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3 Signs of Spiritual Abuse in the Church

Learn how to the 3 signs of spiritual abuse as Liz shares her story.

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Spiritual abuse is rampant in faith communities. Learn how to identify the 3 signs of spiritual abuse and keep yourself emotionally and psychologically safe.

Like many women in the BTR.ORG community, Liz sought support from trusted church leaders after she experienced abuse. But rather than receiving the help she deserved, Liz experienced severe spiritual abuse.

Tune in to The BTR.ORG Podcast and read the full transcript below to hear Liz’s incredible story of heartbreak, courage, and resilience.

What is Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual abuse occurs when individuals use their authority, religious doctrines, or practices in order to exert control, manipulation, or power over others. Spiritual abuse can also occur when a leader dismisses, minimizes, or refuses to take proper steps to protect victims of abuse and crime. abusers when they hold victims responsible for the abuse.

The 3 Signs of Spiritual Abuse

It’s important to become familiar with the 9 signs of spiritual abuse. Knowing how to identify spiritual abuse can help those in faith communities recognize and move away from situations where they may be exploited, misled, or traumatized.

Identify Spiritual Abuse:

  1. Blame & Shame: Spiritually abusive leaders use blaming and shaming tactics to instill feelings of guilt or unworthiness. In our community, this looks like a pastor or other religious leader blaming a wife for her husband’s infidelity, telling her that if she was a better wife, he wouldn’t have been unfaithful.
  2. Overstepping Ethical Boundaries: When spiritual leaders offer marital counsel, therapy, mental health counseling, label individuals with any kind of diagnosis, or use a deity to “discern” anything outside of their scope of professional, ethical boundaries, this is a serious breach of propriety and is considered severe spiritual abuse. In our community, this often occurs when clergy labels abusive husbands as mentally ill individuals requiring more love, service, and sex.
  3. Encouraging Isolation: Spiritual abuse occurs when leaders encourage individuals, especially abuse victims, to distance themselves from outside sources of support. This occurs when clergy counsel victims not to report abuse to the authorities, or attend support groups not sanctioned by the church. Leaders may counsel victims to stay tight-lipped about the domestic abuse to everyone but the church leader. This conditioning to isolate can keep victims trapped in a devastating cycle of abuse.

As women set safety boundaries, appropriate support can be extremely beneficial. Clergy have the unique opportunity of lovingly supporting victims as they identify abuse and seek safety from abusive behaviors.

BTR.ORG Is Here For You

As you listen to Liz’s story, difficult feelings may surface.

Liz faithfully sought support from her clergy, only to experience further betrayal and abuse.

Please seek support if you experience triggers. Our daily, online Group Sessions are available to you – attend a session today.

Full Transcript:

Why Faith Communities Enable Abuse

Anne:  Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery. This is Anne. About 15 years ago I went to China. I went on that trip with Liz and her mother. At the time I perceived Liz and her mother as the “typical Christian family”. The family who went to church every week, obeyed the commandments (or so I thought). I’ve reconnected with Liz this summer. She told me what was really happening in her family. It’s a very typical story of watching other people and thinking they have it all together when that is not the case at all. It is also a story of Liz’s mother who is unwilling to set boundaries or face the reality of what she is living in.

Betrayal Trauma Recovery is interfaith. At BTR we have women who are agnostic. We have women who are atheist, Catholic, Evangelical, Baptist. We have women who are Jewish. Women from all different faith backgrounds and philosophical backgrounds. You are welcome here! Our number one goal is to get every woman to safety. I appreciate your patience with me when I share from my own religious perspective. It’s simply to share my own story. To share how I am feeling. I honor the choices that you make in your own religious backgrounds.

Church Leaders Protecting Sexual Predators Is A Problem

This being said, Liz is LDS. As she shares her story there will be some terms and concepts that you may need to know about to understand the story. First of all, LDS congregations are led by a volunteer. That local volunteer is called a Bishop. Every congregation is part of a group of congregations called a Stake. There is also a Stake President who oversees all the Bishops in the local congregations.

This is similar to the Diocese with the Catholic church. There is a hierarchy of local leaders and regional leaders and then a world-wide leader. This is the set up. The names we are going to talk about today is the local leader. This is the Bishop. The Stake President is the man in charge of a group of congregations.

