Victims raise profile of ‘spiritual abuse’

Karen Wanjico has designed a workshop to help Americans heal from spiritual abuse. RNS photo by Tracy Simmons/Spokane Faith & Values

SPOKANE, Wash. (RNS) Karen Wanjico had no choice.

Karen Wanjico has designed a workshop to help Americans heal from spiritual abuse. RNS photo by Tracy Simmons/Spokane Faith & Values

Karen Wanjico has designed a workshop to help Americans heal from spiritual abuse. RNS photo by Tracy Simmons/Spokane Faith & Values

Turn away from her mother like the rest of her congregation, or be exterminated by God at Armageddon — which could come any moment — with no hope of resurrection.

Wanjico, of Casa Grande, Ariz., was 17 years old when she chose to go with the congregation and shun her mom. Looking back now, at age 49, she says it was the most devastating thing she’s ever done.

After earning a Master of Divinity degree and working several years as an advocate for victims of sexual abuse, Wanjico can talk about what happened to her: She was spiritually abused.

Pete Evans, chief investigator for the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation — a group that investigates religious fraud — said spiritual abuse is widespread and takes many forms.

“We would say it’s rampant throughout the U.S.,” he said.

Spiritual abuse, Wanjico explained, is when authoritarian religious groups use power and control to instill fear and guilt into worshippers, manipulating them to behave a certain way.

Similar to domestic abuse, if victims don’t deal with the trauma, Wanjico said, it can damage one’s mental health, relationships and worldview.

That’s why she’s created “Recovery from Spiritual Abuse: From Hurt to Healing,” a daylong workshop designed to help people understand the dynamics of spiritual abuse and how to move toward healing and forgiveness. She’s hosted the workshop in Montana and will hold an upcoming session here.

“I think one of the realities is that we don’t have ways in our culture to deal with toxic spiritual stuff and because of that, pain is allowed to maintain for far too long,” said the Rev. Paul Rodkey of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Spokane.

“In my career I don’t know how many hundreds of people have come in who have been deeply wounded by the Christian church, usually by the narrow-minded, judgmentalness of it. … It’s like domestic violence abusers, same dynamic: ‘I love you, but I’ve got to beat you.’ The theology of oppression is somehow an example of Jesus? Really?”

He said gays and lesbians are easy targets for spiritual abusers, but just about anyone can become a victim.

Evans has studied spiritual abuse extensively, particularly in cults. He said false healings are a common form, where people believe they will be healed, sometimes even give money, and then are told they have a secret sin or don’t have enough faith.

He’s seen people escape, but to some, the consideration of a change is more frightening than remaining in the uncomfortable situation.

Wanjico said when people are kicked out of the faith communities because they disobey or if they leave on their own will, they re-enter the world lost.

“They’re outside of the group now, so there’s a good chance of depression, suicide, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide; some pretty serious things can occur,” she said. “They’re very suspicious of trying to make friendships. … How do you define yourself if you’re no longer a member of XYZ?”

When Wanjico left her faith community at age 27, she wasn’t sure how to find a new community because she was told everyone outside her group was worldly. “They’re fornicators. They’re drug addicts. So who do I hang out with? What do I do?”

Evans said healing can come through frank discussions. “Oftentimes, victims are relieved just by talking … and finding they are not alone.”

The “Recovery from Spiritual Abuse” workshop includes discussions and healing exercises.

Wanjico is creating a parallel workshop for professionals and family members designed to help them understand and provide support for those who have left or been expelled from spiritually abusive faith groups.

(Tracy Simmons is the editor of Spokane Faith & Values.)

About the author

Tracy Simmons

Tracy Simmons serves as the editor and community manager of Spokane Faith & Values.


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  • Pot, meet kettle. Actually, I rather feel sorry for Pete. After all, this is a man who has spent the last 40-odd years of his life trying to BE Ole Anthony.

  • I am a unique presenter because I am not motivated to defend any religion or faith. My goal is to help people who are hurting. For some that may mean after attending they decide to explore other faiths, for others that may mean freedom from religion. It’s about honoring the person. Also I am not into identifying who is spiritually abusive; my audience self identifies whether or not to attend.

  • Karen, it sounds like you are performing a valuable service. My wife and I run a monthly support group for victims of spiritual abuse in the Dallas, Texas area. There are plenty of victims around who need love and support.

  • Are there any Spokane WA area recovery groups to help those of us who’ve escaped the abusive church environment?
    I’ve met many other victims but never anyone capable or willing to work with victims.

