Sex abuse happens across denominations. Here’s how one Protestant minister is helping people heal
A young girl sits in her room as the sounds of physical violence echo down the hall. Her father regularly erupts, a volcano whose rage is fed by the notion that he is the head of a “good Christian family” and that his wife and children must submit to his will. The girl also knows that their church pastor is a pedophile who preys on her sister, but her church has turned inward to protect the pastor instead of reaching out to help her sister. The girl is terrified for her mother, her sister, herself. So she prays, and this offers her peace in the midst of the violence. That peace will sustain her for years to come.
This snapshot from the tumultuous childhood of the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt often leads people to question why she entered ordained ministry. The Southern Baptist Church of her childhood colluded in the violence that surrounded her growing up. In her book Healing Spiritual Wounds, she writes that religion was “complicit in the violence” of her home and church, but she still found hope. Misguided interpretations of Christian teaching, she writes, were “part of the problem,” but the teachings of Christ were also her “cure, solace, and center.” Over time, she came to understand that abusive patterns in religion “did not really represent God,” and after attending Moody Bible Institute, she left the Southern Baptist Church to join the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), where she was ordained and where she began a ministry that focuses on the wounds that can be caused by organized religion and on the spiritual healing that must follow.
For Catholics, the topic of abuse remains a painful one. The recent charges of “sexual offenses” faced by Cardinal George Pell have once again stirred up the debate about the church’s failure to rectify its abusive history, which has caused harm not only to the people abused and their families but to the church as a whole and has resulted in the attrition of many Catholics. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2015 revealed that half of former Catholics point to the abuse crisis as a primary reason they left the church. Informal conversations with still practicing Catholics often reveal unresolved feelings of betrayal and anger about the abuse crisis. More significantly, abuse has also left a trail of traumatized victims, many of whom are still suffering from physical, psychological and spiritual damage. Spiritual damage, which often means damage to a person’s religious faith or relationship with God, is probably the least discussed and least well understood of these issues, but as Rev. Merritt points out, it can have dramatic effects, especially on deeply religious victims like herself. Yet this damage to one’s faith also offers a unique opportunity for healing.
Abuse cases are not restricted to the Catholic Church.
Abuse cases, however, are not restricted to the Catholic Church, and the wounds left by abuse are not uniquely Catholic. Recent accounts of abuse in the Anglican Church and in fundamentalist and evangelical churches reinforce the notion that abuse is often tied up in power structures that marginalize, shame and doubt the testimonies of victims. The wounds of abuse are complex and can indeed push people away from church, if not away from religion altogether. But understanding the spiritual dimensions of abuse entails not only understanding how institutions collude in and cover up abuse, but how individuals might recover from it and still maintain a relationship with God. This places Rev. Merritt in a unique position both as a former victim and as a pastor to the abused.
The Pain of Spiritual Wounds
Rev. Merritt explained in an interview that spiritual abuse is typically “different from physical or psychological abuse. It usually happens when a person isn’t able to love or be loved by God.” It is not that God is unwilling to love an individual, but rather that an individual feels incapable of accepting that love. Sometimes that can be an after effect or side effect of physical abuse, but at other times it occurs when a misunderstanding of Scripture or theology creates isolation or suffering. In many cases, spiritual abuse is rooted in a misunderstanding of God as “vengeful, angry or judgmental.” Spiritual abuse can also come from authoritarian churches in which the emphasis is on sin and depravity, which produces the feeling of not being able to love oneself or one’s neighbor.
Rev. Merritt explains that churches that teach the notion that God is vengeful can be damaging to people in the pews. “What happens when we have been taught to focus on our depravity,” for example, by a relentless emphasis on our personal sinfulness, “so that we forget our own goodness? And what happens when we have been taught to judge our neighbors rather than love them? We can often end up with beliefs that damage us and keep us from abundant life.”
