Two-thirds of churchgoers have been spiritually abused, according to research on behalf of the Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS).
Pointing to characteristics such as 'coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring of individuals, control through the misuse of religious texts and scripture and providing a "divine" rationale for behaviour', 1,002 out of 1,591 respondents to an online survey said they had suffered from 'spiritual abuse'.
However caution was urged in response to the results which made up part of a report, Understanding Spiritual Abuse in Christian Communities, published by CCPAS on Sunday.
Although 74 per cent of respondents said they were confident they knew what 'spiritual abuse' meant, the report admits that work around the issue 'is still in its infancy' and 'there is not currently universal agreement about this as a term'.
Co-author, Justin Humphreys, executive director of safeguarding at CCPAS, said: 'Yes, the results are significant, as [being spiritually abused] was not a prerequisite for participation. Having said this, in some ways it is not surprising, as many will have taken this as an opportunity to share their story in anonymous form, possibly for the first time.'
Led by academics from Bournemouth University under Dr Lisa Oakley, the study called for an agreed-upon definition. 'The results show that there is a need for a clear definition of spiritual abuse and that defining this term is complex,' the report said.
While 64 per cent of participants were confident they could respond well to a disclosure of spiritual abuse, only 33 per cent said their church or Christian organisation had a policy that included spiritual abuse and only 24 per cent had received training on spiritual abuse.
'The findings suggest leaders should receive training on this issue both to raise awareness but also to equip them to respond to disclosures and recognise this behaviour if they are experiencing it,' the report said.
Dr Oakley said: 'Any work in this area needs to ensure there is recognition that this behaviour can and is experienced by leaders as well as congregational members. These are complex issues and more work is needed in this area to reach better understanding for all concerned.'
Humphreys added: Growing awareness around this issue has meant it is now being recognised; but defining what it is and what it isn't needs further careful and considered work to be done.
'We owe this to those that have suffered spiritual abuse, and we owe it to those involved in the wider Christian community to work constructively towards creating safer places for all.'