After years spent in an abusive church, how do you heal? How do spot a safe pastor—and can you avoid repeating the same mistake?
In this edition of The Roys Report, Pastor Ken Garrett, author of In the House of Friends, returns to describe the process of healing after escaping from an abusive church. It’s the second of a two-part interview with Ken. If you haven’t already, listeners are encouraged to tune in to part one first.
In part two, Ken describes the powerful experience he had when he first divulged to a pastor outside his former community that his previous pastor had sexually abused Ken’s two daughters.
Ken recalls: “He just exploded—not quite out of his chair, but . . . his head snapped back and he became visibly enraged.”
Though surprising, Ken said his new pastor’s reaction was healing.
“I hadn’t let myself experience that (righteous anger). I was so ashamed to be a dad who was out there preaching . . . and look what this wolf was doing to my children.”
But over time, Ken worked through that shame and eventually became an expert on church abuse and healing. In this episode, Ken goes into detail describing how to spot a safe community and a safe pastor. And, he tells of the decades-long legal battle he and others have had, trying to bring his former pastor to justice.
He concludes by discussing what survivors of abuse need most after escaping their abusive communities. If you’re a survivor of an abusive church, or family or friend of a survivor—or maybe you just want to understand spiritual abuse better—this two-part podcast is for you.
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Dr. Ken Garrett
KEN GARRETT, JULIE ROYS
JULIE ROYS 00:04
After a year spent in an abusive church, how do you heal? How do you spot a safe pastor and have you avoid repeating the same mistake? Welcome to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And joining me today is Ken Garrett, author of In the House of Friends: Understanding and Healing from Spiritual Abuse in Christian Churches. And today’s podcast is part two of a two-part series on escaping and healing from an abusive church. If you missed part one, I encourage you to go back now and listen to that podcast first. In it can tell us about the 12 years he spent in a cultic abusive church in the Portland area, and he draws on that experience to describe hallmarks of abuse of churches and their narcissistic pastors. He also describes what survivors of abuse need most after escaping their abusive communities. And in this podcast, Ken describes the powerful experience he had when he first evolved to a pastor outside his former abusive community that his previous pastor had sexually abused Ken’s daughters. Ken describes what a safe community and a safe pastor looks like. And he tells of the decade’s long legal battle he and others have had trying to bring his former pastor to justice. This is such an important discussion and I’m so glad you’ve joined me.
But before we dive in, I’d like to thank two sponsors of this podcast, Accord Analytics and Marquardt of Barrington. In your ministry or business, your reputation is your most valuable asset. But what do you do when you suspect misconduct? Hopefully you do the opposite of many of the organizations I report on. Instead of covering up wrongdoing, you investigate it, and Accord Analytics can help. In just 72 hours, their team of experts can scour emails, call logs and other records to produce usable evidence. They also can analyze your organization to identify specific threats and to suggest best practices. For free consultation go to ACCORDANALYTICS.COM.
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We now rejoin my interview with Ken Garrett, author of In the House of Friends: Understanding and Healing from Spiritual Abuse in Christian Churches. And we pick up our conversation after Ken explains how hungry survivors of spiritual abuse are for community yet understandably they’re weary and mistrusting especially of churches and Christian leaders. So, Ken decided to do something a bit radical. Rather than expecting survivors to come to church, he rented a room at a pub in his home city of Portland. And rather than inviting just Christians, he opened the meeting up to survivors of abuse from any religious background. That gathering has become what’s known as the Spiritual Abuse Forum for Education, a regular gathering to promote friendship and education for survivors of spiritual abuse. Ken Garrett explains.
KEN GARRETT 03:24
When I started this thing, I thought to myself, I was working on my doctorate and I really wanted to do something, but I thought, good grief, no one’s gonna come to this. But I want to try something, but I don’t want to start a small group that has the feel of a recovery meeting. You know, this bear lightbulb swinging in the in the ceiling while you drink bad coffee and say yuh. I wanted something even less formal. So, I went down the path of a meetup and just come and get to know people. And it’s worked really great. But when I just put that on Facebook, because it was cheap, and a way to advertise it, I had 200 people by the end of the first week. And now it’s like, I don’t know, I think 700 or so. And it has exactly what we had hoped every week. Usually, 15 or so people come into this meeting. And yeah, they grab a piece of pizza and a glass of beer or whatever. And they just hang out. Some of them never talk and they grip their chairs, like it’s a plane going down or something. But others find an opportunity to discuss what they’ve been through.
