Spiritual Abuse and the Catholic Church by Lynn Tolson


spiritual abuse church abuse
Lynn Tolson First Holy Communion

This week I am pleased to have Lynn Tolson, Author of “Beyond the Tears: A true Survivor’s Story” guest blogging on Emerging from Broken. The following blog post illustrates how religious institutions demand blind obedience from parishioners trained from childhood to defer to the established patriarchal principles of society. Conforming to the religious standards without being able to think for oneself and form individual opinions is a set up for oppression and submission for the sake of a feeling of belongingness. As always, please share your thoughts in the comments section ~ Darlene

Spiritual Abuse and the Catholic Church ~ Adapted from Beyond the Tears: A True Survivor’s Story by Lynn C. Tolson

Like many Americans of Italian descent, my family was of the Roman Catholic religion. My grandmother had statues of saints on her dresser and a picture of the Pope over her bed. My mother prayed with me, on our knees, before bed: If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Our family activities and meals, such as eating fish on Fridays, were based on the religious calendar.

In parochial school, Mass was mandatory on Holy Days of Obligation. Each class marched single file to the church; nuns in habits led children in plaid uniforms. I learned the language of the Catholic congregation: catechism, confession, contrition, communion, confirmation, excommunication, and the rituals of the Catholic church: The stations of the Cross, the Cross on the Rosary, and the Sign of the Cross: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. That included all the important people, but what category did little girls fall into? I was also taught prejudice by the clergy: “Don’t talk to Protestants or Jews; if you do, your duty is to convert them to the One True Religion, which is Catholicism.” This is spiritual abuse. What a load of responsibility on children, to be prejudicial toward others based on religion. Whenever I was in church, I never felt right or good. I always felt guilty, because I’d been taught, we were born with Original Sin. That teaching is also spiritually abusive.

Confession was a real dilemma for me. Each Saturday, I’d ask myself, “What sins could an eight-year-old commit?” Often I did not sin at all, but since Confession was mandatory, I invented sins, such as fibbing. To perform the rites of a good Catholic, I lied to the priest about how I had fibbed to my mother. As a kid, kneeling in the confessional to admit fake sins to a priest who was shrouded in shadows behind the partition served only as an exercise of fear and punishment, rather than a proclamation of faith and salvation. Confessing to temptations that were fabricated made me feel as guilty as sin, but at least guilt was a feeling I could relate to.

My religious beliefs were not mine at all; they were developed by the adults around me who sought moral righteousness by blessing themselves with holy water at Sunday Mass. The self-righteousness was depleted by Sunday evening, when Chianti and cursing and name-calling became the family dinner rituals. Along with the vocabulary of the religion and the discrimination by the clergy, I also learned the hypocrisy of my spiritually abusive relatives. Yet I yielded to their attitudes because that is what I knew was a measure of my belonging to this family and a member of the One True Religion.

In sixth and seventh grades, I was in search of a sure path to heaven. When Mother Superior asked girls to clean the convent, I volunteered to dust the home of the devout sisters of a holy order. Sister Mary Agnes led me past the rectory to the convent. As I stepped into the habitat of this secret society, I smelled a sweet mixture of incense, candle fragrance, and furniture polish. “Don’t break anything,” Sister said. The statue of Saint Francis was larger than life, and as I dusted his feet, it seemed like the eyes of Jesus were watching. My heart flopped like a fish out of water. I prayed that I was not doing anything wrong.

On Vocation Day, Sister Mary Therese told us, “Search your soul for your calling. If you have the calling, your heart will speak to you.” The convent activity caused me to consider a vocation as a nun. Could I devote an entire lifetime to God? Well, how long would I live? Could I live with all the other sisters? What, and never talk during dinner? Could I wear that habit? Not in this heat and humidity. This particular path to heaven was a little too difficult. Obviously, I did not have the calling.

Perhaps I could be virtuous, like the Virgin Mary. I contemplated faith, hope, and charity: Have faith in whom? Have hope for what? Who needs my charity? I waited for rapture, but after growing up Catholic and with so much spiritual abuse, all I got was guilt.
As I teenager, I witnessed my family’s discontented versions of God: My father was an atheist, my step-mother was a pagan, my step-father was agnostic, my brother wanted scientific proof, my younger brother went with the flow, my grandmother went to Italy to visit the Pope, and my mother gave up on God altogether. After battling with God over why he allowed incest (a word I learned by looking in the dictionary at ten years old to see if it applied to me) into my young life, I wrote a few cynical words that expressed my belief: God hates me therefore God punishes me.

