-power of the abuser. What, then, is the impact of abuse when it is within the context of belief that involves this world and next world power?
“To me he was God.”, said one 50 year old man, weeping for his child self. “Pleasing him was my pathway to heaven and a promise of safe passage for my mother and brothers. Without his love I and my family were condemned to hell “.
All around our countries are Churches, Mosques, Synagogues, Temples and smaller places of worship. For those who frequent them, they are not just earthly places of emotional attachment, linking children and adults in shared spiritual and social values, but also a conduit to eternity. A child who receives loving, wise and shame-free support from a religious figure gains something incalculable. A child who is emotionally, sexually, physically or spiritually abused by a religious leader has lost something hard to express.
Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, Leader of the Muslim Parliament in the UK, has highlighted the vulnerability of 100,000 Muslim children in mosque schools because of a lack of safeguarding police. (Siddiqui, 2006).
Dr Alison Feit of the Jewish Centre for Trauma and Recovery has commented:
“For too long family and communal concerns have been prioritised over the needs of the victims. A culture of silence followed by communal neglect, has compounded the survivor’s initial trauma with a lasting sense of betrayal.” (Feit, 2015).
It was only in 2009 that the Ryan report revealed the extent of ritualistic abuse and humiliation of Irish children at the hands of nuns and priests. (Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (2009).
Of current interest is the news that on December 11th, 2018 a jury in Melbourne, Australia unanimously convicted Cardinal Pell of child abuse. He will appeal his conviction, but at the moment, as the third most powerful figure in the Vatican and the Roman Catholic world, he is indeed a fallen Prince and there are repercussions throughout the Catholic and other faith worlds.
Church abuse survivor and founder of NAPAC (National Association for People Abused in Childhood), Peter Saunders, commented (personal communication March 6th 2019):
“I think abuse perpetrated by someone purporting to have a special relationship with the Almighty-and most Catholics are firm believers in this-has an added dimension of nastiness”.
Most professionals dealing with abuse within mainstream religious contexts do not think churches and other religious groups can police themselves. A sad problem I have noted is that where a religion is linked to a minority group, there is a fear that court cases will lead to racist attacks. This further deters these organisations from openly responding to allegations of abuse.
Twenty years ago I met a priest who informed me that, until he took international action, a disclosure against a priest was an act of heresy as the priest represented God. It was not heresy to report a nun. I have since met people from many religious backgrounds with the same bias.
To deal with religion and trauma is problematic. I find attachment theory is the most helpful way to deal with this. Where a temporal religious representative has a disorganised attachment to their deity or deities we have shame, blame and punishment and where a religious representative has a secure attachment to their deity or deities we have Gods of love and understanding. In this way it is possible to separate people’s religious beliefs from their temporal religious representatives. This applies to abuse within mainstream religions. With cult groups we have a different task
Siddiqui, G (2006). “Breaking the taboo of child abuse”. In Child Protection in Faith-based Environments: A Guideline Report, The Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, London.
Feit, A (2011) Understanding and treating sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish World. Conference Paper presented at The Sexual Abuse Service of the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis & Psychology, Sunday, May 22nd, 2011.
Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (2009) Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, Volumes 1-5. Available at: www.childabusecommission.ie.