And so that’s just what we started doing. And I think we’re in our fourth year now for it. And it’s been tremendous. It’s not, I don’t want to oversell it because I’m not a counselor. I don’t offer extended care really. But I have found that just the community, it means a lot to people that has surprised me. I used to just do all the teaching of the principles that I’d learned and Lifton and all of this stuff, great stuff. But we’re at a point now where I introduce a topic, I say a few things about it, and then we kind of throw it out there. And more and more people are, you know, Scientologists, for instance, are wanting to say, wow, that’s what happened to me. Or somebody from a polygamous background is more willing to say, yeah, that’s the bologna that I lived with. So, there’s this strange sharing that is tearing down, what to me was the exclusivity of Christian abuse. We’re not special.
JULIE ROYS 05:50
Well, let’s talk about we’ve talked about the spiritually abusive pastor. Talk about the safe pastor. And I love this quote from your book, where you say over the years, I’ve come to believe that Christians need great pastors more than they need great preachers. The great preachers are the ones that we put on the radio, that we sell the books of, and everything else. And often they are the most abysmal pastors. So, what does a safe pastor look like?
KEN GARRETT 06:21
A safe pastor is somebody who has a highly highly developed theology of the pastorate. He has not made it to where he’s at, because of his skill set or because of another powerful pastor that’s brokered him in. Great if that happens, and you get a job out of it, but your success as a pastor depends on your understanding of what that calling means to you. And if you abuse the people that you are called to serve, you have horrifically violated a calling. And it’s serious business. All of these restoration schemes that happen when the big guys get in trouble? And I mean, some of the local ones that I know and that you know around me, they’ve actually attempted to craft their own restoration process and told their elder team, here’s how it’ll work. I’ll be out of the pulpit this long, and I know you guys need help with this. No. You have violated something so precious, that you have to leave what you’re doing. And you have to leave it with no plan or demand with nothing but your desire for God. And then you trust Him for how you’ll be restored. You trust him for that, if at all in that position.
So, a good pastor has the fear of God that drives his life. I started out wanting to be a great preacher. My mother managed a big Christian bookstore, and she started sending me study guides from Chuck Swindoll. Who’s like this awesome, you know, Chuck Swindoll, wow. And it was back in the 80s. And between that and Keith Green and my own somewhat ambitious and exhibitionist nature, I thought, I belong in a pulpit. And so, my vision of ministry rose and fell on my speaking abilities. I had taken a lot of theater in college because I love theater and acting and all that I just felt like it was a good fit for me. But it was such a betrayal of my needs, and really a betrayal of what a church needs.
So over the years, with failure, with study, with cancer, with the various challenges that I faced in my life that have broken me down, I so treasure now being a shepherd and a pastor to other people with drug problems, cancer problems, failure. I just like being in that boat with them. That’s really the idea of being a pastor who’s a safe person. It just really comes down to being the Ezekiel Shepherd, that is fiercely loyal to the owner of the sheep and serving the sheep in love because he’s a sheep, the pastor’s a sheep. Ezekiel said that. He said, Well, I am a sheep. So you have that clear understanding, as opposed to the shepherds that are extracting and using the sheep. And then my personal feeling, you know, Julie, is I don’t understand how, regardless of the religious tradition you come from, I can’t wrap my mind around how you could be an effective pastor without being a winsome, gracious, consistently tender hearted man or woman. I can’t wrap my mind around that. Sometimes historically, we’ll hear about pastors that were just real curmudgeons, you know, but boy, could he preach or he’s kind of demanding, but boy did he know His scripture or something. So, I believe the true shepherd is simply one who settles in in his life with his with his flock. That’s what gets me through the day.
JULIE ROYS 10:31
That is so good. And if I had, you know, $1 for every time I’ve been told, when I bring up bad behavior, oh, he’s apostolic or he’s, as you say, pioneer, or he’s, whatever you fill in the blank. There’s no excuse for it. If you’re a pastor, you serve the sheep. You don’t abuse the sheep; you don’t prey on the sheep. Something that you wrote in your book that was powerful to me, was about the way that your pastor responded. When you first left the church, you ended up at a church that you didn’t know if it was safe or not, you know. The pastors first interaction seemed good, but you didn’t really know. And then one night you came over to talk to him about probably the most awful revelation that you didn’t even know when you left the church. Right?
