NARCISSISM A HALLMARK OF RELIGIOUS ABUSERS.

Friday, October 11th Patheos

It’s a Friday evening at Kennedy School, a pub in Northeast Portland. Revelers lift their glasses and guffaw.

But in a quiet back room, two dozen spiritually serious people have gathered quietly. They are grappling with the feeling that they have been manipulated and conned by leaders they saw as conduits to God.

The Spiritual Abuse Forum for Education, SAFE, is a Portland-area support group for those who have suffered mind control, financial swindling and overbearing manipulation by religious leaders.

In the Kennedy School crowd, mostly made up of people in their 30s and 40s, is Julie Anne Smith. A former Catholic, Smith began speaking out about what she saw as spiritual abuse at Beaverton Grace Bible Church.

In 2008, when a church employee was fired, Smith confronted the pastor because she felt the dismissal was unjust. The pastor responded by ordering Smith to recant her complaints, which did not sit well with her. Smith left the church and began posting Google reviews about what she saw as abuse, including alleged sexual assault. She called the church “creepy” and unsafe.

The enraged pastor sued Smith and others for defamation, but the lawsuit was thrown out.

Personality disorders

On this night at Kennedy School, the group is hearing from Kent Burtner, a local expert on spiritual grifters who says Smith’s story is typical in many ways. Burtner, a former Dominican friar, spent years leading Portland’s Cult Resource Center and still counsels people who have escaped abusive religious movements.

“In these groups, your mind and choices are abused, relationships are abused, finances are abused,” said Burtner, who attends St. James Church in Molalla and St. Therese Church in Northeast Portland.

Many abusive faith groups now don’t look like the large cults of the 1970s and 1980s, but instead are small fringe churches with pastors who are accountable to no one.

Burtner, a counselor who helped more than 1,000 people affected by religious abuse, said the manipulative movements usually are the result of narcissism in leadership. Jonestown, where 918 people committed suicide in 1978 at the behest of their spiritual leader, is an extreme example, but mind control happens in smaller ways all the time in churches, Burtner said.

Abusive leaders often start by controlling communication. Burtner reminded listeners that Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a cult leader in the 1980s in north central Oregon, blocked newspapers from coming to members.

“These leaders want to be the only source of information,” Burtner said. “They might even say media is evil.”

If members have challenging questions or doubts, leaders deflect the inquiries repeatedly until no one asks anymore.

Some abusive pastors even try to close down anger or other emotions. Burtner calls this “the ultimate dehumanization.”

By contrast, doubt and questions are welcomed in legitimate religions like mainline Catholicism. Medieval theologians in Catholic Europe, Burtner told listeners, insisted that doubt was acceptable because it got the Christian thinking.

The problem with abusive religious movements is not really about theology, but about the leader’s personality disorder, Burtner said. What’s more, abusive religious leaders often manipulate theology to validate the abuse. That, says Burtner, leaves church members not knowing what is real.

Burtner called his study of abusive religions “a vision of hell.”

“Church abuse happens when a religious leader uses his or her spiritual position to control, manipulate or dominate a person or group of persons,” said Ronald Enroth, a retired professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Enroth spent decades studying manipulative religious movements. In his past two books, he turned his attention to abusive sects that claim to be within the sphere of Christianity.

“The leaders of these groups employ control-oriented autocratic leadership,” Enroth said. “I’m not saying they do it insincerely but they use their position as prophet, pastor, elder, priest or whatever they may call themselves to manipulate and control people’s lives. It is spiritual intimidation.”

‘The meat grinder’

The Rev. Ken Garrett, an evangelical pastor, began the SAFE support group, which meets monthly. “It’s mostly to provide information,” said Garrett, who wrote a dissertation on spiritual abuse. “We are not a fix-it group. We are filling toolboxes for people.”

Garrett, pastor of Grace Church in Southwest Portland, says about 3% of people in churches have had experiences with leaders inappropriately controlling their sexual behavior, their money, their interpretation of Scripture or whom they befriend and marry.

“There is a tremendous amount of abuse that goes on in Christian organizations,” said Garrett.

