IICSA, the ‘Spiritual Abuse: Coercive Control in Religions’ Conference, and the research of Andrew Graystone
The designation ‘spiritual abuse’ is becoming widely used to describe a range of abusive phenomena occurring within religious and spiritual traditions and contexts. These phenomena include sexual abuse, physical violence, coercion, psychological and emotional control. Spiritual abuse can take place in religious households, in faith communities and faith-based organisations, and in religious institutions. Its victims and survivors are diverse – of any gender, ethnic and social group, class, age.
The meticulous work of IICSA, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, has been at the forefront of revealing and examining the scale of sexual abuse directed at children. This has included historical and more recent abuse in religious organisations and settings, as well as abuse by religious leaders.
This year has seen IICSA’s publication of the ‘Child Protection in Religious Organisations and Settings Investigation Report’, as well as IICSA’s recommendations for child protection, procedures, and training (2021). Additionally, IICSA’s Anglican Church Investigation Report (2020) was introduced to the House of Commons (March 2021) and the government has now proposed to change the law in the way suggested by IICSA.
Alongside IICSA, we want to praise also the research-based action exemplified by the conference ‘Spiritual Abuse: Coercive Control in Religions’, hosted by the School of Psychology and the Department for Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Chester (September 2021). The conference created a safe and constructive space for practitioners, academics, statutory groups, and survivor groups, representing or informing about various religious traditions and contexts. The conference provided a wealth of information and facilitated collaborations and steps towards understanding, preventing, and healing from spiritual abuse.
This conference was also a shining example of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies enabling incredibly important and multidisciplinary collaborations – both within the University of Chester and beyond. The Department has an amply deserved reputation – both for superb and timely research, and for effective and well-received teaching. And yet, earlier this year, the Department was threatened with redundancies. These threats are aptly described as acts of sabotage and vandalism. In a remarkable show of perseverance amid such strain, the Department co-hosted one of the highlight conferences of the year. Moreover, it did so with all the sensitivity and professionalism required for such a complex and painful topic. Particular praise is due to key organisers and steering group members Lisa Oakley (one of the foremost authorities on spiritual abuse and expert witness to IICSA), Dawn Llewellyn (one of our activists from 2017), and Wendy Dossett. An incredible achievement!
We also want to celebrate Andrew Graystone’s book Bleeding for Jesus: John Smyth and the cult of Iwerne camps (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2021), which was published this year. The book gives a full account of the violent spiritual abuse perpetrated by John Smyth and reports on the failures of religious, including Anglican, institutions in acknowledging, let alone addressing, ameliorating, or helping to repair, the suffering of Smyth’s many victims and survivors. (For a recorded discussion with the author and others about this book, see here.)
Like the work of IICSA and the Spiritual Abuse conference, Graystone’s book makes clear the important and life-saving contribution that responsible and sensitive research makes in confronting, and managing the harm of spiritual abuse.
Thank you for taking a stand, amplifying respectfully victims’ and survivors’ voices, and making a difference.