Church Abuse Can Cause the Worst PTSD

Church abuse can cause worse post-traumatic stress disorder than other forms of trauma. And that’s not to minimize the effects of other forms of trauma.

It’s just that when Christians are abused by church leaders it impacts every element of their core identity and causes them to question who they are, what they believe and who they can trust. It breaks their confidence in those communities that were meant to love and protect them.

It breaks their trust in authority, and in God, and messes with their ability to trust the church and other institutions.

You would think this would make churches and their leaders all the more aware of the great responsibility they bear to act with the utmost propriety when it comes to allegations of abuse or assault. But sadly, it seems that is not so. Not only is church abuse common, so are the stories of how churches have been utterly delinquent in discharging their duty of care for the victims of that abuse.

A friend of mine* was recently admitted to a psychiatric unit to deal with complex PTSD after surviving months of intimidation culminating in a sexual act of indecency at the hands of her pastor. Her psychiatrist told her he frequently treats survivors of church abuse. In fact, only a few months earlier he had cared for a very unwell patient who had an almost identical story to my friend’s.

She also met six other inpatients who were hospitalised primarily for PTSD due to abuse in a church or Christian organization. What was most distressing to my friend was that their stories were frighteningly similar to her’s. The common thread in their stories was that while the abuse itself was bad enough, their churches’ responses to their allegations were what cemented the PTSD. These responses included things like victim reversal, claiming the revelations of abuse are damaging the church, publicly naming the survivor without giving her a voice and pitting her against her abuser, minimizing the abuse, and publicly extending empathy toward the offender without similarly extending the same to the survivor.

These are such conventional responses they even have a collective name – DARVO, an acronym for “deny, attack, reverse victim and offender.” The abuser denies the abuse ever took place, attacks the victim for making “false” allegations, and then claims that they are really the victim of baseless and salacious lies. But in the case of church abuse, it is often not only the abuser who engages in DARVO, but the church itself, turning the survivor’s own community against her.

Often women aren’t believed when they disclose sexual assault in the church. And if they are believed, they often get told to forgive. At worst, they are blamed and shamed.

And in high-profile cases, even Christian supporters of the abuser beyond their local church or organisation participate in the denial, the attacks and the victim blaming. The recent revelations about Ravi Zacharias is a case in point. Supporters of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries employed DARVO tactics, currying empathy for Zacharias and blaming his accuser as a gold-digger, even when they had no idea of the facts of the case.

Added to this was Zacharias’ use of a non-disclosure agreement to keep his victim silent. But even without the use of formal NDAs, churches regularly demand the silence of abuse survivors. The abuse must be kept secret to protect the reputation of the church. And so, at her most broken, the survivor has no avenue to share why and feels isolated in her trauma. It also means the perpetrator is given opportunity to abuse again.

And then, to add insult to injury, when Christian media outlets and social commentators take to the Internet to cast aspersions on the survivors’ motives, or to suggest the allegations have been part of a well-orchestrated campaign against the church, DARVO goes viral. This week alone I have been contacted by a number of women who were deeply affected by the irresponsible way a Christian publication reported on a case of indecent assault by a Hillsong staffer.

Is it any wonder these women end up in psychiatric units sharing their stories with each other when no one else will listen?

Why don’t churches have strict protocols for addressing allegations of assault or abuse? We have them to protect children. There are now requirements for churches to become safer spaces for minors, including background checks for church staff, mandatory reporting of child abuse, risk management plans, and strategies to address the protection of children and vulnerable people. We need similarly strict directives on issues such as duty of care, definitions of abuse, reporting obligations, and embedded practices that make churches safe for women too.

It was my friend’s psychiatrist who said that, in his opinion, church abuse produces some of the nastiest PTSD he’s ever treated. I just wish more pastors, denominational staff, and Christian thought leaders could talk to someone like him or take the time to truly listen to church abuse survivors.

Because the way we’re handling church abuse now ain’t good enough.

The church must stop protecting abusers while shaming their victims. 

___________________________________________________________

* My friend has given me permission to share her story on the condition that she remain anonymous. Some sections of this post are in her own words.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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24 thoughts on “Church Abuse Can Cause the Worst PTSD

  1. Jesus wept

  2. The abuse your government is inflicting on people (literally killing them) and what was it you were bitching about this time Michael?

    1. My initial instinct was to delete this offensive comment, but I’m going to leave it here as an example to others of the complete insensitivity some people have toward this issue.

      1. 100%. Thanks for leaving the comment. We are accused of being the ones inflicting harm, causing division, sowing bitterness, but this comment clearly shows what we are dealing with when trying to survive the confusing, exhausting , lethal abuse by churches and their people.

    2. Ken, what a sad comment. My church family has gone through abuse over the last 5 years or so, and many of us are suffering through the effects of this abuse.

