Hope and Healing for Survivors of Sexual and Spiritual Abuse

June 7, 2022

A Reckoning 

On May 22 Guidepost Solutions released to the public a report of their investigation into the actions of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Executive Committee that had been the center of a swirl of accusations regarding its handling of reports of sexual abuse  perpetrated by leadership within the network of Southern Baptist Churches across the US. 


The report revealed a pattern of systemic abuse, cover up, stonewalling and refusals to investigate or report to law enforcement sexual assault and child sexual abuse. In some cases there were repeating pleas from church members for the leadership to look into cases of child sexual abuse and rape that continued to happen, and cases in which abusive church leaders remained in ministry, or moved from church to church, free of any accountability.


It made plain what survivors and advocates had been saying for decades. It vindicated the survivors who had suffered considerable spiritual abuse by members of the committee  in the form of harassment, intimidation, and multiple attempts to ruin their names and silence their voices. These survivors persisted, protested, and organized at great cost to themselves, bringing to light what was fought so hard to keep in the shadows.


The report also revealed that the Executive Committee kept a running list of names of over 700 perpetrators. This list was not kept to stop or protect others from them, but for their own legal protection. The members of the SCB Executive Committee did not use their knowledge of names, victims, and places to report or stop of the sexual violence from occuring. As in many instances of insitutionalized sexual violence, files were kept in secret. That list was published today. 


In November 2017, the hashtag #churchtoo began to appear alongside of #metoo to create a space for survivors who had suffered sexual abuse  by church leadership. Outrage against survivors and allies was swift and sure. The status quo blustered about insubmissive, outspoken women, and complained loudly of “trauma culture,” in which victims claim a celebrity status, welding power to hold hostage cultural institutions by their cry of rape and oppression.” 


Survivors did not back down. 


As many of us have watched this reckoning, Big Names and Big Institutions fell under the weight of survivor testimonies, allies who believed them, and Christian investigative journalists’ podcasts, blogs and articles.  No doubt these days have been filled with anxiety and trauma for survivors. This blog post shares ways we can better understand the unique dynamic of sexual with spritiual abuse, and ways we can support survivors. 

Sexual Abuse in the Context of Spiritual Abuse

There is an opportunity for us to lean into this work and welcome survivors from faith communities, acknowledging the harm of sexual abuse that takes place with communities of faith that is complex and unique to each individual. 


Spiritual abuse is a form of psychological abuse that can happen when a person uses shared beliefs, sacred writings and threats of exposure to exert power and control over another individual or group. Spiritual abuse by one person against their partner to control might  be more easily recognized and  associated with intimate partner violence, but there is also a distinct dynamic in which sexual violence is leveraged within relgious communities, and manipulated to gain dominance over a person or group, particularly young people.


Abusers of sexual violence use their positions of spritual or denominational authority and influence who twist shared views of religious writings and practices to brainwash victims into believing coerced sexual “acitvity” is sanctioned by God. The abuser uses the responsibility to serve and protect the religious community from outsiders to keep a victim silent and “complicit.” Abusers often take advantage of young people’s lack of knowledge about their bodies and sex, combined with religious sounding “teaching” that keeps victims trapped in shame and confusion. Many victims carry this confusion into their adult years of marriage, and are unable to distinguish between consenual and nonconsenual sexual activity.


Often a loyal following, spiritual and intellectual dependence ensures that any outcry would never be believed. These abusers can be leaders who enjoy a protected status who often remain  aloof, alone and unaccountable, though well-loved and respected. Toxic church cultures can create situations in which abusers who are not leaders, but use their proximity to power to take advantage of others, especially by “policing” young people’s modesty and proper behavior within dating and marital relationships by requiring confession and “accountability.” Often these communities adhere to a rigid social order that does not invite transparency or inquiry. It is an atmosphere in which sexual violence can flourish and abusers can hide because they position themsevles as  “godly” people who hate wickedness. Sometimes abusers use exaggerated performative measures to be “careful” around women who are not their wives. 


Alternatively, sexual abuse can hide among more welcoming congregations that do not look on one another with suspicion and distrust. Abusers are often well-liked, kind and generous. They have groomed their community to regard them as members of their own family who want their young teens or adults to spend time with them. Their grooming looks exactly like the ministry expected of them. The congregation’s naivete and trust is manipulated, as he would be the very last person to suspect any kind of harm.

How do we heal?

This kind of emotional abuse can be very damaging and extremely confusing to a survivor, as a person’s spiritual faith and convictions  is a deeply personal aspect of a person’s  life and identity. 


Survivors are burdened with untangling what was false and harmful from what remains true in spite of the harm. 


There IS hope for healing! But it is messy and requires a lot of untangling things.This kind of abuse is so complex because there are so many layers of trauma to unpack and questions to answer: Who is safe? Who was complicit? If I could be deceived this way, what else am I deceived about? Who am I? What do I still believe? Is this God’s fault? What lies about myself have I believed? What needs deconstructing?


ALL those questions and feelings are normal, but it feels so scary. People take sides and call us names, say that we are bitter and unforgiving. But our healing is not for them! It is for ourselves! Healing takes time, and there is no one way and no straight path.


For advocates, there are many ways we can support survivors of sexual and spritual abuse. It’s important to meet survivors where they are and not assume we know all the ways they are processing their own spiritual needs: Some may want nothing more to do with religion and others may seek comfort from those very things that harmed them. We need to constantly check our own bias about our own internal experiences and feelings about communities of faith. Survivors can find it difficult to make choices and be confused by empowerment language when coming from a place with strict gender roles. Survivors can swing from hating to desperately clinging to their faith community. They may continue to pay reverence to their abuser in ways that can seem strange. 


We can also help those in the faith community practice non coercive ministry that :

  • believes survivors 
  • holds abusers accountable
  • de-centers a persons’ desire to minister and help, while centering (prioritizing) the survivor and what they actually need. 
  • practices awareness that touching, laying hands on, and asking how to pray, hugging, and crying on without consent can feel threatening and manipulative
  • asks for consent before touching or praying for or with someone
  • does not ask for or shares survivors' stories as prayer requests. They must understand that caring does not entitle a person to information or access to that person.
  • honors how the survivor defines what safety is to them .


Ultimately survivors determine their own pace, place, and people who get to be part of their journey. If invited, we walk alongside with gentleness and affirmation. 


If you see yourself in this narrative and want to talk to someone, reach out to your nearest rape crisis center. Many times we wait until well after the abuse to seek help. Please reach out to us if you need to connect with a place where you can receive support.


I write this in hope. I am a survivor of both sexual and spiritual abuse. I am still healing. I still practice my faith, and over the years have cultivated a deep sense of belonging and purpose through it, despite the great harm I have experienced. Hope rooted in a sure place is a mighty powerful thing. What happened to me is one part of one chapter, and my story is still being written. 


Courtney Dunkerton

Human Trafficking Program Coordinator