Millions of people have experienced religious abuse, claims one author. Yet the church has refused to care for, let alone acknowledge, the abused.
Jack Watts has an 11-step recovery program he says is the first one ever to be developed to help victims of religious abuse heal and reconnect with God.
After all, it is not God who is the abuser, but rather people who misuse their authority, Watts stresses in his recently released book, Recovering from Religious Abuse: 11 Steps to Spiritual Freedom.
A victim himself, Watts knows the devastating effects that religious abuse can have on a believer. Not only can they fall into destructive behaviors, such as alcoholism, but they could also abandon their relationship with God.
Unfortunately, religious abuse is "the least discussed" and even neglected topic in the church, he laments.
"This is part of the hypocrisy," he told The Christian Post in an interview. "There's been so much abuse and the people who are abused are not cared for. They are shunned. Once shunned, they go off and are quickly forgotten.
"So instead of leaving the 99 that are saved and going after the one that is lost, they've allowed the people that are lost to become so great that they now constitute 12 percent of the population."
Another indicator that Christians are ignoring the issue is the fact that his book cannot be found in one of the nation's largest Christian stores.
"This is a Simon and Schuster book. Every Barnes & Noble in America has it. So that's a big deal. But you couldn't find it in a LifeWay Christian bookstore nor am I even in their system," he said. "My guess is they don't like that I'm calling them on their stuff. I am, in the evangelical world, the Nathan" (the prophet in the Old Testament who confronted King David about his sin).
Watts defines religious abuse as "the mistreatment of a person by someone in a position of spiritual authority, resulting in the diminishing of that person's sense of well-being and growth – both spiritually and emotionally."
He also defines it as "misuse of Scripture that harms a person's relationship with God."
To define it more simply, Watts told CP, "Probably the best definition of religious abuse is if you feel like you have been abused, you have."
"Millions say they have been."
Though sexual abuse in the church has been called out and reported, the Atlanta, Ga., author believes the more prevalent verbal and emotional abuse – the kind where you're often told "there's something wrong with you" – has yet to be identified.
Gaining a warped view of God
Watts was raised a Roman Catholic. The movie "Doubt" came to his mind when describing what church was like at that time for him.
"It's (the movie) about what priests and nuns were like back then and I mean to tell you that's exactly what they were like. There was just constant terror in Catholicism," he recalled.
At the age of seven, Watts was preparing for his First Holy Communion. He, along with several of his peers, practiced going to the altar rail, kneeling down, holding their heads back, opening their mouths and sticking out their tongues for the Communion wafer.
Sounds simple enough. But he unpleasantly remembers being told harshly by the priest to close their mouths "immediately" after the wafer was placed on their tongues.
"You don't want to drop Jesus on the floor, do you?" the priest told the young kids. That would send them to hell, he said.
The day of Communion came and of course, one of his peers ended up letting the wafer drop from his mouth. That resulted in a slap across his face from the priest and the boy's mother apologizing to the priest for her son's carelessness.
"This episode solidified my fear of God or, more accurately, my terror of Him," Watts says in his book. "I saw God as cold, hateful, impersonal, petty, and mean-spirited."
It wasn't until he was 18 when someone from Campus Crusade for Christ told him that God loves him.
"Why? I never heard that before," he remembers questioning.
From then on, he became an enthusiastic born-again Christian and devoted churchgoer.
But he got involved with a legalistic church that was "way more interested in people conforming to petty rules than anything else." His pastor was "self-righteous" and "mean-spirited" and mainly concerned with setting sinners straight, including him.
Things didn't get any better for him when he and a group of fellow believers split off from Campus Crusade in 1968 to form their own group. The group ended up turning into a "cult of authority."
Later, he worked for televangelist Jim Bakker and his then wife, Tammy. The televangelist was soon caught in a sex and financial scandal.
It took 25 years for Watts to recover fully from all the religious abuse he suffered, he said.
The abuse never led him to ponder abandoning Christianity because he was convinced that "the Lord is the Lord." He was able to reconnect with the Lord and now wants to help countless others do the same.
One of the crucial steps in Watts' recovery program is recognizing that God is not the abuser.
After the victim acknowledges, "My life is shipwrecked, I've gotten off course and even though I'm not the one that did this to me, I'm still the one that's responsible for getting back on course," the next step is to "choose to believe that what God says about himself is true – that he is good and can be trusted. The abuse came from the abuser. God is not abusive."
"If you think about it, who understands being abused by the religious authorities more than Christ? Humiliated, spit upon, beaten, stripped naked, hung on the cross and murdered. That's further than what the priests have done," Watts told CP.
"So God understands this. He loves these people and nobody's doing anything for them."
Though he suffered religious abuse for most of his life, Watts feels he went through the whole ordeal for a purpose – to help others recover.
"For people who are sick and tired of being sick and tired, there's an option and they can recover and they can lead far more productive lives. God will meet them. They just have to take the initiative."