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Interview: Author on Confronting the Hushed Topic of Religious Abuse

Interview: Author on Confronting the Hushed Topic of Religious Abuse

A victim of religious abuse, Jack Watts wants to sound the horn on what he believes is ignored in the church.

"Tragically, religious abuse occurs every day, and millions have stories bottled up inside them," he says in his new book, Recovering from Religious Abuse: 11 Steps to Spiritual Freedom

Yet "it's rare for church leaders to give more than lip service to religious abuse."

"Most routinely dismiss it as a minor issue. They're mistaken. It's a substantial problem," he asserts. "Even if you consider your abuse to be minor, it is an issue that needs to be addressed."

Watts is out to guide the many victims on a 91-day recovery program to help them restore purpose and meaning to their lives. Rather than live in fear, self-pity or disillusionment, God wants to replace that with a spirit of love, power and sound judgment, the author reassures victims.

After taking 25 years to fully recover from several abuses, Watts declares, "Helping people ... to recover is my purpose – my only purpose."

CP: First of all, how prevalent do you think religious abuse is, particularly in the U.S.?

Watts: Barna just finished going some research and in the research it showed that one third of people are completely unchurched. As a subcategory of that, they ask the question about people ever going to church and 37 percent of this 100 million people said that they stopped going completely because they had a negative experience. And that is a huge number. It's as many people as are in the state of California and Canada. And of that, the people that have been religiously abused would be another subset. But it's millions.

CP: Can you describe the scale of religious abuse – where on one side is the worst kind of abuse like sexual abuse and on the other side is what? Something minor as a comment

Watts: The continuum would be vast, you're right. On the far end would be sexual abuse – like what happened to Elizabeth Smart, or the pedophile priest or what Bishop Eddie Long allegedly did to these young boys here in Atlanta. Following closely to that would be financial abuse – throw $20 on the plate and Jesus will give you $200. There's a lot of that. When people ultimately recognize that that's a con and a fraud, they become very disillusioned.

But the greatest number of religious abuse would be way more into the realm of people abusing their power and their religious authority to wound another person in the sense of … trying to obtain their own agenda; the people are essentially used, abused, shamed and discarded. Because it isn't just you and I disagreeing about something, it's more like "there's something wrong with you," "there's something wrong with your relationship with the Lord." And these people accept this wounding and they walk away, feeling shamed, disillusioned, angry, which turns into bitterness, resentment, and if they did this to me so they become hardened enough and the pain from it is so great that they begin or increase acting out behavior [such as] drinking; prescription drugs; pornography; extramarital affairs; overeating – huge one; overspending – equally huge; and they go down and they're not happy. They become essentially part of the problem and they stay disillusioned and trapped in this for years, decades, sometimes the rest of their lives. The research says these people are so far away, we're just going to categorize them as unchurched. This group is because of a negative experience.

CP: So the more obvious – sexual abuse – is always all over the media, but something like mental and emotional abuse seems to be underreported and no one really knows or talks about it as much…

Watts: Well, it hasn't been identified. Period. To my knowledge, there are people that talk about abuse in the church. But to my knowledge, nobody has done what I've done and what I have done is said "OK, instead of just cursing the darkness, I'm going to light a match. And lighting the match is the 11 steps to recovery from religious abuse. Probably the best definition of religious abuse is if you feel like you have been abused, you have. Millions would say they have been. So they need to address this. The way that they address it is by systematically going through the problem, owning their part of it, and … breaking [from] "I was abused and God was a part of it." That's what they believe and that's absolutely not true.

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. So God understands this. He loves these people and nobody's doing anything for them. Here I am, just little, old Jack Watts in Atlanta, Ga., raising the beacon, saying "OK, the Statue of Liberty where it says 'give me your homeless, poor, tired, those who yearn to breathe free …" that's what America took, it took the refuse and made the greatest nation of all time. Now, I think that if this huge group of people who have a relationship with the Lord can be reenergized, the potential of what they can do to help restore this nation are extraordinary.

Here he is, little, old Jack Watts, although I've got a good publisher, this is a Simon and Schuster book. Every Barnes & Noble in America has it (the book). So that's a big deal. But you couldn't find it in a LifeWay Christian bookstore nor am I even in their system.

CP: And why is that?

Watts: My guess is they don't like that I'm calling them on their stuff. I am in the evangelical world the Nathan.

CP: There have been several books and studies about people liking Jesus but not the church. You emphasize in the book that this abuse comes from religious leaders and not from God or Jesus and that the victims should reconnect with God and recover their purpose. Let's say they're successful in building that relationship again with God but what about the church? How do they reconnect with a church after being hurt by one, since church is still very important to their faith life?

Watts: That's a good question. That is an answer for them and how the Holy Spirit leads them. I can tell you right now that people that have been badly abused are never going to go back into a situation where someone's going to abuse them again nor should they, nor do I recommend that. Getting reconnected with believers is something they will be able to do once they reconnect with the Lord himself. Plus, there are millions of people that they can help who have also been religiously abused in the same sense that "who's the best person to help an alcoholic? Another alcoholic." People that have worked the program and made strides at reconnecting and reestablishing an intimate relationship with the Lord … once you establish your relationship with the Lord, he's very clear on what he wants you to do. I believe God's in this, in what I've done. There is a future and a hope for good things and not bad, for people who are willing to reconnect moving forward.