      To call this blog post as bitching is so far from the mark. You could have made the choice not to read it. Pretty clear what it was going to be about from the headline.

      Mike, thank you for bringing this horrible issue into the light.

    3. Did you read the article Ken? Women are physically, sexually and verbally abused every day in Australia. More than one woman dies each week due to male violence. Do you not care?

      1. All over the world. I’m in the United State and it happened to me. I’ve met others online on all six continents. Ken’s comments hurt, but it’s unfortunately typical. It’s the stigmatism. The victim get re-victimized, over and over again. It makes it difficult to reconnect in the world again. Especially to people who say they are believers. I didn’t lose my faith in God, and everyday I have to remind myself that throughout the Bible those who said they were his people didn’t follow what he said to do. It’s the only thread that keeps my hurt from sewing seeds of bitterness.

  3. Mike

    You have elegantly and boldly captured a phenomenon that is as you rightly say, way more common than anyone would like to believe.

    We have experienced 1st hand and seen similar horrific experiences through the eyes and shattered hearts of many friends in a church that descended into an abusive cult in the UK.

    DARVO could have been the name of the church so endemic was it’s use by the ’enlightened’ ones within that community.

    In any event, bravo and thank you for speaking light into dark places. As Peter W said above “Jesus wept”. However I suspect he may also cheer for those that stand up for the oppressed within a church context – most particularly when His own name has been misused to inflame, justify or cover up the abuse.

    May more truth be revealed and may the victims be given the latitude to speak their truth without unjust reprisal.

    Thank you again

  4. This article brought tears to my eyes Micheal particularly when it comes to victim blaming which results in the perpetrator being believed and manages to turn members of the family and church members against them, generally a woman. The evidence is that no one gets in touch to see how they are and actually listen to their story, even family can be be convinced of his ‘truth’ even after experiencing the sane treatment themselves, but have been convinced otherwise . It is surprising how often the perpetrator is often believed in these situations . It seems that they are practised at twisting the truth.
    The victim rarely claims innocence but is rarely guilty of the shaming stories told about them. It is soul destroying and generally creates loss upon loss.
    Even worse is when the Pastor us unwittingly caught up in the lies. I sometimes wonder why the victim is very often re-victimised. Is it because it is easier to believe juicy gossip and a willingness to believe the worst about someone.

    1. My sincerest hope that your friend, and others like her, find the justice and compassion they so rightly deserve. P

    2. My sincerest hope that your friend, and others like her, find the justice and compassion they so rightly deserve. P

  5. I feel nothing but sorrow for the people experiencing this trauma at the hands of the church. Like so many other things in the Western Word, the church is burning in the furnace of its own hubris. I say let it burn. The structure has to go. Jesus warned us about hierarchies in Mark 10:42-44. When the last smoldering timber falls to the ground, perhaps a seed will sprout, like the Lodgepole Pine’s seed sprouts in its own ashes. Perhaps that seed will bear fruit of the Spirit of God.

    1. yes, this is true. such a relevant phrase – the church is burning in the furnace of it’s own hubris. yes.

  6. Thanks Mike for sharing about this critically important issue. It is horrendous to know that people who engaged with a church or Christian movement have been intentionally abused by people who should have been good examples and protectors of the people. As I minister to older people I often hear people describe their pain and distress following emotional, psychological or sexual abuse which was propagated by people connected with a church. PTSD is a long lasting scar that even remains in those who are living with Dementia. May we be vigilant and proactive in stopping abuse and promoting quick acknowledgement of wrongdoing so that healing can begin in the lives of the abused. My prayer is that the abused will know the Lord’s healing and that the abusers will be confronted and stopped by the Lord. I also pray that we shall know how to be an answer to that prayer.

  7. Thank you Mike for spotlighting this – so important.

  8. Thank you so much for this combination of compassion and professional insight.
    Thank you for standing up.
    As much as the DARVO devastates, for another leader to call it out and name it for what it is is even more powerful.

  9. Thank you, for sharing Mike.
    Having just been the victim of a minor case of abuse, i can imagine that the victims involved are already second-guessing every action, every nuance. Thus, they are further crushed when victim-blaming occurs.

  10. I experienced sexual abuse as a young Christian working as a secretary to my pastor. I had no one to tell. I didn’t even tell my husband until we were out of there. I knew I wouldn’t be believed. After my husband and I left, the pastor ended up in an adulterous affair… I had been in a good marriage and that kept me safe. My successor was not so fortunate and her marriage broke.