Understanding LDS Leadership Titles

The bishop’s job is to make sure the congregation works well. He calls individuals within the congregation to different jobs. Everyone volunteers, making sure the congregation runs well. The bishop also has another job. That is to judge the safety of individual members. Within the Church there is a system set up for a bishop to interview someone to see if they are honest.

To see if they obey the law of chastity. To see if they have any dealings with their family that are illegal or immoral. If they are not safe, if they are lying to other people, if they are using pornography, if they are cheating on their spouse, the Bishop is capable of setting limits on that person unless they repent and change their behavior. This is to protect the people around them.

Sexual Abuse Exists Everywhere, Even Within Churches

Every two years, a member of the LDS Church goes in to talk with their Bishop and does a temple recommend interview. In the story Liz is about to tell, she is going to outline how her brother and her father repeatedly lied to clergy–LDS Bishops and Stake Presidents–throughout their lives. She is also going to talk about how she approached the LDS Bishop and Stake President in order to attempt to stop the abuse and infidelity and the porn use and hold her brother and her father accountable. And it was not done.

Within the LDS Church, there is also a system of accountability. The scriptures say that a witness to a person breaking the commandments can go to their Bishop or Stake President and they can have a disciplinary action. This means they can disfellowship the person or they can put them on probation in order to keep the victim and congregations safe.

You don’t want someone volunteering in your church, praying, and teaching Sunday School lesson who at home is abusing his wife or who is looking at pornography or who is committing adultery. There is a plan in the LDS church to keep people safe. This is a story of how this plan failed. This is Liz’s story.

Clergy Abuse? BTR Can Help You

One of our specialties is helping women who have experienced clergy abuse. Clergy who should have reported it to the police. Clergy who should have held the perpetrator accountable in some way and failed to do their job. If your church leader has traumatized you, I encourage you to seek help. You can totally be active LDS, standing for truth and righteousness and also acknowledge that clergy, courts, police, and society aren’t protecting victims. This is what we are talking about today.

Abuse Has No Place Being Covered-Up By The Church

I didn’t ask Liz during this interview why she didn’t report the sexual abuse going on in her family to the police. I don’t have an answer for you now about this. If you are in this situation and you are wondering what to do and there is a crime that has been committed–sexual abuse, someone has taken pictures of you without your permission and they have posted them on the internet, other various crimes–I recommend you report it. It is extremely important to report crimes.

Hold Abusers Accountable

The consequences of that reporting may be dire. For example, when I went to the doctor to see if my hand was broken and the doctor called the police and they went to my house and arrested my ex. I did not expect this consequence. I felt surprised. It helped me greatly though. In order for someone to truly repent, they do need to feel the true consequences of their actions. You are already feeling the consequences of their crimes. Now they need to. I want you to keep this in mind as we talk about this today. I am not exactly sure why Liz did not report. But this is the type of scenario where reporting is very important.

The Destructive Pattern Of “Don’t Tell” About Sexual Abuse In The Church

Liz: I’m the youngest of 4. From all appearances, I had a normal LDS upbringing. When I was about 12 I was praying that if what had been happening to me wasn’t right that my oldest brother would not go on his mission. For about a year to a year and a half, he had been sexually abusing me. I thought that maybe I was kind of crazy. That I was making things up. I didn’t dare tell anyone because why would I say something like this about my older brother.

Then he left on his mission. At that point, I decided that I must be crazy. I decided that God didn’t care about me. It totally put me on a really intense and destructive internal trajectory for my teenage years. When I look at the statistics about what happens to girls who experience sexual abuse and the paths they take. So I was not a sexually promiscuous teenager. I did not do drugs and alcohol. I did not do self-harming. But I felt completely unmoored. I had no idea where the foundation was to stand on.

Spiritual Abuse – When Clergy Doesn’t Report

A lot of the teachings of the Church–eternal families and we are a happy family–and all of that, I didn’t know what to think or believe any more. Because I was either making something up or this was huge and awful. And why wasn’t anyone noticing? I finally told a few of my friends what had happened. At that point my brother had come home from his mission.

My two siblings in between us were off to college. He was going to college while living at home. It was me and him in the home together. While there was no sexual abuse, he hit me a few times. There was a lot of physical intimidation. He would do things like picking me up and dangling me over the stair well. He was big enough that he could pick me up and do whatever he wanted. And he had a lot of anger.