Most abusive churches are small, but the leader feels elite. Garrett recalls one pastor who, before he strode out to preach each Sunday, ordered an aide to kneel and tie his expensive shoes.

Garrett, a former Army paratrooper, himself spent a dozen years in the grip of a manipulative pastor at what was then called the Southeast Bible Church in Portland.

“It really ran me and my family through the meat grinder,” Garrett said of the experience, which he escaped 20 years ago. “In a lot of ways, we are still recovering.”

Pastor Michael Sperou, who spent time in the Oregon State Penitentiary for sexually abusing children, sought to manipulate the Southeast Bible Church congregation in many ways, Garrett said. In a 2015 trial for abuse, it emerged that Sperou required church members to give him money. For his 40th birthday, for example, he demanded that the church collect $4,000 for him.

“We see with these guys a deep hunger for affirmation,” Garrett said. “When they don’t get the praise, they’re happy to settle for people fearing them.”

‘I don’t know that I can ever be repaired’

Even as criminal conviction for Sperou neared, dozens of church members came to court to support him and denounce witnesses like Garrett.

Jennifer Olajuyin, one of seven women who said she was abused by Sperou when she was a girl, was disowned by her parents.

When Olajuyin was 4, her family joined Southeast Bible Church. The little community seemed ideal at first — a cluster of houses with a shared yard and a trampoline, with plenty of children.

But Olajuyin said Sperou was a narcissist who kept shifting the rules. Once, he gave teenage Olajuyin $20 as a gift then publicly shamed her for spending it on pizza instead of on gifts for other people. He told her there was no room in the community for individual needs and wants. Olajuyin, by nature an introvert, was forced constantly to mingle in big groups and suffered. When she sought solitude in her room, Sperou had the door taken off its hinges.

“There was constant judgment, criticism of what you were doing,” Olajuyin said.

Sperou told Olajuyin she was sinful to her core and selfish and could not trust her own thoughts and feelings. He ordered her not to date outside the church community.

Olajuyin knew she was supposed to be in awe of the man’s every word, but his preaching bored her.

She stayed until she was 21, when the problems became clear to her, including the leader’s sexual abuse of girls. Olajuyin, now 36, refused to give details but was part of a suit alleging abuse.

Even with all the pain, it was difficult to exit.

“I felt like I didn’t have an identity when I came out,” Olajuyin said. “I don’t know that I can ever be repaired.”

She is no longer religious.

To get what they want

“Spiritual abuse is a horrific way of manipulation and deceit,” Garrett said during the SAFE meeting. “They want to get something — money, sex, power. It’s pretty brutal. We always walk out of abuse with shame,” Garrett said.

The SAFE group has grown since Garrett posted it on meetup.com. About 30 people come on a usual evening and range in age from the 20s to the 60s.

One woman in the crowd on this night piped up about her own memory: “For us, it was our church or no church at all.” She choked up and reached for the comforting hand of her husband.

A man in the audience said that abusive religious leaders see people who are “all in” and target them for easy manipulation.

People in such communities can fall into a trance and begin to believe in the leader’s self-proclaimed powers, said Garrett, who refused job promotions to please his pastor. Then Sperou rebuffed Garrett’s attempts to strike out on his own as a pastor.

Abusive leaders tend to be anxious, envious, defensive and temperamental, Garrett said. “These leaders don’t feel what other people are feeling. They are performing to get what they want.”

Perceived persecution is a defining characteristic of those who lead manipulative religious groups, said Enroth. “They think the rest of the world, including pointy-headed professors like me, are out to get them.”

• Kent Burtner, local Catholic counselor and expert on spiritual abuse.

Ed Langlois, Of the Catholic Sentinel

Signs of abusive leaders

• Always want to be the “alpha dog.” Such leaders create a narrative to substantiate why they should be in charge of everything and fantasize about more power.
• Have trouble with other leaders.
• Are image driven and care deeply how they are viewed.
• Think they are smarter and more attractive than everyone else.
• Create a narrative about being persecuted by the world.
Sources: Rev. Ken Garrett and Kent Burtner

Rev. Ken Garrett, pastor of Grace Church in Southwest Portland, escaped an abusive pastor two decades ago. He began a support group for those who have suffered spiritual abuse. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

44 thoughts on “NARCISSISM A HALLMARK OF RELIGIOUS ABUSERS.

