Why did we conduct this investigation?
Why add darkness to already so dark news, by devoting an investigation to spiritual influence? Because ten years after the appeal launched to the episcopate by victims, on October 25, 2013, spiritual abuse remains a little-known phenomenon.
Instrumentalizing the relationship with God, relying on a delusional reading of the Bible, ignoring the elementary rules of spiritual accompaniment and community life, priests and religious men and women have shattered lives by multiplying the abuse of authority, conscience, spiritual. All, sometimes, against a backdrop of sectarian excesses. This influence could also lead to sexual violence. We have chosen to explore the workings of this formidable mechanism. To understand and prevent.
1. What are we talking about when we talk about influence?
Control can be deployed within any human relationship, as long as it is asymmetrical. It is rooted in the trust we place in others. This subtle process can happen in small steps, on a daily basis.
Gradually, we find ourselves trapped in a web; the other takes control over different spheres of our existence: spiritual, intellectual, emotional, professional, bodily… He can thus lead us into actions that we would normally have refused.
Some people have psychological weaknesses, the predator will then rush in. But these signals are not always present. “We must stop thinking that the victims were fragile people when they found themselves under the influence,” insists Dr. Isabelle Chartier-Siben, psychotherapist, victimologist and president of the association C’est à dire. They are often men and women full of life, enthusiastic. »
Honorary lawyer Jean-Pierre Jougla, a specialist in sectarian aberrations, has repeatedly described this infernal spiral. After having given her confidence and seduced her by valuing her, the psychological predator will isolate his victim by claiming that he is protecting her from bad external influences. Relatives who could have a critical view of the abuser will therefore no longer have any influence. The latter will then subject the victim in different ways: physical (by affecting diet, sleep), moral, psychological. He will now have free rein to instill his theories in her and, thus, reinforce her isolation. She loses her autonomy of thought and, tossed between contradictory injunctions, is no longer able to judge.
This phenomenon takes on a particular dimension in a religious context, whatever it may be. And the Church is no exception. “The desire to save, very present among Christians, constitutes a favorable breeding ground,” underlines Isabelle Le Bourgeois, auxiliary nun and psychoanalyst. It’s good to help your neighbor, as long as you don’t take their place. From the moment we say to ourselves “this is what I want for him”, the trap begins to fall into place. »
2. Theological corruption and spiritual deviation: the example of the Brothers of Saint-Jean
Some communities have relied on flawed theology to justify spiritual abuse, which often preceded sexual violence. As with the Brothers of Saint-Jean whose founder, Marie-Dominique Philippe, had hijacked a concept developed by Aristotle, then by Saint Thomas Aquinas: the love of friendship. “The man then gives himself up to his friend as the prey and the victory of his love. It belongs to him; it becomes his property. The friend can use him as he pleases, he can ask him anything,” said the Dominican during a conference in 1961. This figure of the post-conciliar Church will increase sexual abuse, just like 72 brothers, according to the report published by the community last June.
This “love of friendship” omnipresent in Saint-Jean represents a key element of the control system. As evidenced by this priest who was raped by Father Marie-Dominique Goutierre, a religious responsible for philosophical teaching at Saint-Jodard, the main place of formation of the community: “There could be neither moral life nor Christian life without this friendship ; experiencing it was a true “gift” from heaven. Now, it was Father Philippe’s “successor” who told me that he loved me and that I should not reveal this secret to anyone. So I sincerely thought that he was making me experience this love of friendship that Father Philippe constantly spoke to us about and that it couldn’t be bad,” he wrote in The shadow of the eagle. The black book of the Saint-Jean community. This spiritual deviation has been observed in other communities.
3. Risks and abuses of religious life
Community life, when it deviates from the rules laid down by the Church, can lead to sectarian behavior. Obedience, in the sense of listening to the word of God, is at the heart of faith for every Christian. It constitutes a path of growth, of freedom. But it takes on a particular dimension in the context of the vow of obedience taken in religious commitment. Therefore, misused or misunderstood, it can become a vector of control. “If by our vow of obedience we submit our will, the fact remains that our intelligence cannot simply remain aside. (…) Obedience in no way allows the superior to dictate to the religious what he must think,” recalls Dom Dysmas de Lassus, superior general of the Carthusian Order in Risks and abuses of religious life (Ed. du Cerf).
Another essential principle is the distinction between for internal (inner life) and for external (external words and actions). Canon law clearly establishes this. However, some communities have maintained confusion. As when a superior grants himself the role of spiritual guide or exclusive confessor. He therefore has in his hands elements which concern the inner life of the person which he normally does not have the right to disclose or use for manipulation purposes.