I thought about God as I was punishing myself with a suicide attempt at twenty-three years old. I worried about the fate of my soul, if indeed I had a soul. Parochial school taught me that it was a sin to commit suicide, so I would burn in hell. Surely, my soul was unworthy of any place other than hellfire and damnation. I deserved to die. Presuming there was a God, and in case God could hear, I began to recite the Lord’s Prayer as I swallowed three hundred pills: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. What a complicated mix of confusing thoughts that had been festering under the control of a religion I did not choose or want!

In therapy after that suicide attempt, I realized that religious rituals were not for me. I learned that some people feel stifled by institutions and some use church just to gain status. Religion may be a source of strength to others. The principles of religion, such as The Golden Rule or The Ten Commandments, were supposed to instill love. But if traditional religion had no significance to me would I live without love? How could I live without the Catholic religion that had once defined me, my family, and my place in the world. Wait, the religion may have been a factor for my family, but did I really have to inherit it when all I got was guilt?

My counselor taught me that guilt is productive as a measure of moral conscience to keep us from veering too far from our values. But nonproductive guilt, that pervasive guilt for no good reason, is counterproductive. I had been living within the limits of false guilt. What I longed for was unbridled, unbounded authentic love.
In an attempt to relieve myself of the guilt, I started on a spiritual quest. I learned that there is a difference between religion and spirituality. The main premise of spirituality is the belief in a Higher Power. With spirituality, humans attain an awareness that acknowledges the soul because we are intrinsically spiritual beings in human form. I once thought the soul hovered above or around the body, but not quite in it. I learned that the body is a vessel for the soul to inhabit; the soul is the essence of love as it manifests in the world.

Spirituality took on a new meaning, not as a means to get to Heaven, but as a way to get through each day on earth. It was a relief to learn that I’m not a heretic without hope of redemption. The love of God is not reserved for special people who perform certain acts; a spiritually abusive teaching designed to force compliance and gain control. Love is not a matter of deserving. No list of accomplishments is needed to earn love. There is a purpose to life, which is as simple as experiencing love and extending that love to others. In this mix of giving and receiving love, there is no room for guilt, which makes way for peace.

I have developed my own individual and true beliefs. God’s love (your personal vision) is alive and present in your soul. Our spiritual connection is our unity with God, and the love of God in the universe. Every soul finds redemption as a child in God’s family because love is unconditional and pure within all of us. Although my beliefs may be imperfectly formed and impartially developed, at least they are created by me using my own thoughts, opinions, and emotions.
Along with exploring my core spiritual values in therapy, I read many books on the topic of spirituality. Here is a link to an Amazon Listmania, to share some of the books that were meaningful in my personal spiritual journey

Lynn C. Tolson
Bio: After her first eighteen years in the Northeast, Lynn Tolson moved to the Southwest where she engaged in careers in real estate and property management. During those years, she survived post-traumatic stress disorder, which manifested in addictions and suicide attempts. Through the therapeutic process, she determined the causes of her dysfunction, which included childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence. Ultimately, she was able to achieve a life that reflects health and happiness. Her memoir, “Beyond the Tears: A true Survivor’s Story” illustrates physical, emotional, and spiritual transformation; her story offers a message of hope. Tolson moved to the Midwest where she returned to college to obtain a degree in social work. She has also overcome breast cancer. She resides in the Rocky Mountains where she works as an artist, author, and advocate.
To visit Lynn C. Tolson’s blog click Beyond the Tears

94 response to "Spiritual Abuse and the Catholic Church by Lynn Tolson"

  1. By: Laura stager Posted: 10th August

    Thank you sharing this. I was abused within the Baptist church by a pastor who told me i didn’t hear God right when i chose to leave an abusive husband. He had been into internet pornography for years and had gotten to where he would leave me at home alone with the kids, but then turn and be upset i spent no time with him. After we seperated my uusbands words became abusive and on two occasiions the police were called to our home. The pastor still told me i was wrong for the divorce. I was devistated to the point i found people to spend time with that were into drinking and doing drugs. I had never done these things before in my life. While i reaisted these things it didn’t stop me from having an affair with one man in the group. This in turn made me hate myself more and say “see i am not worth God loving me. I have left my husband for another man just as the pastor said.” thankfully a pastor at a church i started taking my kids to truly loved me with the grace of Jesus. Him and his wife have apent many hours listening to me, prayin for me, and just being friends. This pastor has corrected me when wrong, but he has never manupulated me with the Bible. My now exhusband still standa on the words of the abusive pastor stating that the divorce is all my fault as if divorce was the ultimate sin. He admits the way he treated me as states that he wouldn’t have done any of it if i wouldn’t have torn our family apart and that our lids hurting is because o left and not because of his treatment of me!
    The road to healing has been long and hard. I do miss my nuclear family, but the kids an i see the abuse it was and ate happy without it. I never in my life would have thought that i would be a survivor of abuse. We were the perfect family who were church going the entire time. I took me a long time to even admit that both my husband and the pastor were wrong. Thankfully i can showy children somethin better.