KEN GARRETT 11:19
Absolutely. My daughter’s being molested by the pastor. Sure.
JULIE ROYS 11:22
Yeah. Absolutely. I can’t even imagine as a parent who has a daughter, the heartache, the rage, everything. But the reaction of that pastor, describe what that reaction was and what it did to you and to your soul.
KEN GARRETT 11:40
Wow. Well, we went to his house to meet with him and his wonderful wife, and Lois. And we just got together, I think we were having coffee or something. And we wanted to tell him that our daughters had revealed to us that our pastor that we’d left, had sexually molested them, as you know, in the years past,. And we just didn’t know where to go with that. Now, we had gone to the police right away. But as Christians and in a church and a seminary student, I just, we didn’t know where to go with that. I wasn’t aware that every pastor takes care of people who have been sexually molested. I didn’t know that at the time. So, I felt very alienated and isolated. You know, this unthinkable thing happened in my Bible Church.
So as we shared with him about what was going on, of course, you can tell when you’re talking to somebody, if the subject matters getting serious, you get a zeroing in and focusing. And so Pastor Ralph, and I could tell we crossed the line, he knew that we were talking about something big. And I told him and he just exploded, like, not quite out of his chair, but he like kicked his leg out. And his head snapped back and he became visibly enraged. And I hadn’t let myself experience that. I was so ashamed to be a dad who was out there preaching to everybody at work and studying Greek all day, and all of this and look what this wolf was doing to my children. And I was like anybody, when you discover something like that with your children, you’re so ashamed, it is paralyzing.
So, I had not quite allowed myself to respond with that kind of anger, that kind of response. So, seeing it in a man who I grew to love very deeply and looked up to and who was doing the job I hoped I could do someday, you know,. Seeing that unleashed in me the kind of normal and righteous response to the issue that you should have as a pastor. You never as a pastor should consult the lawyers about what you’re going to do to protect your church with what’s going on. Not until a long way down the line. And you should not even really approach it for that reason. You should not call the other leaders right away to let them know this thing that you learned you should you know, gird your loins, and get out the door and go get to work on the problem and confront and console and you know, get right into the blood and guts of the issue. And that’s what Pastor Ralph did.
So, to me, it was like a course in pastoral theology. I should have gotten three seminary credits for it for having coffee. It just struck me, not only as such a beautiful response that was natural and spontaneous, but also so tragically different from the pastor of the church I had been to.
So here I am, 26 years later. And I remember it like it happened this morning. It was so powerful. And that’s where I began to just ask God to please make me like that. It’s okay if I’m not the next Chuck Swindoll. That’s okay. And it’s okay if I’m not the, you know, as powerful or whatever, as I hoped I could be or thought I might want to be. Would you make me that? A man identified with his church that way? So, it was life changing for me, Julie. Yeah.
JULIE ROYS 16:22
I love that story. To have someone have the emotional response that feels with you? I mean, that is empathy. Right? It’s entering into it and feeling it and having that anger. But the other thing is, it’s anger. And Christians are so afraid of anger. And recently, I actually met with somebody who’s kind of an Enneagram coach, and I don’t know hardly anything about enneagram. I just mentioned it so that the real fundamentalists can go out there and like, call me a Satanist now, because, honestly, I don’t know that much about the enneagram. But it was fascinating meeting and actually, the Holy Spirit showed up in a really powerful way for me personally. But I found out that I’m a very unusual one. Because I guess ones often have a very strange relationship with anger. Like they usually feel guilty for feeling angry. And I’ve never felt guilty. In fact, when people are like, gee, Julie, you sound angry. I’ll say, yeah, I’m angry. Children are getting abused, or getting sexually molested in our churches, by our pastors. Why are we not angry? People were being bullied by pastors who are supposed to be the shepherds. Why aren’t we angry? And to see how healing it was for you that your pastor got angry? And I just I think there’s a call to Christians being angry, righteously so, not sinning in our anger. But yes, should we be angry about the injustice and what’s happening within our churches? 100%. And I’ve seen it be healing as I interview people who have been through this. It’s natural, and it is right and good. There is a place for anger. I mean, Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple, and there is a place for it. So, I just that story blessed me in a very personal, personal way.
