Two out of three Christian respondents of a new online survey have said that they had personally experienced spiritual abuse.
The study, conducted by academics from the University of Bournemouth in England on behalf of the Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS), has found that 1,002 out of 1,591 Christian respondents say that they have been subjected to coercion or manipulation in a religious context.
Dr. Lisa Oakley from the University of Bournemouth stated in the report that the key characteristics of spiritual abuse are "coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring of individuals, control through the misuse of religious texts and scripture and providing a 'divine' rationale for behaviour."
The report, however, acknowledges that definitions of spiritual abuse are not clear-cut, and suggests that the lack of clarity makes it difficult to respond appropriately to victims within the Church.
Seventy-two percent of the respondents said that they were "confident" that they know the definition of spiritual abuse.
As many as 62 percent were confident that they could respond effectively to a disclosure of spiritual abuse, with understanding and empathy, but most said that Churches and Christian organizations need to create clearer policies to address the problem.
Only 33 percent said that their church or Christian organization had a policy that addresses spiritual abuse, and only 24 percent received any training on the issue.
The online survey was promoted by CCPAS through social media, and supporter databases in January last year.
Most of the respondents belong to Anglican, Baptist, Independent, and Pentecostal denominations. About 17 percent were Quakers, while some identified as Roman Catholics and Methodists.
Justin Humphreys, executive director at CCPAS and co-author of the research, clarified that the respondents do not need to consider themselves as victims of spiritual abuse in order to take part in the survey. He further noted that survivors of abuse were not asked to share their story although some of them did.
"Growing awareness around this issue has meant it is now being recognised, but defining what it is and what it isn't needs further careful and considered work to be done," Humphreys said, according to Church Times.
"We owe this to those that have suffered spiritual abuse and we owe it to those involved in the wider Christian community to work constructively towards creating safer places for all," he added.
The study concluded that clearer policies and a greater understanding of the characteristics of spiritual abuse are needed to address the problem, and that church leaders should be provided with better training on the subject.
"Findings indicate the need to develop a fuller understanding of this very real experience, to assist in developing effective responses and help develop safer and healthier cultures across the Christian community," CCPAS said.