    Thank you for sharing and helping to valudate others!

    • By: Darlene Ouimet Posted: 11th August

      Hi Laura
      Welcome to EFB
      What that pastor told you is horrible. Why would God want anyone to stay with an abusive husband!
      I totally relate to your story and I have written a lot in this website about how being defined as unworthy led me down a path to proving to myself that it was ture. (and how I found out that it was NOT true at all, and went back to the original lies that I was fed and sorted out the damage they did to me)
      I am so happy without the abuse too! Glad you are here!
      Hugs, Darlene

  2. By: joy Posted: 27th August

    Hi Lynn..

    I know he failed me and understand it’s wrong. that moment left such deep scars in my mind. but the scars are more painful now that I am healing then back then.

    Then I didnt realize how wrong it was.. now I do. I feel so so upset .that I gave so much energy .. i gave my life for a system that failed to help a little girl who so desperately sought someone to help her.. the one place and person . .who should have above others; stood beside the abuse. and spoke in the name of god that I was bad and displeasing

    that made me grow up thinking all mom said of me was true.that is: i was nothing but a mistake and should be grateful for the roof they put over my head even though beatings were my daily routine..

    now I struggle to feel worthy. and undo all those lies.. even now there was a sibling called and said .. let bygones be bygones.. mom couldnt help what she did .. la la la…

    all my life i kept everything bottled up because everyone expected me to..and almighty church told me to do otherwise was wrong..

    no more though..even if i cry as i do so.. i will do what i can to heal me and my little girl inside and somehow get some understanding of how to handle life as it comes to me…

    i am so so stuck yet. . but i am trying to get out. and i know am make little advances to wholeness. .3 steps forward and 2 steps back …


  3. By: Lynn Posted: 27th August

    Joy, one good thing is that you realize that he failed you. My mode of thinking used to be that I had failed in some way, and I was to blame, and I was at fault. HE failed you. It is hard to create new beliefs in the face of realizing that what you learned and believed was wrong and a lie. But there is freedom in knowing that it was all a lie.
    By writing this blog, and sharing it, and receiving feedback and input via everyone’s else’s experience, I have been questioning once again what I believe. I think I have left overs of what I “should” believe according to what I’ve been taught. It’s good to re-examine those beliefs.
    I talked about some of these concepts in an interview hosted by Cyrus Webb. You can listen here: http://bit.ly/qzHAv8
    He asked me challenging questions about faith. My opinion is that faith and beliefs are not constants, but are evolving concepts. What makes me feel good about this blog on EFB and Darlene’s series on religion is that WE, the participants, are wise and grown and brave enough to question what came before. Bravo!

  4. By: joy Posted: 24th August


    This is the hardest to get over.. this “man” was the one I should have been able to go to when all else fails and he failed. Its hard to believe much when what was believed is all wrong . . .


  5. By: joy Posted: 24th August

    Lynn thanks. I wish I can heal from that moment that makes me weep and write so much. that. moment when the priest refused to help me has caused such scars and trauma in my heart.

  6. By: Lynn Posted: 24th August

    Joy, your poem is very poignant. I’m sad for the way you were treated. You expressed your story so well. I wonder now if God really gets “mad” at “His children”. It’s just another lie told to keep victims quiet.

    • By: Darlene Ouimet Posted: 24th August

      Hi Joy,
      Thank you for sharing your poem. It is so very sad… I am so sad for you and what happened to you as a child. That “man” was so wrong. So very wrong for what he told you.
      Hugs, Darlene

  7. By: joy Posted: 23rd August

    Bless me father for I have sinned

    ( my confession to priest at 6 years old)

    Bless me father for i have sinned
    and am not old enough to confess
    but need to tell you something
    that has filled me with ugliness
    will you father listen to me
    for i am hurting deep inside
    Mom and my brother hurt me badly
    and i cried and cried

    What did they do what did they say
    you dont need to be here
    you’re not old enough to know right from wrong
    but tell me about it dear
    Well father its like this you see
    someone hurt me inside me
    mom held me while my brother hurt me ‘
    they hurt deep inside of me

    what do you mean by saying this
    stop talking this nonsense
    i want you to go tell god your sorry ;
    do this for your penance
    dont ever speak of this again
    if you do God will be very mad
    you have made god upset with you
    and you are very bad

    I left the church that day wondering
    why god was mad
    when i was the one hurting inside
    this all made me so sad
    but i couldnt talk to anyone
    or i would be considered bad
    so i carried my secret around forever
    which I wish I never had..


