Definitions of Abuse


Although the terms "ecclesiastical abuse" and "spiritual abuse" are used somewhat interchangeably, they have different emphases. Ecclesiastical abuse occurs when a Church officer, acting in his official capacity and using the weight of his (less frequently her) office, coerces compliance, imposes his personal opinions as Church doctrine or policy, or resorts to such power plays as threats, intimidation, and punishment to insure that his views prevail in a conflict of opinions. The suggestion is always that the member has weak faith, or inadequate testimony, and lacks commitment to the Church. Spiritual abuse occurs when a member, through the actions of another, is made to feel limited or lacking in free agency, diminished in value in the eyes of God, unworthy to pray, unworthy or incapable of receiving answers to prayer, outside the influence of Christís atonement, and excluded from the Saviorís love and grace.

Eight factors characterize most abusive encounters:

1. A difference of opinion is not simply a difference of opinion but is treated as a revelation of moral inadequacy on the part of the member. If the difference of opinion stems from scholarship on the memberís part or the application of professional tools to an aspect of Mormon studies, the officer seldom has the technical expertise to discuss the point at issue. Frequently he shifts the grounds of the discussion to the dangers of promulgating any perspective but the traditional one and insists that there is something bad or wrong about holding alternative views.

2. A request for help on the part of a member is seen as an invitation to judge the memberís worthiness on the part of the officer.

3. No matter what the content of the initial issue, any issue can escalate with terrifying quickness into a power struggle in which the ecclesiastical officer demands compliance because of his office and accuses the member of not sustaining his or her leaders and/or of apostasy. These charges, in turn, lead to threats to confiscate temple recommends, to release the member from callings, and to conduct disciplinary councils, the results of which may result in no action, informal probation, formal probation, disfellowshipment, or excommunication.

4. If the member protests such actions and refuses to yield to the officerís power, then the very act of protest or the expressed desire to continue the discussion is seen as evidence of the charges. The officer feels justified in refusing to explain the reasons for taking the action and unilaterally terminates the discussion by citing his authority. The member, rather than having a problem, has become the problem.

5. If another ecclesiastical leader, such as a stake president or an area president becomes aware of and involved in the situation, the original leader almost always controls the flow of information to this second leader. The opportunities to present biased information, reframe the issue as one of disobedience, and portray the member as a trouble-maker are legion. The first leader seldom suggests a group discussion or meeting that involves a mediator or a referee; rather, he is usually able to use the weight of the second officerís office and power to reinforce his own in his effort to force the memberís capitulation.

6. The member feels unjustly treated. Feelings of helplessness, betrayal, anger, and depression frequently follow. Expressions of "increased love" seldom if ever follow "rebukes" from abusive ecclesiastical officers, only additional warnings about conformity that increase the sense of unfairness and powerlessness.

7. If the member in pain withdraws from church activity to protect himself, herself, and/or the family from this assault upon their spiritual well-being, the withdrawal is seen as evidence of the memberís lack of worthiness, not as a cry for help or as a symptom of abuse in the system.

8. If the member alienated from the Church by abuse seeks a new spiritual home in another church or religious movement, explores alternative forms of spirituality, suffers personal, familial, or professional disruptionóor even, feeling a new sense of freedom, departs from what is considered traditional respectability in Mormonismóthese facts, frequently distorted by rumor and gossip, are often used as ex post facto evidence that the member "was disobedient all along" and that "the Brethren knew what they were doing." In short, situations and problems subsequent to the abuse, perhaps caused by it, and almost always intensified by it, are interpreted as justification of the abuse.

The Church, particularly on the ward level, works amazingly well most of the time as communities of compassion and belonging; but in the remaining fraction, where an ecclesiastical officer succumbs to an appetite for unrighteous dominion, the Church offers no structural safeguards against abuse and very seldom even any recognition that the memberís rights can be violated. In this way, the Churchís hierarchical structure, as manifested in the "priesthood pipeline," is systemically vulnerable to the temptation to inflict abuse. We hope, by documenting cases where benevolence fails, that we can strengthen members as they set about healing from ecclesiastical abuse and also encourage less absolutistic views of authority by both members and leaders.