“I started to wince when my superior asked me to confide my thoughts to her every evening in writing,” says Sister Marie. (the first name has been changed, Editor’s note) , former member of the Bethlehem community. Many women who left this monastic family have described these harmful practices: the sisters cannot communicate orally with each other, the culture of lies and denunciation is omnipresent… Following an apostolic visit in 2015 and 2016 (a detailed review of the functioning of the community, carried out by Rome, and which may lead to disciplinary measures, Editor’s note) the sisters of Bethlehem announced that new constitutions have been written, and that the mode of governance has been revised.
4. The consequences of control
Close to the Saint-Jean community, Nathalie Gauche suffered the influence of one of the brothers who sexually assaulted her when she was 13 years old. “I intercepted his gesture and removed his hand from my body. From that day on, my life turned into hell,” she confides. The priest, who cannot stand Nathalie resisting him, increases his bullying and humiliation. A sign of the power of the process, for years she felt responsible for what the priest had done to her and did everything to “redeem” herself with him. She will have to begin psychotherapy to understand that she was under the influence. For Dr. Isabelle Chartier-Siben, spiritual abuse can permanently alter the relationship with God. “The victimized person gave his whole being to go to Him, and that is precisely where he was broken; his trust has been betrayed. It is a kidnapping of her desire for union with God,” she asserts. Nathalie Gauche kept the faith, and until recently was involved in the Church as a lay person on an ecclesial mission.
But the influence she suffered left after-effects. “The greatest damage is the wound to the soul,” she confides. I had the impression that through this man, it was Christ who had abused me. The case was brought before canonical justice, but I had to fight to find out the details of the judgment. Confronted with this opacity of the Church, I came away particularly affected. » Clinical psychologist Lorraine Angeneau notes that some people can suffer from post-traumatic stress. “I observe that the perversion of a religious framework is the main cause of these troubles. For example, for nuns who have experienced abusive relationships in the community with behaviors that dehumanize others and where the companion, the prior, the superior, etc. positions themselves as the owner of the person and their soul. »
5. The Church’s response
In 2015, the Conference of Bishops of France, in collaboration with the Conference of Religious Men and Women of France, formed a team specializing in sectarian abuses. Led by the Bishop of Le Havre, Mgr Jean-Luc Brunin, this team is currently working on a project for a listening network for people who are victims of influence, spiritual abuse or sectarian aberrations. Like the cells for victims of sexual violence which have emerged in recent years in dioceses. “Being listened to is the first step in reconstruction for a victim of control,” says Jean-Luc Brunin. But the Church cannot do everything alone. After this first stage of ecclesial listening, we will direct the victims towards associations so that they can continue their path of reconstruction. »
A project which does not change the primary mission of the unit which collects testimonies and ensures their plausibility. Eighty files are currently in his hands. “Our power remains limited, we contact the bishop or major superior to report the facts to him, but we cannot force him to act. Nevertheless, I notice within the episcopate a real awareness and increased vigilance, and bishops who themselves contact us, he assures. When it is a community of pontifical law, we transmit the file to Rome which can then decide to appoint an apostolic visitor. »
This external perspective is not always enough to change deeply rooted practices. Thus, several former members of the Sisters of Bethlehem assure that the community remains prey to abuses to this day. “The only solution is for the Pope to appoint a papal delegate (exceptional procedure, reserved for the most serious cases, Editor’s note) who will have full powers over the government and the constitutions of the institute, estimates one of them. Appointing an assistant or an apostolic commissioner is of no use. Because these depend on the dicastery for the institutes of consecrated life, a dicastery where the sisters have their entrances…” The ultimate response of the Church remains the dissolution of a community, as was the case for the Word of Life in 2022.
On the side of those around you: a link to maintain
Above all, you must know that the victim, and only she, is able to initiate the process to free herself. This may take time. However, it is important to stay by his side and question the relationship. “If one of your loved ones lives in a deviant community, keep in touch with them,” insists Dr. Isabelle Chartier-Siben. It’s not a question of judging him, but of showing that we will always be there, whatever happens, whatever the cost. Because getting out of control begins with a very small awareness. However, the day this happens, this loved one must know that those around him outside are there to help him. »
Aging communities: novices sometimes helpless
Intergeneration is a frequent, and often happy, reality of religious communities. But the decline in numbers in France – in twenty years, the number of religious men and women has fallen from 66,000 to 22,000 – can encourage the development of relations of control.
“An aging community sees in a youth thirsty for ideals living strengths. But when it is no longer able to support novices in their discernment and to train them, the community in some way abuses its authority,” believes the auxiliary nun and psychoanalyst Isabelle Le Bourgeois.
In certain communities of elderly nuns, she continues, “young women who have not received sufficient training find themselves stuck in a lifeless place. Communities must accept death. »