  8. By: Lynn Posted: 22nd August

    Some family members will never understand when it is about YOU and not them. They made their choices, it’s time to make yours. I was watching past episodes of “Mad Men” which takes place in the sixties. One of the episodes showed a Catholic mass with people taking Communion, altar boys, and the sermon in Latin. It was a flashback for me, as my brother who “molested” me was an “altar boy.” I don’t miss anything about the church. When I went back to the same church I grew up in for funerals last year, and my brother was there, I was not creeped out because I knew the truth of my experience. My truth is all that matters to me. I’m sorry that your families don’t respect your needs (Renee and Joy). It seems like you know that if you go back to them, you will no better off, as Joy says. Renee, I can’t remember if there ever was a time I spent with my family “just because.” Time with me is only of value if there is something useful I can do for them.

  9. By: joy Posted: 20th August

    Hi Renee

    I thank you for your very kind words and sorry for taking time to respond..am still dealing with things from yesterday. I know the facts of things but it doesn’t make my heart feel any less the pain caused by uncaring people ..or people who do things merely to put your down or put you in your place..as they say..

    I appreciate every person here and thank all those who reach out and are my virtual family. .tears are in my eyes just typing the word “family”…

    I am so sorry that you have been pushed aside by your family. I understand that.

    My family would “take me back” if I let go of “my ideas” and start coming to my senses.. If I would accept who calls the shots in my dysfunctional family. .etc. If I would apologize for being blind: tell the whole family i have made a mistkae . .that I was in the grips of the devil and want forgiveness and promise never to return to the path of error..they would take me back And if I promised to go to church and confess and stop taking therapy.. then and only then . if I did all these things I might be given a place in the their circle. but on probation. I was told all this when my mom last called.

    If I let them put me down, run my life. and continue to abuse me. yea I will have a place. but I will be no better off then when I was a little girl ..

    I am still afraid and little inside but i know that going back to them would be the biggest mistake I could ever make. THey never loved me but pretend to try to fish me over to them. If they could get me there. they would put me in my place and make sure i never shamed the family again.

    Right now by family and my old friends, I am a sinner and should be ashamed of myself ..


  10. By: Renee Posted: 20th August

    You can only do what you are capable in doing. I am hated by my family, you can ask them if they hate me and they will say no. But ask them when was the last time they spent time with me “just because” and they will say never (thats if they will tell you the truth). Asak them when was the last time they returned a call or facebook and the answer will be NOT. It hurts, I know your pain and it is not fair by any means! Just know we are here for you, we are not blood family but we are a family that cares for each other.
    Many hugs and love

  11. By: joy Posted: 19th August

    Hi Darlene
    I don’t know . today ..am sorting. .and dealing with and feeling. Am so tired of being bad.. in other people’s eyes.. All I ever did was try to heal. I tried keeping quiet for so many years. and all that happened for that was I got re-abused over and over.. Everyone hurts me as they know they can and I hadn’t any way to stop them as no one ever told me I deserved to stop the mistreatment or did any one show me how.. All I am doing wrong is taking time finally to care about me. and seems people see that as selfish.. I hate shopping..!!

  12. By: joy Posted: 19th August

    sorry my words went backwards.. I mean to say God needs no building. sometimes I see backwards.. have to slow down….

  13. By: joy Posted: 19th August


    I no longer have a “church” or denomination..I know in my heart the right things and I know that God needs on building . .God is a spirit.. and is everywhere we are. this is how I believe at moment .don’t know what I will believe later..

    I know am not strong. I will never claim anything that is not mine . I wont claim abilities i dont have

    one thing is certain . am very broken

    • By: Darlene Ouimet Posted: 19th August

      Hi Joy,
      You are stronger then you realize right now. Wait till you have some of this fresh stuff behind you and sorted out ~ you might realize just how strong you have been all along. They didn’t break you. You escaped.
      Hugs, Darlene

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