Magazines 2024 Mar - Apr Disabusing the Church

Disabusing the Church

02 March 2024 By Randal Rauser and Bob Stenhouse. Illustrations by Daniel Crespo

How can we protect the people we love and our shared institutions? Randal Rauser and Bob Stenhouse share their expertise.

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“The word ‘God’ makes me think of him.” Those were the haunting words of a child sexual abuse survivor as quoted in the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report into abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. A mere eight words. And yet they convey a world of pain and betrayal we can hardly begin to fathom.

Sadly, Canadian churches have not been spared from similarly high-profile instances of abuse. Just in the last couple of years, the Canadian public has heard allegations of clergy sexual abuse at the influential megachurch The Meeting House. Over at L’Arche, the highly respected global network of communities for and with people with mental disabilities, news broke that once revered cofounder Jean Vanier sexually abused at least 25 women over several decades.

Such dramatic cases of sexual abuse grab headlines. But abuse also comes in many subtler forms. It occurs when a pastor quells dissent in his congregation by delivering a sermon laden with hellfire-backed demands of submission. It surfaces when a malicious gossip campaign begins with the intent to silence those willing to question a bullying leader. It emerges when young women are told not to dress in a manner that presents a "stumbling block" to men.

When [abuse is] perpetuated by a clergy member there’s an added layer of spiritual harm and exploitation.

At its root abuse is about power.

Within the Church much of that abuse may be categorized as spiritual. While there is no single agreed-on definition of spiritual abuse, we view it as the abusive exercise of coercive power and control in a spiritual context, often in a manner that humiliates, demoralizes and/or terrorizes another.

at its root abuse is about

Illustration by Daniel Crespo

Just as intimate partner violence is a specific kind of violence that inflicts a unique type of harm on those who experience it, so it is for spiritual abuse. Think, for example, of the quote with which this article began. All child sexual abuse is horrific, but when it’s perpetuated by a clergy member who purports to represent God there’s an added layer of spiritual harm and exploitation.

Spiritual abuse can occur when a pastor attempts to guilt congregants into increasing their giving; when a youth pastor flirts with the girls in his youth group; and in many other ways. Spiritual abuse can distort our understanding of God, fracture our sense of community and shatter our self-worth, leaving us in a dark well of shame and hopelessness.

Why are groups susceptible to abuse?

In our experience faith communities often provide a fertile ground for abuse to take root. A focus on grace, trust, love, mercy and submission can produce a naive see-no-evil perspective, particularly toward those in leadership positions.

Various Christian teachings can be distorted in ways that serve to extend the harm of spiritual abuse. Just as a compass askew by just a few degrees can lead to a ship going hundreds of miles off course, so the slight twist of biblical teaching can distort life-giving doctrines into vessels which impose coercive compliance and perpetuate abuse. Here are some examples:

  • The call to submission (Ephesians 5:21) can be twisted into a means to secure compliance with abuse.
  • The call to follow Christ by disregarding self-interest and privilege (Philippians 2:5–11) could become a way to pressure people to surrender their rights.
  • The encouragement to suffer for doing good (1 Peter 2:19–21) morphs into a means to silence people from protesting ongoing abuse.
  • The call to forgive others as we have been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32) can become a tool to get people to drop their guard and "reconcile" with toxic individuals, making themselves vulnerable once again to abuse.
  • The warning that Jesus will be ashamed of those who are ashamed of Him (Luke 9:26) can be used as a guilt-inducing means to pressure people to participate in dubious forms of evangelistic outreach.
  • The description of God’s people as the light of the world and a city on a hill (Matthew 5:14) can be used to silence those keen to speak out against abuse on the rationale that we must maintain a "good witness" to the world. The reality, of course, is that the Church is hurt by the abuse and the subsequent coverup, not the attempt to shine a spotlight on it.

How can we identify and prevent abuse?

Discerning Christians should be neither uncritically naive nor cynically paranoid. Rather we should pursue healthy and critical discernment informed by the complex reality of human nature.

So how do we guard our communities against the various forms of abuse that occur within the local church and the faith-based organizations that partner with it?

Let’s start with our basic sense of right and wrong. Whether we’re thinking about intuition or the prompting of the Holy Spirit, we all can feel a basic sense of when things are not right. It is important to speak out to a trusted authority when concerns arise. If the youth pastor seems to have an unhealthy interest in one girl in the youth group, or if the pastor or Christian leader appears to bully those who disagree, we should be willing to speak out.

If you see something, say something.

As the old saying goes – if you see something, say something.

Those who seek to impose power over others, often in a coercive manner, tend to signal their intentions through actions and words. The discerning Christian will look for signs that the Scriptures are being twisted and power is being manipulated.

Once we become aware of spiritual abuse, how do we begin to address it? How do we stop harmful behaviour, and bring about accountability and healing?

At this point Christians often turn to Matthew 18:15–17 as a guide. In this passage Jesus teaches that when a brother or sister sins, you point out their fault to them. If they don’t listen, you then bring along one or two witnesses to confront them. And if that doesn’t work, you escalate the situation to the entire congregation.

important teaching for maintaining

Illustration by Daniel Crespo

That is an important teaching for maintaining transparency in the process and following the proper escalation of accountability. Nonetheless, we should be careful about applying (or imposing) Matthew 18 in a manner that could further perpetuate abuse.

