Mary Ellen Mann
Licensed Therapist . Speaker . Writer . Educator . Trainer . Advocate
Religious / Organizational Abuse
Religious or Organizational / Institutional Abuse is a form manipulation that asks for someone’s allegiance on the basis of revoking their personal rights and dignity in order to uphold a belief or a way of life. Just as in scenarios of interpersonal abuse on a private scale, there is a demand for a person to turn away from known resources or supports in order to prove their loyalty. This isolation is needed for fully immersive conversion to the system, whereby voice, choice and control (aka innate identity and worth) are forfeited.
To question any part of this systemic pressure or expectation will result in being told that you are not truly holy, decent, grateful or believing. A conscientious or empathic person, who wants to please God or the Higher Power--as it is defined in that system--is typically rendered ashamed or unable to trust their own judgement. There is usually a fear of reprisal for any ongoing identity statements, like “I’m not comfortable with that.” Such a statement may ignite a tirade of shaming retaliation such as, “Again, your lack of faith is blocking your ability to see the truth of God.” or “It grieves God that you are not more willing to surrender your doubts and fears on the altar before him.” This technique is known as “gaslighting,” which is a common ploy used to devalue a person’s voice and typically disables a person’s capacity to trust and protect themselves. Gaslighting is nearly always the first line of attack in any abuse scenario.
Organizational Abuse maintains the same qualities as Religious or Institutional Abuse, but rather than the reason for abuse relating to appeasing a Higher Power (or pleasing a charismatic leader) through identity forfeiture, the employee must assume more responsibility while receiving the same or less status and compensation. To shed light on this concern one is reprimanded as a dysfunctional or incompetent employee who “cannot handle the workload.” (Note that this is gaslighting.) What follows is environment dependent, but typically the isolation comes in the form of relying upon the abusive boss’ recommendation in order to be promoted. Additionally this boss, maintains the communication between the abused employee and other colleagues or upper level managers who are left unaware of the extent of the concern. The workload ever increases without an end in sight and there can be a loss of personal connection outside of the work environment. Subsequently, the abused employee, who might be well-trained for their position may begin to feel that the rewards will come, as long as s/he is willing to abide by the standards. However, in Organizational Abuse, the standards for competency mutate without notice so compensation and promotion remain out of reach.
The following information comes from GRACE, an organization empowering Christian communities to recognize, prevent, and respond to abuse. Their work is vital, life saving, and effective. We would encourage anyone involved in church life to go to www.netgrace.org or email email@example.com to learn more.
Special Note: The following information should not be applied to offenses committed by minors. The reasons that youth violate other youth are often very different from the reasons that adults violate children.
Hazard signs help warn us about dangerous situations. They remind us to stay extra vigilant and alert while navigating or approaching treacherous terrain. While it is unfortunate there are not flashing lights or hazard signs in our church, there are warnings that communities can heed when navigating issues around known offenders.
Studies show that sexual offenders who operate within churches typically have “more sexual offense convictions, more victims, and younger victims.”(1) Some offenders will operate in the dark and have hundreds of victims before they ever get caught by authorities.
But offenders are not always hiding in secret. Sometimes churches are made aware of an offender’s past crimes. In these situations, what should a faith community do when a known offender(2) requests to become a part of your faith community months, years, or even decades after the crime was committed?
When it comes to evaluating and making decisions about known offender policies and practices, church leaders need to educate themselves, consult abuse experts and survivors, and formulate a safeguarding plan. Doing otherwise compromises a church’s ability to protect the vulnerable. We’ve consulted with our team of experts and here’s a few important tips so you can become more aware and better equipped to help keep your church communities safer.
1. KNOW THE PAIN AND TRAUMA OF SURVIVORS
Abuse and sexual maltreatment are enormously evil acts. No offender should be allowed to attend services with anyone they have victimized. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is common among abuse survivors and each faith community must be sensitive not to retraumatize those who have already been victimized. Leaders must understand that the presence of a sex offender in corporate gatherings (such as worship or programs) could also retraumatize other survivors who are present.
Importantly, abuse survivors in your church must know that your faith community prioritizes their protection, healing, and growth. In addition to addressing known offenders, faith communities must demonstrate:
a vibrant and robust commitment to safeguarding children
dedication through resources and energy, to a holistic ministry to survivors of abuse, and
a commitment to stand against the evils of abuse in all its forms. Education about the dynamics of abuse awareness and prevention should happen at all levels of church life such as in regular public teaching, community-wide training, and discipleship ministry.
2. KNOW THE EXPERTS
Pastors and other church leaders should never work alone in addressing and assessing known offenders within their church community. First, leaders are strongly encouraged to read resources written by reputable experts on sexual offenders such as “Predators” by psychologist, Dr. Anna Salter. More resources are included at the end of this article.
Second, leaders should seek the consultation of experts who have experience in dealing with sexual offenders such as former prosecutors, sexual abuse investigators, and child protection advocates. Without close relationships with the experts who have substantive experience in dealing with sexual offenders, a pastor or community can make grievous decisions that may unintentionally wound a survivor.
3. KNOW STRATEGIES OF ABUSERS
Many sex offenders find faith communities and Christians easy to manipulate. Dr. Anna Salter documented how one convicted sex offender (who was himself a minister) shared,
“I consider church people easy to fool . . . they have a trust that comes from being Christians . . . they seem to want to believe in the good that exists in all people...”(3)
Offenders often have lifelong patterns of manipulation and deception.Child protection expert Victor Vieth states it this way,
“Men and women who sexually abuse children are also master liars who manipulate not only their victims, but also parents, churches, and communities into believing their crimes are not particularly egregious or are even the fault of the victim.”(4)
Common manipulative strategies of offenders can include…
minimizing the abuse (“that was a long time ago,” “it was just one incident,” or misusing Scripture to solicit “forgiveness”)
rationalizing the abuse
claiming to be a new person (“I’m not a danger anymore,” or using biblical language to express change) and,
blaming the victim or other causes such as stress, marriage, alcohol
These and other manipulative strategies reveal an unrepentant offender. Unrepentant offenders should not be welcomed into a church.
Trained professionals and pastors should be sharing notes and insights. The more isolated a pastor or community is when interacting with known offenders, the more exposed they become manipulation and grooming strategies.
4. KNOW YOUR LIMITS
There is no quick or easy way for offenders to undo lifelong patterns of manipulation and destructive behavior. Most serious studies show that there is no known way to “convert” pedophiles into nonpedophiles.(5) Working with known offenders means descending into the “darkest of valleys.”(6) Many faith communities are ill-equipped to include known offenders within their congregation. It is not a sign of weakness to admit your faith community needs more education and help to ensure children are safe as you navigate these critical issues related to known offenders.
5. KNOW THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
Often churches struggle to ask the most important questions…
Should child sexual offenders be around children?
How can I know if this offender is telling me the truth?
Are there any ways to know if the offender is not repentant?
What safety measures should be in place to protect children when they are not on church property?
Does the church community need to be informed about the identity of a sexual offender?
1- Donna Eshuys and Stephen Smallbone, “Religious Affiliation among Sexual Offenders,” Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment 18, no. 3 (July 2006): 279-88.
2 - For the purposes of this article, a 'known offender' is an offender who is convicted of child sex offenses, admitted to child sex offenses, or a judgment has been made that there is credible evidence of child sex offenses (even without a conviction or without an admission of guilt by the person).
3 - Anna Salter, Predators, Pedophiles, Rapists and Other Sex Offenders, (New York: Basic Books, 2003): 28-29.