  11. Thank you for shedding light on this issue. I facilitate a women’s group who the participants suffered from betrayal pain from their spouses…
    I can not tell you how many come to the group and has experienced trauma from their church leaders; the leaders did exactly what you described, DARVO.
    Not only does the women have to deal with the betrayal pain trauma, but the trauma from the trusted church leaders betrayal. And most often the tactic that is used is gaslighting.
    Again, (and again) I am grateful for your courage for standing up for these precious women.

  12. Thanks for the post Mike.
    I have a friend in a similar position.
    A good resource on this topic:
    https://www.dianelangberg.com/
    and her book, Redeeming Power, Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church.
    “People who are esteemed and believed to be good, have deceived themselves and others so as to commit and/ or conceal ungodly deeds . God’s people are breaking his heart. “

  13. I live in a community shaken by the revelation of 215 indigenous children buried in unmarked graves at a former church run school in Canada. It’s easy to point a finger at a particular segment of the church. It’s tempting to divert the blame toward the government (in part rightly so but that makes the church’s complicity that much worse). Its easy to say “that’s in the past.” It’s far harder to consider our own hearts. It’s far harder to willingly bear the shame of our fellow believers sin, beit abuse, oppression, victim shaming and blaming. However…that is what Jesus did/does for us. We have no right to say we are followers of Jesus if we don’t bear the shame and be instruments of healing to the abused, the oppressed, and the scarred. But it’s easier to follow the “church” than it is to follow Jesus.

    At least that’s how I see it

  14. This was a good, if brutally honest post! (Though you limited it too much & the overall take-away could be deeply mistaken.) The Church’s sins in this do need to be talked about until we actually fix them. And we haven’t!
    The Church shoukd be a house of healing & safety, & it is not.
    However, as I said, your overall narrative has troubling implications.
    Most obvious, because you paint a picture that only women & children are victims of Church abuse, especially sexual abuse.
    This isn’t true. Men, grown men, have equally been (& still are!) victims of Church sexusl abuse.
    Not only in Catholic circles either, bit all denominations.
    To pretend otherwise is damaging to already suffering people.
    This is not, however, to dismiss or diminish anything you said in this post.
    Far from it!
    (It isn’t a competition over who actually gets hurt more. Abuse knows no numbers. 1 is always 1 too many.)
    Rather, I went into this thinking you’d mention both women & men’s tremendous suffering at Church sexual abuse in equal measure. (Maybe there will be another post?)
    For both are equally harming.
    “Women as victim” not only harms women (and girls!) with the idea that they will likely become victims & can’t escape it, but it also prevents men from being able to realize they can also be victims – and suvivors.
    If men can’t ever be victims, then this means they can never be truly hurt (except maybe by other men.)
    But women CAN & do hurt men & abuse them. Yes, even sexually. And boys.
    If you view the above as false & unreal, you are silencing countless men who had terrible damage done to them, equally as horrible as your friend’s. And that’s not right.
    And we as a culture need to realize that ultimately, victim-hood is a fluid state & can always change.
    We have all been victims & there should be no shame in it.
    Nor should victims, as you said, be punished for what someone else chose to do to them.
    Men & women are both victims of Church sexual abuse.
    That’s all.

    1. Men and women are indeed both victims of church abuse, as are boys and girls. But this post is based on one woman’s experience and is referring to the all-too-regular case of a male pastor indecently assaulting/ bullying/ intimidating/ sexually abusing a woman in his church. It shouldn’t be assumed that in highlighting this situation I am overlooking or ignoring other examples of church abuse. If you yourself are a survivor of church abuse my heart goes out to you.

  15. No question over the general (and wider) problem of leaders who take opportunity to bully and abuse fellow staff, or congregation members. It’s an even more gutless behaviour, if the target is a lady and they hold positional power.
    Am also gently noting that when allegations are brought (and I don’t know to what extent your friend has), there is a rigid process applied to all people engaged in investigations, while they are on foot. It’s an important distinction to
    make between silencing of a victim, and procedural confidentiality. It is conventional for agreements to be made by all parties (accuser, pastor, leaders investigating, denominational leaders of involved) to keep details and alleged facts confidential during such a sensitive process. For example, the pastor about whom these matters are alleged, would be highly unlikely to speak (even under anonymity) in any public forum.
    That can be – and has in the past – been holding to the agreed confidentiality. It’s a kind of self-silencing, and may be something he/she must do even if contesting the alleged facts.

    I don’t know the friend’s story, but it seems challenging for a full picture of any one story of spiritual abuse, by viewing a “darvo” pattern or standard experience.
    Some of the cases where silence is kept, under strong allegations, are only able to objectively test victim allegation and witnesses, in a courtroom setting. That is NOT me saying that an accused pastor should be just left alone – far from it. But, rather, if findings were to be contested, then our desire to know and have facts outed may not be satisfied, unless that matter merited police or other agency action.

    I truly hope that your friend ultimately finds the level of fairness in response, that they are entitled to.

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