To illustrate let’s consider a hypothetical scenario. A youth worker named Tracy rebuffs a sexual advance from Pastor Al. Pastor Al then responds by threatening Tracy. "If you tell anyone about what happened, you will have no future in this denomination."

It would be unreasonable and harmful to require Tracy to address this spiritual abuse by initiating a one-on-one meeting with the very pastor who threatened her. Given the sharp power disparity and Pastor Al’s threat, requiring Tracy to confront him would likely extend the abuse to which Tracy has already been subjected.

Those who seek to impose power over others, often in a coercive manner, tend to signal their intentions through actions and words.

However, this doesn’t mean abandoning the wisdom of Matthew 18. Rather it means we must adapt the general teaching to specific circumstances as appropriate. The heart of this teaching is to pursue transparency where appropriate while following a process of escalating authorities.

One thing should be clear – following Jesus should not require the target of spiritual abuse to place their livelihood, mental health or personal safety at risk.

When it’s time to investigate

Within Canada local churches, Christian schools, nonprofits and businesses are governed not only by the laws of the Kingdom of God, but also by employment, health and safety, civil and human rights laws.

do not allow concerns about

Illustration by Daniel Crespo

Do not allow concerns about organizational reputation to undermine the rigour of the investigation and just outcomes.

Spiritual abuse may not be a widely recognized category in employment and human rights law, but there are clear definitions for various forms of abuse including harassment, bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination. And breaches related to one of the human rights protected grounds are legislatively unlawful.

When these behaviors cross the line into a criminal act such as sexual or physical assault, the complexities of navigating parallel processes and investigations increase.

A just process should secure both the rights of the complainant (the one who brings an allegation) and the respondent (the one responding to the allegation).

A fair, impartial, thorough process guided by common law and conducted by trained and unbiased investigators can mitigate many risks associated with addressing abuse. Both the complainant and respondent have rights that should be protected, including the right to a fair and unbiased investigation, a clear presentation of allegations and, for the respondent, the right to provide a proper reply.

For example, in our hypothetical case of Tracy and Pastor Al, the pastor still has a right to be informed that Tracy has made a complaint against him, to be presented with the evidence Tracy has in support of her allegation and to provide his response to those allegations.

Tracy also has the right not to be retaliated against.

It is critically important to have an investigator who is both objective and perceived to be objective. As the old dictum has it, justice must be done and must also be seen to be done. This is one reason why it is often valuable to secure the services of an external investigator with the right experience and training.

The average pastor, deacon, elder or church administrator has good intentions but lacks the training and experience to conduct such a high stakes investigation.


How should a church or organization respond to the threat of abuse in its many forms? Here are some starting points.

  • Become educated on the provincial and federal laws, as well as the policies and procedures within your church or organization for defining and addressing abuse.
  • Be aware the organization has legal responsibilities to initiate thorough, fair and just processes and investigations, preferably conducted by trained investigators when the risks are high.
  • Become informed about the tactics used by abusers and red flags associated with abusive behaviour.
  • Keep in mind the burden of proof for a workplace investigation is not the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, but rather the civil standard balance of probabilities (that is, if something is more likely than not based on available evidence).
  • A he said/she said standoff is not a dead end. Careful credibility assessments of both parties and consideration of other evidence can almost always secure a balance-of-probabilities finding as to what occurred.
  • Ensure physical and psychological safety for the victim or complainant while the investigation is underway.
  • Hold offenders to the appropriate level of accountability. That may be termination of employment or banning attendance at a gathering or building.
  • Engage in the thoughtful restoration of victims including counselling and even financial support. Acknowledge their pain and seek to make them whole.
  • Do not allow concerns about organizational reputation to undermine the rigour of the investigation and just outcomes. Let truth and justice be the guiding force behind all decisions.

The truth is that the Church is made of broken, sinful people. At times it may seem like the disappointments never end. But we should not be discouraged. This work is of great importance, a matter of bringing justice and protecting the innocent from harm. Disabusing the church is noble Kingdom work.

Veritas Solutions conducts over 200 investigations a year in our different branches, including faith-based organizations. Its investigations are guided by the principles of natural justice and procedural fairness, principles which tell us you can’t have a just outcome unless you first secure a just process.

Randal Rauser, PhD is the director of faith-based organization investigations with Veritas Solutions, a workplace and regulatory investigation firm operating in Canada. A theologian, author and former seminary professor, he has conducted dozens of abuse investigations. Bob Stenhouse, MTS is the founder and CEO of Veritas Solutions. He has conducted or overseen investigations within the criminal, human rights, workplace and regulated profession domains for close to 40 years. They are the authors of the upcoming book Disabuse: How to Prevent, Detect, Investigate, and Eliminate Abuse in Churches and Faith-Based Organizations. Illustrations in this Faith Today article are by Daniel Crespo.

karen stiller

Listen to Karen Stiller’s conversation with Lydia Fawcett, who works on abuse prevention with Mennonite Central Committee B.C. And a conversation about investigations with Randal Rauser and Bob Stenhouse. Both available at

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