  1. What does “Pat says?” I wonder.

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  2. Spiritual abuse; look no further than to Wonersh. As soon as Im ordained I wont miss this place.

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    1. What about the communal showers and the peep-holes? That will be a big miss for many when they leave.

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      1. 8;25 Sounds very pervy.

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    2. Wonersh and other dysfunctional and abusive seminaries need to come under the gaze of objective, independent, secular authorities and examined closely. From what I have read on this blog from current and past seminarians there is more than adequate material to trigger such an investigation – bullying, manipulation, favouritism, sexual antics and favours, questionable leadership, bad management, and probably a whole menu of crazy goings on that need to be looked at, called out and stopped. There could well be a “Me Too” moment for seminaries. Watch that space. And not too soon. If this sort of thing were to happen in a school, OFSTED and others would be all over it.

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      1. 9:00 am
        Good comment. I agree. Time for a ‘Me Too’ seminarians movement in the Church.

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    3. Hello David Hunter!

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      1. 10.34: Hello Miss Gossip Knickersoff! What’s your beef?

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    4. I think i know who this is.
      The contraceptive Coil really that bad, eh? (Nerds pulling out out then).
      mate, i hope you are all ok.
      Just remember what I said about keeping a record of everything, and put your phones on record when ‘summoned.’
      Charge it up and when you walk out of your room put it on record. Even in lectures

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    1. Good news ? Really ? This Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest comprises a pile of loony, swivel eyed odd balls playing around with vestments and different coloured pompoms on their birettas, and a retrenched, ultra orthodox theology particularly surrounding sexual and moral issues that, surely, we as Church have long since moved away from ? It is populated by fresh faced young men from the four corners of the world who clearly have little experience or knowledge of the real world or life, and who will one day come to regret their exposure to this traditionalist orthodox culture, it being only a matter of time. Come back in ten years and find out how many are still there. And why would Treanor allow this crowd to come in to his diocese ? Probably the prospect of them throwing wads of money in his direction ? This is a complete nonsense, this is not where our Church needs to be going, and it is an unhealthy, dysfunctional theological and church culture that we do not need to be embracing.

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      1. That ‘institute’ is a cult, pure and simple.

        I hope any parent tempted to bring their children anywhere near it will know that it will not tolerate dissent: it will insist upon absolute conformity to its ‘vision’, which it will likely describe as ‘authentically Catholic’ (the subtext being ‘anything else is not, and is not welcome here’).

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      2. It’s the future, grannie!

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      3. Fresh faced young men, you say? Any chance of a chapel of ease in Newcastle?

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      4. Calm down Grandad it’s only one church all the others are keeping their guitars and fat priests you will be alright

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  3. This is a very valuable article. It is insightful and illuminating on the reality of spiritual abuse. Because so many of us find solace in spiritual truths, from Christianity and from belonging to a christian community, it is all too easy to be manipulated by leaders. Too easy to believe the persuasive words, promises and hopes expressed powerfully by some ‘messianic’ speakers. This article highlights the serious issues of spiritual abuse. I believe this kind of abuse is horrendous and dangerous. It is a total betrayal of the God of Jesus, whom these charismatic charlatans preach. Just look at the proliferation of the American Tele Evangelist industry! Spiritual abuse of the worst kind. All religions and churches – independent and otherwise are potential spiritual abusers. Adherents need to discern very wisely. With spiritual sbuse comes financial abuse because “grace” from these false messiahs/prophets is never free!

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  4. I agree completely with this article *except* that the control techniques are not only used by tiny groups. You will find them in the Catholic church and the effects of that control are shown by the Cathbots’ comments on here all the time.
    What they don’t understand is that you have escaped from a controlling and abusive institution.