CP: How big of a role do you think this has played in contributing to the negative image Christians have today?

Watts: It's the No. 1 thing. When you ask somebody what they think of a believer, what is the first thing they say? They're just a bunch of hypocrites. And this is part of the hypocrisy. 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. But they don't forget the wounded. The wounded stay. 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. That's huge.

CP: I don't know if I missed this in the book, but can you recount the religious abuse you suffered starting with how you started in your walk with Christ?

Watts: Three of the four examples at the beginning of the book are me. The one about the kid that was molested by the pedophile priest was not me. I became a believer in 1964 through Campus Crusade for Christ. I had been raised Roman Catholic and pre-Vatican II. If you saw that movie "Doubt," it's 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. When I was 18, somebody from Campus Crusade came and said "God loves you." I said "Why? Why would he love me? I never heard that before." And I responded to it quickly and became a real enthusiastic Campus Crusader.

I got involved with a legalistic church and they were way more interested in people conforming to petty rules than anything else and that took a toll on me. When we split off from Campus Crusade in 1968 and we congregated in a little place called Isla Vista, Calif. It was a radical hippie community, right there in the middle of the Vietnam War, and we were raising the beacon for Christ. There were 10,000 hippies in one square mile. They ended up having more impact on us than I think we had on them. But this little group turned into a cult of authority. Breaking free of it was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I went through all of the shame and verbal abuse and having your family where …my kids couldn't play with some of the friends and breaking off. It was awful. It took decades for us to completely get out and for me to reconnect with the Lord.

After I left and came back South, I started doing promotional work for large Christian ministries. I did the last mailing that Jim and Tammy Bakker ever did and that Norman Peale ever did. I worked for Pat Robertson's group when he ran for president. So I saw what happened to the people within these organizations when they went against the narcissism of the leaders and it was not a pretty sight. All of a sudden I noticed there's a pattern here.

As I learned to reconnect with the Lord personally and no longer participate in some of the things that these people did, I realized that this isn't just good for me, I need to spell all this out because other people can benefit from my experience. If people can't benefit from your experience then what use is it to have it?

CP: So what made you stick with Christianity? Why didn't you just leave?

Watts: Well, I have a relationship with Christ. And he that denies me him will I deny. I'm not about to do that. I know that the Lord is the Lord. I wasn't willing to go against Christ. Deep inside, once I had experienced God's love, I knew that he loved me and even though I had all this stuff happen – I went through alcoholism and I have almost 18 years of sobriety now – I learned how to reconnect. And once I did, ... in my estimation I went through these experiences for a purpose. And the purpose is Recovering from Religious Abuse: 11 Steps to Spiritual Freedom.

CP: How long did it take for you to recover fully from this?

Watts: Twenty-five years.

CP: Have other people come to you with similar stories?

Watts: Oh my goodness. As soon as people look at this, everybody wants to talk. People want authenticity. They are not willing to just sit by and listen to sappy dribble that doesn't really do anything. My experience is that if you give people reality, if you're honest, then they respond. This book is rigorously honest. Beyond that. I would call it proactively forthright.

CP: We see a lot of recovery groups in churches – for alcohol or drug abusers, those who divorced and even sex addicts. Do you think a religious abuse recovery group is needed in the church?

Watts: Yeah.

CP: Would the church even be willing to have one?

Watts: That's a good question. We'll see. If people start doing this and you see lives changed, absolutely. I remember when I first started going to AA and I saw some of these older guys and they were unflappable and they were fun and interesting and strong. I like that. If you find Christian people who have been through the mill, and have stayed strong, then you find some really good people. It's the weak people that are legalistic, not the strong ones.

CP: After all you've experienced and the stories you heard, what would you advise churches and church leaders as they lead their flocks whether it's dozens or thousands?

Watts: Religious abuse doesn't happen where there are dozens, often. It's where the ministry becomes so big and so self-important that they get their message confused with the simplicity of the gospel. I think that some of these leaders, some of them won't change because of the narcissism, personality disorder. But some of them just take one an enormous amount of arrogance and if enough people are willing to stand up to them, some of them will change. But my experience is that they surround themselves with [those] who are willing to look the other direction when they do appalling things. People who misuse his authority, that's really taking the Lord's name in vain, far more than deep profanity.

CP: How would you reassure these victims of abuse, about their purpose and God's love?

Watts: That's what step 4 is. I recognize that God is not the abuser. Someone who misuses their authority is the abuser. God is good and can be trusted. He is who he says he is. That's one complete step. It's right there at the beginning after people say "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. And I 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." The material points to what I alluded to earlier that Christ was abused by religious leaders. It was the religious establishment that crucified him, not the Romans.

CP: Would you like to add anything?

Watts: 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.

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