Blog: Some  Reflections  on  Spiritual  Abuse

Category: News
8 January 2020, Comments: Comments Off on Blog: Some  Reflections  on  Spiritual  Abuse

I am Brendan Killeen and am a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Northampton.  I was ordained in 1993 and studied canon law in Ottawa.  I am currently a member of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission. I have been reflecting on certain situations I have encountered where abuse could easily have taken place.  In particular, each has a “spiritual” basis.

I remember a very bereaved man whose wife had just died.  In fact, I had celebrated her funeral.  The widower wanted to do what was “spiritually right” for his late wife.  He offered me £500 to celebrate a Mass for her.  In the parish in question the normal stipend was about £5.  After much haggling, we agreed that I would accept £50 and celebrate 10 Masses for her.  The situation made me very much aware of how vulnerable the bereaved are, especially in their attempts to do what is “spiritually right” for their departed ones.

Another parishioner had lost a number of family members.  She was not only bereaved but thought that God was punishing her by taking her family from her.  She was convinced that God was angry with her.  She put £50 in an envelope through my letterbox with a note saying that she did not want to go to hell.  I spoke with her and her adult daughter.  Eventually I was able to return the money.  She has since improved greatly.  This “fear of God” can so easily cause individuals to act in a way that they would not do so usually.

I was asked to bless the house of a family.  They felt that there was a strange presence.  After I had blessed the house I stayed for a cup of coffee.  An 18 year old niece was visiting and was staying with them for a few months.  She joined us for the coffee.  In front of her, the adults told me that, “We think she brought something in with her.”  They thought that she may have been responsible for what they felt was a sinister presence in their home.  I made it quite clear that their niece was created in the image and likeness of God and that she was beautiful in his eyes.  I am confident that I nipped their nonsense in the bud.  However, vigilance is needed.  There are some cultures and Christian traditions which put an emphasis on the need to cast out demons.  It is quite possible that Catholics from these backgrounds could attend Mass and also these other Christian services.  In particular, care has to be taken that physical and psychological problems are not being blamed on demons.

The Sacrament of Confession (also called Penance or Reconciliation) is where the penitent encounters the loving forgiveness of Christ.   However, caution is needed.  The penitent’s meeting with the priest is one-to-one.  It is private and there is a power imbalance.  The advice given in canon 979 is invaluable, “In asking questions the priest is to act with prudence and discretion, taking into account the condition and the age of the penitent”.  This is particularly true when dealing with adolescents.  If a sexual sin has been confessed there is no need to delve further by asking questions.  To do so only causes embarrassment and may put the penitent off Confession for ever.  The canon goes on to say, “and the priest is to refrain from enquiring the name of a partner in sin.”  That is, it is not an opportunity for the priest to satisfy his curiosity.

I am always mindful when it comes to giving the penance.  Canon 981 says that it is to be “salutary and appropriate”.  If I ask a child to say a particular prayer, I always check with them that they know the prayer.  I am also careful when I set an open ended penance.  For example, “Spend some time in prayer …”.  If the penitent is open to scrupulosity then later on they may worry that they have spent enough time in prayer.  Often a time limit can help, “But there is no need to go beyond 10 minutes.”

Religious communities are wonderful powerhouses of prayer.  However, human weakness can so easily come through.  In particular, there is a power imbalance between the superior and the other members.  This imbalance will also exist between those who have been in the community for some time and the newer members.  It will also exist between the more healthy members and those who are infirm.  With regard to the superior’s relationship with the other members there are warning signs.  For example, demands of unquestioning obedience in all things.  These can take the form of equating the superior’s wishes and instructions to God’s.  It must be said that obedience within a religious community is essential.  However, ultimate obedience is to God and care must be taken not to substitute God with a particular human being.  In this regard, Scripture must not be quoted out of context.

Such communities provide the environment for spiritual growth.  The individual members are able to leave the noise of the world behind and find the peace and space to develop their relationship with God.  However, an overemphasis on “them and us” can be unhelpful.  For example, a new member who is still discerning whether to join permanently must feel free to walk away.  Such threats as, “You are safe here in this community but if you leave …” are not acceptable.  These issues which I have mentioned in relation to religious communities also apply to diocesan settings.

In conclusion, I am all too aware that the occasions for spiritual abuse arise with great frequency.  Therefore, statistically speaking, some of these occasions will give rise to actual spiritual abuse.  As I write this, I still wonder if it is a separate category of abuse or whether it is the basis for the traditionally recognized forms of abuse, such as financial, psychological, emotional, bullying?  I hope these personal reflections of mine foster conversations about spiritual abuse and its prevention.

Brendan Killeen
November 2019

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