What is Religious Abuse?

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  • Written By: Lainie Petersen
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 13 February 2020
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Religious abuse describes a variety of behaviors in which a person or persons are exploited or abused in the context of religion or spirituality. People who are victims of religious abuse may experience the abuse from a single religious leader, the collective leadership of a religious group, or even through fellow members of a religious institution. Some people place a significant priority on their religious life and derive a great deal of comfort and purpose from their spirituality. This sense of importance and religious devotion can make people very vulnerable to religious abuse from religious organizations and leaders. For example, religious leaders and institutions might make demands of individuals for donations of time and money by promising spiritual benefits or threatening negative spiritual consequences if their demands aren't met.

In some churches and groups, domestic violence and child abuse are legitimized by commands from the group's leadership or by references to scripture. In addition, some clergy have been found to use their position of trust to sexually exploit members of the congregation, including children. This exploitation sometimes follows pastoral counseling, in which the clergy person uses the intimacy of the counseling relationship to take advantage of the victim's trust. Some groups and leaders advocate strict corporal punishment of children, requiring parents to spank or paddle their children as discipline for even minor infractions.


Another very common type of religious abuse is financial abuse. Clergy and religious leadership may require members to make regular financial contributions to their organization, even if doing so means a financial hardship for their donors. Individuals who are able to contribute more to the group may receive preferential treatment, while those who cannot provide significant financial support may be required to perform free labor for the church or group. Even those who were significant donors at one time may find themselves shunned if they fall on financial hard times and request assistance for themselves.

Religious abuse can also take place in the context of a group's beliefs about spiritual possession, illness, and demonic activity. Children have been beaten and even killed as a result of supposed exorcism performed by over-zealous group members. Other individuals have been denied or persuaded against psychotherapy because of a group's religious objection to it, despite the fact that these individuals may be suffering from serious mental illness. Religious groups may also object to standard medical care, in some cases pressuring families and individuals to refuse medical care for themselves or their children and threatening them with excommunication if they do not comply.


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