What Is Religious Abuse?

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No one deserves to be abused and mistreated. We often hear about abuse in the home and in romantic relationships. However, religious abuse is a common issue that can result in long-lasting trauma.

When going through a hard time people often turn to religion. However, since most people are vulnerable when they're in pain, this vulnerability can be weaponized by leaders and peers alike in religious communities.

This article will define religious abuse, help you identify types and signs of this abuse, and provide information on how to get help.

What Is Religious Abuse?

First, let’s start with understanding what abuse is. Abuse refers to maltreatment inflicted upon an individual, often by a parent, family member, or partner.

However, abuse can also occur amongst peers and community members. This abuse can present as sexual, emotional, financial, physical, or verbal harm.

Religious Abuse

Religious abuse, also referred to as spiritual abuse, is a type of abuse that occurs within religious or spiritual communities. This can range from a pastor condemning a church member based on their sexuality to a minister sexually abusing a congregation member. 

In some circumstances, there may be a theme of abuse within a religion. For example, child sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests is an issue that has received widespread attention within the past twenty years. 

Types of Religious Abuse

There may be various forms of abuse that occurs within a religious setting. At times, the abuse may be linked to one’s social identity. This can result in someone experiencing abuse in the church due to their sexual orientation, gender, or race.

For example, members of the LGBTQ+ community can experience threats, rejection, or manipulation at the hands of religious leaders.

As mentioned, sexual abuse of children in the church is another form of religious abuse that occurs. Domestic abuse can also happen in the church.

Signs of Religious Abuse

Spotting the signs of abuse is essential to staying safe. First, let’s explore the general indicators of an abusive relationship.

Control and Manipulation

An early sign of an abusive relationship is subtle forms of control. For example, perhaps the abusive individual has strong opinions about the people you spend time with. They could get angry if you don’t tell them what you’re doing. They might even insult you based on an outfit you’re wearing. This behavior can then escalate, resulting in manipulation, sexual coercion, and physical assault.

Power Dynamics are Present

Now, let’s consider how these signs of abuse may present in a religious context. There may be members of the church who hold a lot of power, like a preacher or bishop. Power dynamics can lead to abuse such as:

  • Sexual coercion
  • Financial abuse
  • Instilling fear

This power can be abused by telling church members that they will be excommunicated unless they provide a sexual favor.

One could be pressured into constantly donating their money to their church. Whenever they begin to question the reasoning, a pastor could begin manipulating them into thinking that they are failing God.

In other circumstances, a clergy member may continually tell someone they’re disobeying God and going to Hell whenever they set boundaries.

Red Flags

Red flags to keep an eye out for in the church include a religious leader using scripture to embarrass or shame you, inappropriate touching, especially between a leader and church members, and insistence on generous financial donations.

Impact of Religious Abuse

All forms of abuse lead to trauma. However, when abuse occurs in a religious context, the trauma isn’t only related to the harm caused. Some may find themselves disconnected from their faith, making it impossible to use their spirituality as a coping tool.

Faith Is Shattered

In turn, this can create further despair and trauma. Abuse in a religious context can rob survivors of their well-being, relationships, and belief system.

The impact of abuse as a whole can be devastating. For example, those who experience abuse as children are more likely to develop issues with substance abuse, severe physical illnesses, and adverse mental health outcomes.

Others who experience domestic violence face similar outcomes, particularly compromised mental and physical health and decreased productivity, leading to economic insecurity. 

How to Get Help

Healing is possible. Whether you feel you may have experienced religious abuse or sense that someone you love has been victimized, below are a few helplines that you can get in contact with.

Hotlines You Can Contact

  • Child Abuse: If you are a victim of child abuse or know someone who might be, call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 to speak with a professional crisis counselor.
  • Domestic Violence: If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.
  • Sexual Assault: If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member at a local RAINN affiliate.
  • LGBTQIA+: If you are seeking support for issues with coming out, relationships, bullying, self-harm, and more, contact the LGBT National Hotline at 1-888-843-4564 for one-to-one peer support.

Additional Resources

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Consider Therapy

Trauma often follows abuse, so if you're in distress it's important to contact a licensed mental health provider.

If you’re concerned about your ability to afford mental health care, you still have options. Consider finding a provider through Open Path Collective, an organization that offers therapy sessions beginning at $30.

You are more than deserving of help and healing and there are many therapists who will support you in your healing journey.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Julia Childs Heyl
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.