Spiritual / Ritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse is typically thought of as an emotional abuse. However, it has its own indicators and therefore, is identified as separate. It is significant because it affects a child’s core beliefs, which in turn, can interfere with a multitude of aspects of the psyche.
Spiritual abuse can manifest in many forms:

* Mind control or thought reform.

* The misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence to further the interests of someone other than the individual who needs help.

* Psychological, sexual, and/or physical abuse by members of a specific religion or cult.

* Withholding medical care in lieu of prayer (faith healing).

* Using religious texts for justifications for abuse.

* Psychological, sexual, and/or physical assault committed by one or more people whose primary motive is to fulfill a prescribed ritual or satisfy the perceived needs of a deity or other being. This may include exorcisms or sacrifices.

* Satanic or Sadistic Ritual Abuse (SDA) is an organized, secret, often multi-generational group who engage in mutilation, ritual killing, cannibalism, drinking of blood, systematic torture to produce robot-like, programmed, children, etc.
SDA is either rare or is hardly ever reported.
Common Characteristics of Abusive Groups

* Authoritarian – The group claims to have been established by God and leaders in this system claim the right to command their followers. Followers may be told that God will bless their submission even if the leadership is wrong.

* Image Conscious – History, character flaws, etc are misrepresented or denied to validate the revered image of the group. Irrationally high standards are placed upon followers and their failure to live up to these standards is a constant reminder of the follower’s inferiority to his or her leaders.

* Suppresses Criticism – Questions or open discussions about issues are not allowed. The group or religion is promoted as favored by God and a person who questions becomes the problem rather than the issue he or she raised. Questioning anything is considered a challenge to authority and doubting God.

Signs That May Indicate a Child is a Victim of Spiritual/Ritual Abuse

* Child believes he or she is evil or causes others to be evil

* Mistrust of others outside the group

* Strong fear of God

* Overly obedient or perfectionistic

* Strong feelings of shame or guilt

* Programmed statements or behaviors

* Sleep problems or nightmares


In 1974, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare first required states to have clauses in their child abuse and neglect legislation that permits exemptions from prosecution of parents on religious grounds.
If a state refused, they would not receive federal child abuse protection grants.

In 1983, the federal government allowed states to repeal these clauses.
However, most states still allow parents to use a religious defense if their child dies
because prayer was used instead of medical treatment.

Some situations are very difficult to prove in court. Some states require the burden of proof rests with the prosecution to show the defendant failed to be aware of a “substantial and unjustifiable risk that is a gross deviation” from what a reasonable person would observe. In other words, parents could claim they were not aware that their child’s condition was serious or life-threatening.

Voices Empowered seeks to lobby for legislation that is more concrete.
For example, a law could require a parent seek medical help for a child if that child’s condition does not improve
after a certain amount of time without treatment, and have different limitations for different conditions.


For more information about Faith Healing and the ethical issues surrounding it, visit:
American Academy of Pediatrics, Religious Exemptions from Child Abuse Statutes