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  5. Fly on Th Wall 16th Oct 2019 — 8:27 am

    Sounds a step in th right direction hi. There is no such thing as an absolutely unselfish motive. This is not a barrier but when people start to glory in the smell of their own poo it schticks hi

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  6. Spiritual abuse is an integral part of sexual abuse of children as well as abuse of vulnerable adults.
    Covering up abuse by hierarchy, which is another form of spiritual abuse plus abuse of power,
    compounds the abuse of ‘victims/ survivors’. Spiritual abuse is a horrific way to manipulate and deceive, but is also a grevious betrayal of trust, a violation of the dignity and integrity of the person, as well as dehumanizing; treating a person as an object for gratification. Spiritual abuse is the anthesis of the Gospel message.

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  7. Lay people aware of the corruption in the Rcc have also been shocked and spiritually abused to a lesser degree.

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  8. It doesn’t help that Henry the Hoover and two of the three Queens have left, new hoovers and Queens can be found at Wonersh every autumn.
    And with a rector with “emotional problems”, a corrupt vice rector that during Sunday mass talks about all bottoms he have had, staff members that ofgicially break their back and suddenly wanish not only from Wonersh but from their diocese website as well, it wont stop.

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    1. The article rightly raises the issue of abuse in small evangelical communities where there is little external oversight, but we have seen this too in creepy new organizations in the RCC such as the Legionaries – in fact wherever there is special privilege involved. A friend was groomed by Opus Dei while supposedly in a safe place at a University Chaplaincy. Back to Wonersh, it was stated a few days ago that the priest with a broken back was Father Terynon Williams, who also featured in the now infamous video. Is this true and that he has now disappeared? If so, someone must know more. Secondly several people stuck up for the Spiritual Director, Canon Luke Smith. If he is such a good guy, why then is he standing by and doing nothing? He is a senior priest after all.

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  9. Anonymous Angelicus 16th Oct 2019 — 12:03 pm

    Narcissistic traits include; exaggerated sense of importance, lack empathy, sense of entitlement requiring excessive admiration, notions of superiority, dysfunctional conscience, fantasies related to power, belittle people or look down on people they preceive as inferior, take advantage of others to get what they want, arrogant or haughty coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious, insist on having the best of everything such as car, office, house, etc. Organizations can also be narcissistic.

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    1. By God, Sir!

      You’ve described Noel Treanor to a tee. (And sure doesn’t Noel insist on having the best of everything? Four million pounds worth?)

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  10. Bishop Len & The Craggy Crew guest artists The Purple Gang & Co. 16th Oct 2019 — 12:32 pm

    I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am)
    Written by Gary Glitter & Mike Leander
    Sung by Gary Glitter (1973)
    Come on, come on, Come on, come on, Come on, come on, Come on (2x)
    D’you wanna be in my gang , my gang, my gang, D’you wanna be in my gang, Oh Yeah! (2x)
    I’m the leader, I’m the leader, I’m the leader of the gang I am
    I’m the leader, I’m the leader, Well there’s no one like the man I’m
    I can take you high as a kite every single night
    I can make you jump out of bed standing on my head
    Who’d ever believe it, Come on come on (3x)
    D’you wanna be in my gang, a my gang, my gang, (2x)
    D’you wanna be in my gang, a my gang, my gang, oh Yeah! Do You ? my gang,
    Come On! Come on, come on, Come on, come on, Come on, come on, (2x)
    D’you wanna be in my gang , my gang, my gang,
    D’you wanna be in my gang, Oh Yeah!
    D’you wanna be in my gang , my gang, my gang, D’you wanna be in my gang, Oh Yeah!
    I’m the leader, I’m the leader, I’m the leader of the gang I am
    I’m the leader, I’m the leader, I’m the man who put the bang in gang
    I can take you over the hill, ooooh what a thrill
    I can make you sell me your soul for my rock and roll
    Who’d ever believe it, Come on come on (3x)
    D’you wanna be in my gang, a my gang, my gang, (2x)
    D’you wanna be in my gang, a my gang, my gang, oh Yeah!
    Do You ? my gang Come On!

