Dr Lisa Oakley: Building safer spaces

By Simon Hart

How do you define spiritual abuse? It is a question that Dr Lisa Oakley has long pondered – and which she has just asked clergy from the Archdiocese of Liverpool.

Lisa, an associate professor in Applied Psychology at the University of Chester, posed the question during an online training day for priests from this diocese on 5 February (with a second following on 5 March). Spiritual abuse, and its impact, was a central focus of the session, organised by the Safeguarding Department of the Archdiocese, and so too a reflection on healthy Christian cultures.

First, that definition of spiritual abuse. ‘The terminology is to some extent still controversial,’ she explains. ‘In terms of a definition, I’d suggest it’s a form of psychological or emotional abuse but really it’s coercive control within a religious context. Spiritual abuse can exist on its own or it might be part of other forms of abuse that people are experiencing.’

For Lisa, who grew up in the Church of England, her interest in this subject sprang from a personal experience of ‘coercive control’. As a Social Sciences graduate and chartered psychologist, she sought answers through research. ‘I read books that were mainly published in the States talking about this thing called “spiritual abuse” that I’d never heard of but what they were talking about was very similar to what I’d experienced and so as an academic, I set about researching that area.

‘The response has been quite overwhelming in terms of people telling their stories and one of the greatest privileges I have is working with survivors. I’m always incredibly grateful for people who tell their stories because that’s emotionally hugely costly and we need to get much better at supporting survivors and recognising the expertise they bring.’

In 2009 Lisa completed a PhD on ‘experiences of spiritual abuse within the Christian faith in the UK’ and then embarked on a piece of research called the ‘Church experience survey’ exploring questions of coercion and control. Today she chairs the National Working Group on Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief and also works on projects with Thirtyone:eight, an independent Christian safeguarding charity.

On the question of a healthy Christian culture, she regards safeguarding as ‘central to the ministry of the Church’ and considers it vital that ‘everyone is valued and nurtured’ – at every level. ‘In a healthy culture, the idea is that leaders are nurturing and that we nurture our leaders.’

She describes the response she received from the Liverpool clergy as  ‘thoughtful and reflective’, adding: ‘It was an absolute joy to do that day and work alongside people who were open to reflection. In some ways the timing was important as it has come post-IICSA [the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse] and was a time for people to reflect on what has gone before, recognise the harm and abuse experienced and think about improving prevention and response in the future.’

A lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University for 25 years, Lisa moved to Chester in 2018 and is grateful for the support for her work from the School of Psychology as well as colleagues in the department of Theology and Religious Studies at the university, which will stage an online conference on spiritual abuse on 4-5 September.

‘Whatever you call this, these behaviours are there and not just in Christian context,’ she continues. ‘I’m now working with others from different faith contexts. People have experienced it and harm has been done so it’s right and proper we talk about it and address it. Part of that is how do we create healthy cultures for the future where people will flourish and thrive.’