The German Bishops are cracking down on what they have called “satanic” spiritual abuse, urging the Church to treat the phenomenon in the same way as sexual abuse.

– Spiritual abuse paves way for sexual abuse: Bishop of Münster

Spiritual abuse has “serious effects on the emotional and psychological well-being of people. It is not unusual for such spiritual abuse of power to precede sexual abuse, preparing for it in a spiritually manipulative way”, alerted Bishop Felix Genn of the Münster diocese at the start Thursday of a two-day conference on spiritual abuse organised by the German Bishops’ Conference and the Catholic Academy of the Dresden-Meissen diocese.

Linking it always to the abuse of power, Genn – the chairman of the German Bishops’ commission for vocations – defined spiritual abuse as the “instrumentalisation” of both the victim’s deepest faith convictions and of his or her sacred relationship with a perpetrator, who in the course of the abuse turns both of those elements to his or her ends.

The perpetrator of spiritual abuse “bends the victim’s conscience towards himself or herself and away from God according to his own views. He keeps the victim away from other relationships, which creates a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness in the victim, which makes it almost impossible to free oneself from dependence on the perpetrator”, the Bishop of Münster denounced.

– Spiritual abuse wreaks “abysmal… destruction”

Diving deeper into the phenomenon of spiritual abuse, Genn said that that sin begins when a pastoral carer or spiritual guide “assumes sole competence over the content of the faith and exercises power over others through the teaching that he alone interprets”.

The spiritual abuser then twists the relationship of trust and faith that he or she has built up with the victim or victims “and raises himself or herself into a divine position”, the bishop explained.

Genn explained that in contrast to “healthy” spiritual accompaniment – which can always be recognised by its opening of a path to God in total freedom – the warning signs of spiritual abuse include the frequent use of Church “insider jargon”, the manipulation of emotions and demands for extreme spiritual practice on the part of a spiritual leader or guide.

The bishop was careful to distinguish the “wonderful possibility of accompaniment” from the “abysmal corruptibility and destruction” wrought by spiritual abusers.

The sham of the faith offered by “self-appointed human saviours” is what makes spiritual abuse “satanic”, Genn deplored.

– Dresden bishop urges survivors to come forward: those who blow the whistle on abusive dynamics “do the Church an important service”

In his address Thursday to the conference on spiritual abuse, Genn emphasised that “great attention and discernment is needed to nip abusive tendencies in the bud and to take action against them”.

The bishop recognised that that prevention of spiritual abuse is not an easy task, since spiritual accompaniment and direction is protected by a veil of confidentiality.

However, the prelate called on the Church to prevent spiritual abuse with the participation of all stakeholders, and through courses for good spiritual guidance, a review of Church law and practice, a deeper knowledge of spiritual abuse and the establishment of clear criteria as to what the phenomenon consists of and also the opening of channels for complaint on the part of victims.

In his call for greater Church transparency and accountability, Genn was joined by Dresden-Meissen bishop Heinrich Timmerevers, who urged the Church “to face the painful reality” of spiritual abuse in its ranks.

In an article on spiritual abuse published November 9, Timmerevers called on the Church to create standardised mechanisms for reporting, documenting, processing and compensating cases of spiritual abuse in a way analogous to its handling of sexual abuse cases.

Pleading for the Church to strengthen its laws against spiritual abusers and to expand its counselling services for victims, Timmerevers encouraged survivors to come forward, saying that those who blow the whistle on abusive pastoral relationships “do the Church an important service”.

The German Bishops’ and Catholic Academy’s conference on spiritual abuse, which continues into this Friday, is bringing together experts from the fields of medicine, psychology, law, theology and the institutional Church “to take a self-critical look” at those structures and activities of the Church that may favour spiritual abuse, and that much with the goal of discussing possibilities of prevention, reaction and reform.

More news on Novena on the German Church:

Catholic youth call on Cardinal Woelki to resign for burying report into clergy sex abuse cover-ups

German priest denounces “sexualised violence” in Church, blames phenomenon on “male-paternal patterns of dominance”

German Church doubles down on fight against abuses of priestly power, clericalism in liturgy

German bishop launches tirade against clericalism: “A priest is not holier or more valuable by virtue of his office”


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.