2018-10-11 Research Survey on Spiritual abuse

Research Survey on Spiritual Abuse

Michael D. Langone, PhD

Executive Director

October 11 2018

International Cultic Studies Association

Spiritual Abuse Resources (SAR), a program of International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), asked visitors to spiritualabuseresources.com to complete a short survey on spiritual abuse (SA) from September of 2016 to October 2018. (Write me at mail@icsamail.com if you would like a copy of the survey.)

We thank those who completed the survey. In part, we present these findings because many of the respondents asked for the results. We will refer to this as the SAR Survey.

Though spiritual abuse is not limited to Christianity, a large majority of those reporting SA to SAR and ICSA say that the abuse occurred n settings that were at least ostensibly Christian. Future research should examine the prevalence and nature of spiritual abuse in non-Christian settings.

The results described below should not be interpreted as representative of the SA population, for only a small percentage of site visitors completed the survey. Nevertheless, the results do shed some light on spiritual abuse, at minimum by raising questions.

The SAR survey was changed slightly in March 2018. To keep it short, some questions were deleted. Hence, some of the data below are based on a smaller number of respondents. Also, not all respondents answered all questions. To make clear when this happened, the number who answered the question may be provided in parentheses [i.e., (n = x)].

Here are a few of the findings, which, I want to stress, should be treated merely as data to be compared to other data, not as conclusions about spiritual-abuse victims:

  • Number of people who completed the survey: 36

  • Number of pastors completing the survey: 1

  • Number of mental health professionals completing the survey: 0

  • Number who said they had experienced spiritual abuse: 33

  • Gender breakdown: females = 25; males = 11

  • Average age: 46 (n = 13)

  • Average number of years involved in spiritually abusive situation: 14.2 (n = 32)

  • Average number of years respondents had been out of the spiritually abusive situation: 18 (n = 19)

  • Perceived severity of the spiritual abuse (n = 33):

    • Very severe: 12

    • Severe: 13

    • Moderate: 7

    • Mild: 0

    • Very mild: 1

  • Where did the abuse occur? (n = 32)

    • Cult: 12

    • Unaffiliated church: 13

    • Mainstream church: 4

    • Other: 3

  • Family member or close friend experienced spiritual abuse? (n = 36)

    • Yes: 30

    • No: 6

  • Where did abuse of family/friend occur? (n = 28)

    • Cult: 11

    • Unaffiliated church: 13

    • Mainstream church: 3

    • Other: 1

  • Are you aware of others in your congregation who have been spiritually abused? (n = 19)

    • Counting two respondents who answered 100+, the average was 16. Not counting those two respondents (who may be outliers), the average number of persons in the congregation who the respondents believed had experienced spiritual abuse was 6.3.

  • Can spiritual-abuse victims benefit from therapeutic or educational support? (n = 22)

    • Very much: 17

    • Much: 3

    • Uncertain: 1

    • Not at all: 1

  • Concerned that members of your congregation vulnerable to spiritual abuse? (n = 12)

    • Very much: 5

    • Uncertain: 3

    • Not at all: 3

    • Not applicable: 1

  • Should your church provide a safe haven for spiritual-abuse victims?

  • (n = 36)

    • Definitely yes: 23

    • Probably yes: 5

    • Uncertain: 3

    • Not at all: 2

    • Not applicable: 3

  • Can members of your congregation benefit from education on spiritual abuse? (n = 22)

    • Very much: 14

    • Much: 3

    • Uncertain: 1

    • Some: 2

    • A little: 1

    • Not at all: 1

  • Ten respondents who sought help from a mental health professional rated that help as follows:

    • Great deal of help: 1

    • Moderate help: 3

    • Little help: 3

    • No help at all: 3

  • Ten respondents who sought help from a church rated that help as follows:

    • Moderate help: 3

    • No help at all: 7

In April 2016, Rev. Robert Pardon asked pastors of four churches in southeastern Massachusetts to give their congregants a paper survey on spiritual abuse (Massachusetts survey). These four churches together had about 565 congregants. Approximately 10% (55) completed and handed in the surveys (32 females; 23 males).

  • Of the 55, 13 said they had been spiritually abused, with 4 of the 13 saying they had been abused in more than one environment.

  • The abuse occurred in a

    • Cult: 5

    • Unaffiliated church: 4

    • Aberrant Christian group: 1

    • Mainstream church: 4

    • Other: 2

This survey did not inquire into help-seeking and its effectiveness. As with the SAR survey, respondents in the Massachusetts survey supported the need for churches to be educated about spiritual abuse and to provide safe havens for victims.

A 2008 ICSA survey that was not focused on spiritual abuse (Dowhower, 2013) had many more respondents than the SAR or Massachusetts surveys (n = 224). The results of some of the questions are pertinent to spiritual abuse and the role of churches, including the following:

  • “Persons completing the survey were asked to report the religion in which the former member was raised. We learned that 67% were either Roman Catholic or Protestant, 4% were Jewish, and 11% identified their religion as ‘None.’ In responses to the question about current religious practices, the Catholic-Protestant total dropped to 39%, and ‘None’ rose to 38%.”