  • It has taken many years to heal from my spiritual abuse and the healing, I now see as an evolving thing, because, five or ten years ago, I would tell people I am healing and even last year I told people I have healed considerably but occassionally something would come up that would trigger the setback. Also, as I’ve learned about PTSD, I see that what I experienced was a form of PTSD.
    My spiritual abuse occurred when I was in my middle teens, and the Mormon
    Bishop, doing what he was told by his, so called prophet, seer and revelator would constantly ask us if we were “morally clean” and had us programmed to equate that term with being able to control masterbation, Well, I was not very good at controling it and the harder I tried the more difficult it was to control, so that by the time I was in my late teens, I was a basket case and could not think straight. Him asking me those questions should have been none of his business, and I also believe that by him doing that, He… The best way I can describe what I went through is to give you a very graffic description of what I believe my experience was during those years.
    I opened my heart the that man, believing I would be loved, (Like a woman opens her legs to a man, believing love is present), yet love is not present, only fear of the future, guilt of the past, so I was totaly honest with that man, who was asking questions that we adults don’t even ask each other, and in answering him honestly, I was not respecting myself, so in that experience of me not unerstanding the importance of self respect, he was undermining what little self-respect I had, In other words, I not realize I was being spiritually “[expletive deleted]” pardon the graffic description but that is what he did. The reason I am so graffidally descriptive about this is when you start messing with ones inner-most spiritual center and combining that messing with ones undeveloped understanding of his own sexuality, you really [expletive deleted] with that person’s mind.Anyway, that is pretty much it in a nutshell. However, there is a lot more I would love to say about how I was lied to about the Mormon founder. I was taught that he was a perfect little angel, never did anything wrong and that the governor of Illonois was out to get him. that is crap, If Mr. Smith were alive today, he’d be know registered sex offender.
    I hope this message will not undermine the message I am trying to convey on my Webpage. Also, please find Jay Larsen on Facebook and “Like” ArmChairInstitute.
    Thank you , sincerely, Jay larsen

  • I know spiritual abuse well as I work with a non profit group called AAWA (Advocates for Awareness of Watchtower Abuses) We are trying to bring public awareness to the abuses within the high control religion. I am in Montana and wish I had known about your classes here. I would appreciate you contacting me with information of the whens and where’s of the Spokane seminar.

  • Talking about the abuse is key. I’m part of a group of Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses on Facebook who support each other in healing. If anyone is interested in joining, here’s the link:

    Thank you for tackling this subject that is not often discussed. Spiritual Abuse is real, and I know many who have been affected by it.

  • Karen Wanjico, have you ever worked with anyone from the WatchTower Tract Society who are 99% shunned by those inside including family? If, so, what were the results? I ask because I have family inside who don’t realize they are being spiritually abused and believe the deception and don’t recognize the disrespect from the WTS’s changing teachings and policy disguised as “New Light”.

    There are many who are actively requesting WTS to change its abusive policies and help awaken its members to these. We want to know what’s working in this delicate arena.

  • Thank you for raising awareness of the very real issue of spiritual abuse and subsequent religious trauma syndrome. The topic of forced shunning of family members strikes very close to home – my husband has been shunned by his minor children since he left the faith he was raised in. This type of spiritual abuse is alive and well in 2013 as shown in this summer’s DC convention talk: “Shun your disfellowshipped loved ones!” a talk by a Watchtower representative urging the shunning of relatives that has sent shock waves through the online JW community:

  • Great article! Thel damage one one suffers from being raised in a high control group is very real. The spiritual abusers intentionally cripple self-esteem, making it very difficult to thrive outside of their group. It can take years to recover, and many suffer from depression and substance abuse. Thank you for raising awareness about “spiritual abuse”

  • Affinity Foundation for the last 30 years has promoted community awareness of religious abuse and trauma, as well as, offered support to the men, women and children who have and are suffering from abusive indoctrination. Currently, we are attempting to raise awareness and support in the Spokane, WA area.

    It Is Time To Recognize The Trauma

    Spiritual or Religious Trauma Syndrome (STS) is the condition experienced by people who are suffering in a destructive authoritarian religion, struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion, or have left such a religion and are coping with the damage of indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle. The symptoms compare most easily with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder PTSD, the impact of STS is long lasting, with intrusive thoughts; negative emotional states, impaired social functioning, suicidal ideation and a diverse possibility of associated mental and emotional difficulties.

    Individuals can experience STS in different ways depending on a variety of factors. Some key symptoms of STS are:
    • Confusion, difficulty making decisions, trouble thinking for self, lack of meaning or direction, undeveloped sense of self
    • Anxiety being in “the world,” panic attacks, fear of damnation, depression, thoughts of suicide, anger, bitterness, betrayal, guilt, grief and loss, difficulty with expressing emotion
    • Sleep and eating disorders, substance abuse, nightmares, perfectionism, discomfort with sexuality, negative body image, impulse control problems, difficulty enjoying pleasure or being present here and now
    • Rupture of family and social network, loneliness, problems relating to society, personal relationship issues

    Community Event- A brief discussion and current available support for people suffering from STS will be given followed by open dialogue. If you or someone you know is suffering from STS please contact [email protected] for date and location information. Or call 216-1427

    Please join us.

  • I am sorry for the long delay in replying. I have been on a sabbatical of sorts. I agree that one should look into religious trauma syndrome and the website has a workbook that a person can use if they are isolated geographically. My next workshop will be in October 2015 in the Boston area. In the meantime I’m going to work on a wish for you is that you will experience healing.