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    1. Did you type all this by hand? Why?

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    2. Fly on Th Wall 16th Oct 2019 — 8:38 pm

      What happened to the good auld Gary glitter/Paul Gadd hi ? Ironic Ina way but

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      1. 8:38PM
        Good Night fly hi.
        Begorra fly Gary Glitter the glam rocker himself is doing porridge for you know what….
        He’s in the chain gang for the next 16 years or so….
        Bye bye fly hi.

        Like

  11. You are quite the narcissist yourself Buck.

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    1. 2.14: I hope Pat realises the narcissist he is!! Desperately so. Any person who sets up his own sect is a potential narcissist and time generally proves this to be true.

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      1. The Oraypry is not a sect. It is a small Christian community in the Catholic tradition. All decisions are made by the community gathered.

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  12. Today’s blog could easily be about the experience of being Roman Catholic, especially several decades ago (before the sexual-abuse criminality in the Church stormed centre-stage and damaged the perceived moral authority of Church leaders).

    These leaders have, like other functionaries in non-Catholic cults, used such accusations as ‘heresy’, ‘disloyalty’, ‘disobedience to God’ (‘duress’, in other words) to consolidate their power and status by intimidating dissenting voices into recalcitrant silence. This control was reinforced by use of such clerical titles as (in descending order) Holy Father, Your Grace, My Lord, Monsignieur, Father, and by a style of dress that was completely anachronistic.

    It was a hierarchy of power and authority much greater than that in any other cult. But its back has been broken by the abuse scandals. This is certainly one silver lining in that very dark cloud: Catholics (most, at any rate) are no longer transfixed by their leaders, like a rabbit in the headlight beam of a car before it is run over, and will speak up and out when they feel the need.

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    1. That’s right most Catholics are agnostics and so are the priests most of whom wouldn’t be seen anywhere wearing clerical dress so you don’t have to worry

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      1. 6.56

        So a believing Catholic is a member of the Church (or group) who uncritically hangs on every word spoken by their leaders? That’s almost a classic definition of ‘cult’.

        And if most priests have divested themselves of clerical garb, it’s not through ‘Father’s’ trying to appear one of the plebs (just call me ‘Bob’), but because he fears being publicly identified for what he actually is: part of a priestly caste of pervs and paedos.

        (Just sayin’, like.☺)

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    2. ********

      BREAKING NEWS

      JUST BACK FROM BELFAST AND HEARD ONE OF THE MOST HORRIBLE STORIES ABOUT A SITUATION IN A CATHOLIC SCHOOL.

      BLOGGING ABOUT IT TONIGHT.

      CHECK IN AFTER 11 PM

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      1. Will do.

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      2. Pat do you still like me?
        -hughie

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      3. Of course 😊

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  13. MMM at 4.41pm……why the desire for a Chapel of Ease in Newcastle???

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  14. 6.48: MMM, are you on the hunt again for fresh young men?? Catching up with lost youthful dreams! You perv.

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    1. 6.48 @8.02

      The commentor at 4.41 is not MMM.

      Idiots.

      Like

      1. Lollipop Josie 16th Oct 2019 — 8:03 pm

        7.25: How do you know, you fool? MMM is well able to fend for himself. He doesn’t need your val8dation. More fool if he does!! Mags, go play with yourself.

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      2. MournemanMichael 16th Oct 2019 — 8:13 pm

        Thank you Magna. I suppose you recognise my ‘style’ by now, for I’ve given you enough “stick” ………when you’ve deserved it! But in fairness I’ve enjoyed your most recent comments as balanced and fair, albeit very critical and well deserved.
        Yes folks I confirm that the idiot trying to stir things up is certainly not me, and those who have noted my comments over the years will also have readily recognised that too. Attempting to impersonate another contributor here just goes to show the twisted mindset of some of the trolls around who are best ignored. They just don’t realise how easy it is to spot their infantile attempts.
        MMM

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  15. 8:13
    Some of the trolls on this blog are a few clerics up to no good, like lollipop and his pals. ( Just sayin , lollipop) 😝

    Like

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