Spiritual abuse most often refers to the psychological manipulation of a person by one holding a trusted position in a religious or spiritual tradition. The manipulation is for the benefit of the abuser or the abuser's group at the expense of the victim. The form that it takes depends on whether personal desire or organizational dogma is the underlying cause. Spiritual abuse has very real emotional, physical and financial consequences for its victims.
Cult affiliation is often cited as the most common venue for spiritual abuse, though instances can be seen in mainstream religious organizations worldwide. Strict adherence to a rigid doctrine, presided over by a charismatic or powerful leader of unquestioned authority, is indicative of an environment conducive to abuse. A genuine concern for the spiritual well-being of followers might motivate the abusive behavior. Satisfaction of selfish or pathological personal desires might also be a motivation. Spiritual abuse's victims are most often psychologically vulnerable adults and children.
An altruistic concern that places conformity to teachings ahead of a follower's freedom to inquire and express doubt can lead to abusive behavior. Absolute conformity to accepted teachings, as interpreted by the group's leader, might be seen as the foundation for spiritual welfare. Instruction and correction of an errant or questioning member is intended as a positive good. When the methods used for correction involve inflicting personal fear and shame, doctrinal deception, social isolation or physical punishment, then spiritual abuse exists. The welfare of the individual is being sacrificed for doctrinal purity.
People who have personality disorders or psychopathic tendencies sometimes hold positions of influence in religious bodies, just as they sometimes do in secular organizations. Such a person might be a true believer whose state of mind leads to doctrinal excess or personal glorification. Another person might see his or her own position solely as a vehicle to satisfy personal desires. People who seek to be the focus of worship might practice spiritual abuse in isolating followers socially, requiring the surrender of worldly possessions or creating doctrine to enhance their exclusive status. The misuse of a trusted position to sexually abuse or financially deceive a follower is more akin to the abuse of rank that is found in secular society.
The consequences of spiritual abuse are many and varied, ranging from the emotional to the material. Individuals and families might become impoverished. Family members might become estranged, with little hope for reconciliation. Children might grow into adults who trust neither their own nature nor the motivations of others. The lifelong ramifications of abuse are well documented.