Statement on Research into Spiritual Abuse

08 February 2018, Thirtyone:eight

In January 2018, thirtyone:eight (then known as CCPAS) launched the summary findings from its most recent piece of research undertaken by Bournemouth University into Understanding Spiritual Abuse in Christian Communities. This research is the latest in an on-going series of specially commissioned studies into areas associated with safeguarding in Christian faith contexts, including Safeguarding Adults in the Christian Faith Community (2014) and Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief (2014), with further studies to follow. Our research is driven by our commitment to develop evidence-based advice, training and resources that support best practice in relation to safeguarding within Christian faith communities in the UK.

With over 40 years’ experience working at a grass roots level, we are recognised for our specialist knowledge and understanding of churches, Christian organisations and faith-based communities, and are regarded by many as a reliable and trusted source of independent and professional guidance and information on the subject of safeguarding.  We are a partner agency with CEOP (the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre) - a part of the National Crime Agency, members of the National Working Group on Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief, and associate members of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS). We are also members of Children England and the Evangelical Alliance.

However, as an independent agency, not affiliated to any church denomination, group or tradition, we are able to work impartially with churches, Christian organisations, other faith groups, government and statutory agencies, as well as with victims/survivors of abuse and their families. Our approach is very much open and collaborative, finding areas of common ground from which to share knowledge, expertise and best practice wherever possible. At the heart of all we do is a focus on people and creating safer places for them wherever that might be.

Our research, which is undertaken in collaboration with recognised external academic centres of excellence (which to date have included Manchester Metropolitan University and Bournemouth University), adheres to a strict and rigorous ethical approval process
and ensures that any methods and associated findings are both credible and robust, underpinned by oversight from senior academics at each centre. This external scrutiny and validation is backed-up by our internal Research Committee that reviews each project at a Board level. This committee consists of senior safeguarding and research professionals, who ensure each piece of research is subjected to the proper levels of scrutiny and conducted in line with recognised best practice.

Working with recognised experts, with a particular focus on known and emerging safeguarding issues within a faith context, we seek to inform and develop understanding of key issues. We are not a campaigning organisation, and do not conduct issue-based campaigns, however we do seek to partner and work together with a host of organisations calling for the development of policies and practices that lead to the creation of safer places for all.

Our most recent piece of research, has been released as awareness of what has typically been referred to as spiritual abuse for many decades is increasing, not just in our own area of work within the UK, but across Europe and internationally. Many organisations and denominations have begun to acknowledge this experience of people within their care, and have begun to respond positively and constructively by engaging with the issues and developing their own policies to both prevent and respond well to harm being caused in this way. Our research has been conducted in response to the growing need for credible exploration into this area.

What this new study has highlighted, is that big gaps in understanding around this topic remain, as well as a lack of an agreed, precise definition of the term itself. Within the context of the research we offer our own working definition of the term based upon the findings and comments of participants, but recognise that other definitions exist. As debate continues regarding the language that should be used to define the experience, what is clear from our findings is that more should be done to help 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.

There has been some concerns and fears expressed about the possible use of such information to attack the fundamental freedoms of religious thought and expression.  However, we have been clear from the outset about the limitations of this particular piece of research, and that any conclusions drawn must be done so responsibly and in the context of trying to understanding the complexity and breadth of this topic. We would always advise caution in this regard, whilst asserting the credibility of this research, which is the first of its size and focus in this country.

As an organisation we welcome all attempts to inform and enrich the developing debate about spiritual abuse, and are committed to working collaboratively together with other organisations and groups that sincerely wish to actively and demonstrably respond to
these experiences. Our strongly-held desire is to ensure that acknowledgement and hope is provided to those who have been harmed in this way and that any discourse concerning terminology or definition does not diminish the ability for us to take a realistic view of church life and support people to find safer, healthier ways of sharing together in Christian community. This is what underpins the mission and vision of thirtyone:eight.