In her book, Rev. Merritt uses a pastoral approach to talk about individuals she has encountered who have suffered from spiritual abuse. Sometimes this will take the form of spiritual direction with a victim, but at other times it is simply a parishioner coming to her for conversation and advice. She has served as a pastor for two decades, so this approach of focusing on her flock is natural, but her ministry also extends to writing a column for The Christian Century as well as writing books, speaking, running conferences and workshops and podcasting.
She often leads workshops for pastors and spiritual directors (many of whom, she says, suffer from spiritual wounds themselves), helping them to understand “how they can connect with a more life-giving theology.” These workshop sessions often open with a problem or story, analyzing the thinking behind the problem, imagining a more life-giving theology rooted in the Christian tradition versus one that teaches people that God was behind what wounded them, and practicing disciplines that embody healing, including prayer, writing and conversation. Each chapter in Healing Spiritual Wounds follows this same strategy.
The aftermath experience of many victims “happens internally,” she said in an interview, so telling the stories of people she has pastored has helped her to frame the experience of spiritual abuse “to think about it more practically.” As she writes in the book, the more she worked with abuse victims, the more she saw “patterns in the ways we found healing,” which helped her to realize “God was calling me to help people to separate religious wounds from their positive experiences with God and to restore the latter.”
Complicating the notion of healing or recovery from abuse is the notion that abuse can occur both on an individual and an institutional level. Rev. Merritt experienced this personally from her abusive father and through her sister’s experience of an abusive pastor. In the case of the pastor, she told me in an interview that “the covering up was a whole other realm of hurt.” Some of the process toward healing she describes is “understanding the urge to protect the organization because it serves a higher good.” However, that protective urge often arises because of fear that the abused person “might destroy the institution.” And, Rev. Merritt says, covering up abuse “goes against how we should be as Christians” because of the value of confession and reconciliation and our commitment to them.
Structures of Sin
According to Kathryn Joyce, who has written about fundamentalist and evangelical Christian churches for many years and recently wrote about large-scale cover-ups of abuse in evangelical missionary communities for The New Republic, hiding abuse is often tied into notions of authoritarianism. In churches “where there’s a heavy emphasis on obedience” and “unquestioning respect toward leaders,” there is a pattern of “subsuming the interests of the individual to protect the mission,” she wrote.
But the coverup of abuse in some churches is also complicated by patriarchal structures in which women and children in particular have little agency. According to Ms. Joyce, in communities like Quiverfull, the extreme focus on female modesty as a source of temptation to men results in situations like that of a young girl she encountered who was being abused by an older man, “but people were talking about whether or not she was boy crazy and had brought that on.”
Sarah Jones, who grew up in a fundamentalist, homeschooling family and has written about her experiences of abuse at the Baptist-run Cedarville College, says this notion of women as tempters was taught to her from a young age: “You are told God designed you to be submissive, and that your body is a stumbling block to men. These doctrines are not particularly conducive to creating a culture that takes sexual abuse seriously. They instead encourage shame and silence.”
The Rev. Merritt explained in our conversation that this second-guessing of abuse victims is related to the concept of gaslighting, which occurs when a victim is told that what she or he is experiencing is all in the imagination. “One way in which the church powerfully protects itself,” she says, “is by diminishing testimony of victims.” Examples of this might include telling the person “they must have misunderstood” the abuse, questioning their story or telling them in subtle ways that they are lying. All of these actions serve to protect the institution, but at the expense of the victims. Rev. Merritt explains that this becomes spiritual abuse because the church itself can be so closely associated with God that “the person is beginning to believe that God doesn’t believe them,” and ultimately, the victims may come to see themselves and their lived experience as untrustworthy. Our image of God is often based on God’s role as “protector and provider, which is sound theology,” Rev. Merritt said, but when abuse occurs, “something breaks down” in the victim’s understanding of God.
Abuse can also be magnified by sexism, which can be built into church structures, Rev. Merritt said. In her book, she writes that to call a church patriarchal does not specifically blame men; rather it is a term that can be applied to any system that promotes unearned advantages that are available only to men. When this extends to a church’s theology, it makes women and children more vulnerable to spiritual abuse. Patriarchal theology, which is theology that promotes these unearned advantages, can result in women feeling that “their understanding of doctrine can’t be trusted or they have to submit to male authority,” which can lead to a crisis of women questioning their own “internal authority.”