  • “Eighty respondents (42%) sought help from mainline religious organizations. Thirty-two persons (40%) found these services not at all helpful, 17 (21%) rated the services as helpful or very helpful, and 31 (39%) rated the services as somewhat helpful.”


  • All three of the surveys mentioned in this report should be treated as preliminary.

  • The SAR and Massachusetts surveys found that respondents (including those who were not spiritual-abuse victims) strongly believed in the need to educate churches. The Oakley and Humphreys survey of 1,591 people in the United Kingdom also found strong support for education. This suggests to me that future quantitative research should focus on other issues, such as the prevalence and effects of spiritual abuse.

  • The SAR and Massachusetts surveys found that a high percentage of reported spiritual abuse occurred in mainstream churches (11% and 31%, respectively). If future research is consistent with this finding, mainstream denominations should explore accountability and educational mechanisms to reduce the incidence of spiritual abuse in their churches.

  • Qualitative research (e.g., Garrett, 2017) illuminates the experience of spiritual-abuse victims. This research, however, needs to be supplemented by quantitative studies.

  • SAR/ICSA should bring together a team of experts on spiritual abuse to devise a new survey that will focus on the important questions and reflect a consensus view of at least 6 to 12 experts, rather than the views of one or a few persons, as is the case with the SAR, Massachusetts, and Dowhower surveys. (I don’t know how the Oakley and Humphreys survey was developed; however, their survey did not inquire into personal experiences of spiritual-abuse victims.)

  • Through church and online outreach, SAR/ICSA should try to collect data from hundreds of respondents who may be deemed to be at least reasonably representative of the broad population of spiritual-abuse victims. It would be helpful to determine the degree to which the findings of the Massachusetts survey (a bare minimum of 2.3% of congregants in these four churches had experienced spiritual abuse) may apply to larger, more representative populations. More generalizable prevalence data than we currently have would more authoritatively define the scope of the problem.

  • The SAR and Dowhower surveys found that a large percentage of respondents described churches as being “not at all helpful” (40% in the Dowhower survey; 70% in the SAR survey).

  • To my knowledge, the SAR survey is the only survey of spiritual-abuse victims to ask about the effectiveness of mental health assistance. Though the small number of respondents (n = 10) obligates us to interpret the results cautiously, the findings are consistent with subjective impressions among cult experts who are mental health professionals. Among these respondents, 30% said the mental health assistance was “not at all helpful”; 30% “a little help”; 30% “moderate”; and 10% “great deal of help.” A study from Spain, which is not yet published (Saldana, Antelo, Rodriguez-Carballeira, & Almendros) found overall satisfaction toward psychological care (3.8 on a 5.0 scale) among victims of psychological abuse. However, ratings were lower regarding the caregiver's understanding of the client’s reasons for getting involved (2.1 on a 5.0 scale) or understanding the nature of the client’s experience (2.3 on a 5.0 scale). On the other hand, Almendros, Carrobles, Rodriguez-Carballeira, & Gamez-Guadix, (2009) found no differences in distress levels between former cult members who had received counseling and those who had not. Since many spiritual-abuse victims from Christian settings want to explore theological issues in their recovery, a factor to consider is the possibility that this subpopulation may not respond as positively to mental health treatment as would populations with purely psychological/secular concerns. Future research should examine this factor.

  • If the percentages regarding helpfulness hold up in more rigorous studies, the findings would strongly suggest that mental health professionals and churches need to be educated about the needs of spiritual-abuse victims and where to refer them for appropriate assistance.


Almendros, C., Carrobles, J. A., Rodriguez-Carballeira, A., & Gamez-Guadix, M. (2009). Reasons for leaving: Psychological abuse and distress reported by former members of cultic groups. Cultic Studies Review, 8(2), 111-138.

Dowhower, R. L. (2013). The results of the International Cultic Studies Association’s 2008 Questionnaire. ICSA Today, 4(1), 10–11.

Garrett, K. (2017, April 30). Spiritual abuse in the church: A guide to recognition and recovery. (PhD dissertation.) Western Seminary, Portland, Oregon.

Langone, M. D. (n.d.). Research survey on spiritual abuse. Spiritual Abuse Resources (SAR). Available online at https://www.spiritualabuseresources.com/articles/research-survey-on-spiritual-abuse

Oakley, L., & Humphreys, J. (2017). Understanding spiritual abuse in Christian communities. The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS). Available online at https://files.ccpas.co.uk/documents/SpiritualAbuseSummaryDocument.pdf

Saldana, O., Antelo, E., Rodriguez-Carballeira, A., & Almendros, C. (2017). Exploring the relation between cultic experiences and psychological distress. Paper presented at the ICSA Annual Conference, Bordeaux, France.