When Parents Minimize Abuse

Of course my parents just told him to stop bothering his sister. I told my friends after my brother beat me because he bruised me pretty good. They told me I should tell someone. I finally decided I was going crazy and would write it all down. I left it in a pile of things on my desk in my room.

It wasn’t hidden away but my mom searched my room that day and I came home to a typewritten letter from her. In the letter, she told me that my brother had come to her before his mission and she told him not to go to the Bishop. For whatever reason, she told him not to…because we were a “church going family” on the surface.

Spiritual Abuse Comes From Not Being Protected From Abuse By Clergy

The one real thing that they said that I distinctly remember was, “What will the neighbors think?” I remember wondering if this was this was about. I grew up with my mother telling me I was her baby girl. Growing up this was the message from my mother. And then finding out when I was 16 that her pride and fear were more important was extremely devastating to me. When I was 16 I quit going to church because I couldn’t see a point. My mom didn’t care. God must not care.

The rug had been ripped out from underneath me. My whole world was completely in turmoil. I barely graduated from high school but I was still able to get into college. At the time, I got accepted to college–which was my way of getting out of the house. This is when my oldest brother transferred to that university. So I ended up going to my first year with him, on campus. From what I understand, he did talk to a Bishop. As we understand it in our doctrine, repentance includes restitution.

Anne: I do think they can make restitution. In 12-Step it’s Living Amends. It’s where a person lives in such a way that you are indebted to this person. Throughout their life, you are making their life easier through any possible means. It takes acknowledgment and humility. It takes honesty and accountability. And it doesn’t sound like any of those things have happened.

Church Clergy That Enables Abusers – This is Spiritual Abuse

Liz: No. And at one point I do remember my mom sending my brother into my room to apologize to me. I remember her telling him when he was in the kitchen that he should apologize to me. He came to my room–which was the last thing I wanted–him in my room. This was the dynamic. I still felt like I was crazy.

I went to one year of college with my brother and I ended up dropping out because I was not emotionally prepared to be a college student. Like I did not have the skill set, academically or emotionally, to do what I needed to do. I believe that at this point my sister was preparing to go on a mission. We hadn’t seen a lot of each other. I was downstairs and she came down.

I do not remember what the conversation was about but it turned into an argument. All of the sudden she said, “You’re not the only victim.” Of course my world dropped out from under me again. She told me that at about the time my brother came home from his mission, my dad began to abuse her.

Parents Who Do Not Protect Their Children From Abuse

My mother, from my perspective, treated my sister like the other woman. Like my dad had had an affair. She did not protect her children as a result. When my sister dropped the bombshell, I didn’t know what to do with myself. My parents had told me that I couldn’t go back to college until I could pay for it myself, due to me dropping out to begin with. So instead I became a nanny in California. I wanted to have the gospel in my life again. So I came back to Utah and to college.

I also came back to the LDS church. Even in the turmoil in the years since then, I have realized that even with doubts and anger, I have the peace and joy that I need in my life, that I wouldn’t without the LDS church. I know this because I’ve tried the other way. In the process of coming back, I didn’t really bring anything up with my family.

Choose Emotional & Sexual Safety Over “Family”

I just tried to be a good daughter. A good sister. A good church member. I married. After a not-too-lengthy infertility road, I was blessed with two children. We ended up living in the neighborhood I grew up in. When my daughter was about to turn 1, I kept trying to talk to my mom about the abuse in our family. Her only real response was that she was sorry. She couldn’t change the past.

So when my daughter was about to turn one, the statistics hit me. 1 in 3 or 4 girls will deal with abuse of some kind–sexual abuse or assault. There was an interaction with my brother where he had been fighting with his wife on the way to our family home and he ended up yelling at me. It totally rattled me. It took me back to his anger after his mission. I realized that I was possibly allowing my children to be groomed for abuse with the contact to my family.

Anne: And also your brother still abusing you. Because him screaming and yelling at you is another abuse episode.

Churches Need to Recognize Ties Between Abuse And Pornography

Liz: Yes. I walked in on my dad and saw him looking at celebrity bikini shots. Which some people would bat their eyes at and say it was nothing. But a 60-something year old man who is an active, “faithful” Church member would have no reason to be looking at something like this. I remember going home and writing about it in my journal, talking to my husband about it, trying to somehow reason it away.

Four years later I caught my dad looking at some pretty serious porn on his computer. I knocked on the door, rang the doorbell–my dad wears hearing aids–I went into the house and walked down the hall and there he was on the computer. He hurried and clicked out of everything.