In families that rely on literal interpretation of Scripture, abuse by a husband, father or male pastor is often brushed off as part of a Biblical understanding that the father, even if he is abusive, is always the head of the family and his behavior cannot be questioned. Kathryn Joyce adds that spiritual abuse can have profoundly alienating effects on women and children brought up in very strict religious environments. She cites the work of Boz Tchividjian, the grandson of the evangelical superstar Billy Graham, who began his career as a legal prosecutor working on sex abuses cases and now runs GRACE, an organization that works with abuse victims in Protestant and evangelical churches. Mr. Tchividjian says that abuse is most likely to occur in church settings where there is an unhealthy emphasis on obedience, which makes it less likely for victims to speak up.
Abuse can also be magnified by sexism, which can be built into church structures.
Ms. Joyce explains that for devout people, “having their faith perverted” by abuse “is extraordinarily painful and can take away one of the most important parts of their lives when they most need it.” Organizations like GRACE often find that churches use their religious authority to “coerce victims and survivors” by telling them not to speak up because they will hurt the church or by convincing them that they have been complicit in the sin. Christians who work on this issue, she says, find this spiritual abuse one of the most harmful aspects of abusive patterns. And Sarah Jones adds that “fundamentalist churches often teach that psychology is a sinful, atheistic profession,” and this becomes another obstacle to victims seeking help.
While examples of abuse are more common in fundamentalist and traditionalist churches with a dominant leader, they occur in other settings as well. In Boston, some of the Catholic priests who abused victims were known as forward-thinking, friendly, down-to-earth priests. And yet, what they had in common with these other abusers was the ability to take advantage of a deeply religious person’s vulnerability. A clergy member who abuses always begins that abuse in a place of trust. And for the religious victim, the breaking of that trust often leads to the breaking of their faith.
Finding Freedom in Faith
Rev. Merritt said in our interview that the image of a God who suffers with us can play a role in helping people recover from a broken understanding of God after abuse. The image of a God who “suffers with us” can offer more consolation to the abused, because that parental God is present to our suffering. Devotions by women to Our Lady of Sorrows, for example, allow abused women to imagine a God who feels the same pain they do. This suffering God helps a victim of spiritual abuse to be “more resilient,” because they now have a “suffering parent walking with us and suffering with us.” Throughout her book, Rev. Merritt emphasizes that the pastoral approach to dealing with spiritual abuse must occur at both a community level and the individual level. Victims need to be heard, acknowledged and understood.
But at what point is a religious institution so broken by abuse that it can never be mended? In Healing Spiritual Wounds, Rev. Merritt tells the story of a gay man who confessed to her that he hated the church he grew up in, where he frequently heard sermons that preached against people who identified as gay or lesbian. This went on for years and caused his family to reject him when he came out. Yet the man told Rev. Merritt that until he made peace with Christianity, he would never feel peace. “Even though the church caused much of the suffering and violence in his soul,” she writes, “he could not simply walk away from his beliefs.”
The solution she proposed in our interview is one of “a lot of apologizing, listening and understanding.” Christianity, she says, remains a “life-giving stream,” and the Catholic Church has, in spite of being repeatedly broken by abuse, also brought “life and healing.” We need to keep “acknowledging and confessing that toxicity” while understanding that healing from abuse is “intentional hard work and process.” All churches can learn from a theology of suffering, feminist theology and “the chorus of voices from around the world” that represent the same marginalized parts of the church Pope Francis so often reminds Catholics to listen to. And who are more marginalized than victims of abuse?
Listening to the victims of abuse and understanding the structures and beliefs that make it possible is a painful and ongoing process in every Christian denomination, but any possible healing begins with an understanding of what Henri Nouwen wrote about the transformative moment of compassion in The Wounded Healer: “Who can take away suffering without entering it?” This is what Christ, of all people, understood.