But my husband is a computer guy. For a while he put a tracker on the computer. But then he said he didn’t want it anymore. We saw some serious stuff. I went to their house and took all of the things that were mine that were still there. Photos of me, of my children, anything I had given them.

My husband and I had discussed it. We got ready to put our house on the market and move out of my parents’ neighborhood. I agonized. I cried. Like I felt bad that I was taking away my parents’ grandchildren. But I knew I just couldn’t do this anymore. My family was not willing talk about it. They weren’t willing to put into place any safeguards. My parents have 12 grandchildren. They would watch them overnight, unsupervised.

When Saving Face Is More Important Than Safety In A Church Setting

Anne: And also, this is not in the past. You have two abusers, neither of which have taken accountability. Neither of which have begun to make restitution or been honest, accountable, or humble. Both of which who are still using porn and still abusing you. This is not in the past!

Liz: But this is how my family sees it. At the time I was also in my parent’s congregation, not just their neighborhood. I went to the Bishop and to the Stake President to talk to them about my family’s history. Both of them were unimpressed with what I was saying about my dad. They called him in and talked to him. In retrospect, it felt like a “good ol’ boys network.” They said that he took care of everything 30 years ago. Because my dad abused my sister and not me, I think they also blew me off. They did not see a connection between the pornography and the abuse.

Anne: Especially if you can’t talk about it. If there has been no restitution whatsoever, you know things haven’t changed. It has to be out in the open. It has to be something your family is willing to talk about. Like It has to be something that he will look you in the eye and acknowledge that you saw him viewing porn. He has to be willing to say and mean, “these are the things I am doing to recover and I am sorry about the pain I have caused.” There must be this or there is no way to recover.

Minimizing Abuse Is a Classic Sign of Spiritual Abuse

Liz: The only conversations that I ever had were with my mother. The room would freeze over. What infuriated me most was when I really pushed on it, the only thing my dad told my siblings was that he had looked at some pictures. He did not tell my brothers that he had ever abused my sister. He just said that he had looked at some pictures.

Anne: Minimizing it.

Liz: Yes. At this point we cut off all contact with my family. We put our house on the market. I was so angry that there was no way to be able to talk to my family without literally exploding. I did tell my parents I would like mediated counseling sessions. I’d like my dad to go to 12-Step and personal counseling. None of this happened. So about 6 months after I discovered my dad on the computer, we had sold our house and moved. We didn’t move that far but we did not tell them where we moved. We just moved out of the city they were in. And we went on with life.

Setting A Boundary With Abusive Family Members

It’s been over five years since then. I still struggle at times with thoughts that I am a horrible daughter. About six weeks ago my mom called and left a message to tell me that my dad was in the ICU. My middle brother sent me an email saying that now was my chance to make things good. I thought, “I don’t want to be a callused jerk. I feel bad that my mom is so upset, I feel bad about all of this.

But I walked away five years ago knowing that I was essentially walking away from everything–ever seeing or talking to them again.” They were asking me to forgive them. I could tell them that I forgave them. But forgiveness does not equal forgetting. It doesn’t equal trust.

Essentially the response I got was my parents putting in mission papers and going on a mission. It felt like my brother going on his mission all over again. My parents leaving on their mission made me want to be done again. My husband has said a couple of times that maybe I should reiterate again what I want from them. I’ve told him I have and that I’m done because I can’t force them. This is big in your services for Betrayal Trauma Recovery–learning boundaries. It was huge for me. Huge. It was huge to learn what boundaries are and how to use them. Because we haven’t had productive conversations ever, I can’t allow them in.

Boundaries Are Not Punishment When Abuse Is Present

Anne: Liz, I know you. I know that if they came to with honesty, accountability, humility and said they were ready to make a change and these are the things they were willing to do–go to a counselor, etc…–that you would think your prayers were being answered! “I’ve been praying for a healthy family. I would like a healthy relationship with them.” But they are incapable of that. My telling them over and over and over is not doing it. This is what I feel about my ex as well.

You can only tell them what you need for so long and then any interaction with them is setting yourself up for more abuse. God is a God of boundaries. You have discovered this. It doesn’t make it any less painful. I think this is the part people don’t understand. We don’t set boundaries to punish the other person. it’s for your own safety and the safety of your children.

Liz: Yes, I felt so broken for so long. I felt at times that my infertility was God punishing me because I was such an awful daughter. I felt physically broken. Emotionally broken. I felt like I was spiritually broken because I had prayed and God didn’t hear me. Parents are supposed to protect and love and nurture. What did my parents do? They picked themselves over their children. Going to church and all the things they teach there about being loving eternal families and I was feeling guilty because I didn’t want to be with my family for eternity because they are scary.

Facing The Church’s Failure To Protect Against Abuse

Anne: Now that you have set this boundary while they are continuing to be unhealthy, hoping and praying that they make different choices in the future. But under the circumstances, how are you feeling since setting the boundary?

Liz: It’s taken me while. My dad went to the hospital 6 weeks ago. My brother sent me that email. He said that now is my chance. I stewed for six hours and I realized that no. Now is not my chance. When I went back to my family in Utah and to the church, I gave it a good go. That was from 1997-2012. That was my chance. I asked for things. I tried to open conversations and dialogue. Nobody wanted to do it.

So in 2012 I decided I was done. I walked away. No one in my family has learned, understands, or researched the effects of abuse or betrayal. They have seen ecclesiastic leaders. That is all. They have done what is required, technically, by their ecclesiastical leaders.

Restitution Is Part Of Repentance From Abuse In Any Religion

Anne: But no. Because they haven’t made restitution. What I think is really interesting is that the victim gets blamed in abuse. So your brother texts you. He says this is your chance. This is so ironic because it’s your dad’s chance. He is the one who has to do it. It’s not your chance. It’s continually and forever and forever and every minute of every day your father’s chance! And he’s not taking it.

And because he’s not humble, accountable, honest, and willing to submit to God’s will, you have set a boundary and will continue to set it. If he is not going to take the chance to “repent,” you are not going to put yourself in an unsafe situation. That is what it is. I think it is so interesting that the victims and the perpetrators get so mixed up with people. Because obviously your family has painted you in the perpetrator role where you are the victim because they don’t get it. And it’s what makes them unsafe.

Liz: Because church has been a big part of my family’s culture, not necessarily the Gospel, this plays into their belief that I am rattling the cage and trying to cause problems. It’s always that I should calm down and why am I sad about this.

Spiritual Abuse Is A Real Issue

Anne: It’s sad because your mom’s a victim too. Knowing her this makes me very sad. I am so proud of you that you have made the difficult and heart-wrenching decision to set this boundary with your unhealthy family. That you can move forward in peace despite the pain and the sadness you feel about your family. That you’re making the life that is healthy for you and your kids right now. It is also difficult because lots of people probably say things to you like, “Isn’t that extreme?”

Going to China with you so many years ago, I would never have guessed this. I think this is how abuse is. It’s rampant in so many families. These are people who attend church. I’m proud of you for protecting yourself. For getting to safety rather than worrying about what it looks like on the outside. This is what is going to be required to stop pornography and the abuse–sexual and emotional–caused by it. All of us need to take a stand. It’s painful and not fun. But it does bring us safety and peace.


  1. Greg Allan

    Victoria, Australia. Royal Commission into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church indicates 95% of the victims to have been boys. In fact boys have been raped on an industrial scale in these institutions for centuries. Our communities, knowing full well it was going on, either ignored it or made jokes about.

    In this instance they’re only being ignored. At least you’re not making jokes about them.

    • Anne Blythe

      I appreciate your insight, Greg! I agree, more people need to understand these issues. Our mission is to bring to light and support wives of pornography users, liars, and emotional abusers. Women who are victims of their husband’s repeated adultery and infidelity and lies. Thank you for your work to bring child abuse of the Catholic church, especially to young boys to light.

  2. K. Rogers

    My ex went to the preacher first. Told him his sad tale of woe. Having a difficult wife who insisted on divorcing him, etc. Then I went to the preacher and said: you’d divorce him too if all he wanted to do was rape you. And the preacher refused to “take a side” in this. And so I left the church and the ex remains a deacon in good standing. I beseeched the preacher to not allow this man to chaperone any youth activities ever again……and the preacher asked me if the ex had ever been arrested. THe preacher also remains in good standing. And I have been encouraged by everyone(friends, therapists, acquaintances…..) to find a new church family……I don’t know what to do to get my point across. My children even want me to place nice and get along. It would make their lives so much easier, etc. I am losing this fight.


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