KEN GARRETT 18:22
Yeah, yeah. Thank you. Yeah, the anger. You know, the primary responses people have after they’ve been abused in these kinds of places are depression in various forms, and shame, which is tragic, and anger. And I believe that anger is so suppressed in churches. I’m not sure of all the reasons why. But the problem is of those three things, anger is the one correct feeling that much of the time you should have. I got ripped off by this guy. He violated areas of my life that I don’t even like thinking about. And yet, I struggled with not letting anger get ahold of me or something. There’s a good point there. When anger turns into vengeance or when anger corrupts your own well-being in life, of course, it’s toxic. But like you said, anger is a righteous response to the, well, good grief, cosmically to the shalom of God’s creation, the violation of a human being. But personally, think about that; somebody does that to you or somebody you love, and anger is down the line. So yeah, there’s something that anger is not commended when it should be in the church. It’s almost treated as a necessary sin that we hope you’ll get over pretty soon because we all know you can’t be angry.
JULIE ROYS 20:06
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Let me turn to your last chapter in your book, which I thought was really just really helpful. Because I know people personally who have loved ones in some of the abusive churches I’ve reported on and they are distraught, some of them are actually cut off where they have no communication. Some of them do have communication, but it’s just extremely strained. It’s difficult. Talk to that person and everybody who leaves these abusive churches, has relationships with people that are still in them. And it’s tough. So how do you deal with that in a helpful way when you know somebody is in an abusive church?
KEN GARRETT 21:27
Yeah. Good news, bad news. The bad news first, you can’t snatch them up, put them in a van and drive to a Motel Six and fix them. And I’m half joking with that. But there is no coercion of truth bombing, or doctrine arguing, or shaming, or anything that’s going to work. You have to understand the contract is in play. You no longer hold a place of significance to the cult member. You got to understand that; don’t let your feelings get hurt. That’s what cults do. They usurped you. And so that’s the bad news.
But the good news is your behavior and relating to the member to the cult member is not unnoticed. It does make it to the soul. And it is so dangerous to the cult leader’s agenda, to have his people treated with kindness, love, protection, respect, because you’re creating any emotional, when you show those things, you’re creating an emotional, if not physical escape route. You are creating an escape hatch in the soul of your loved one, by showing kindnesses by saying things like, let’s get a cup of coffee and we don’t even need to talk about religion. Or you can say, hey, you know, we have a lot of differences, and I understand them. But you know what? We’re family, we love each other., and I noticed you’re doing great on your job, you’re studying and I just want to commend you, man, you’re doing some great things in your life. Now, normally, we want to go, you’re not coming to Thanksgiving. You’re in a cult or something like that. But showing that kind of love and kindness is really what should be an art form for us Christians, and for the cult member. And this is what happened to me when I was in. It’s devastating to have love and kindness shown to you by people who believe you’re in a very destructive life situation.
Now, you’re emotions or your soul, the unseen part of you gets plastered over in the cult, with one survival scheme after another to keep you from incurring the wrath of the leader, to keep you on the good team, to keep you safe. And underneath those layers and layers of epoxy is a living soul. Your soul is owned by God, it is not yours. And he does not give up that real estate. It is His. You can abuse it. You can hurt it. You can do all kinds of terrible things to it, but you cannot sell it and you don’t give it up. I believe that soul given to us by God has a certain self-protective nature to it. And so, it’s chipping away. It’s like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption man. It’s always chipping away at the prison of the cult for that day of escape. And I think there’s a part of you that wants healthiness and safety and goodness, and righteousness and rightness with God.
So when you’re shown kindness by your family, you’re concerned loved ones. And you know, it’s so painful for them that when they show you gracious kindness and emotionally rise above reacting to you, that kindness goes straight to that part, the inside part. And it is devastating to evil to have that placed in the human soul devastating. The very kindness of Christ, planted in the life of a cult member. It might not do anything for five years or 10 years, maybe never. But man, you’re giving them the best shot at getting out by showing them kindness instead of withdrawing or arguing or gossiping.
One of the things people do that have contacted me with their loved ones in abusive churches, culture just this has happened a couple of times. Parents have contacted me with oh my goodness, evidences and emails and stories of the horrific way they’ve been treated, and that I treated my parents; cutting off, judgmental, involved in all kinds of things. And as we’ve talked about the importance of bearing the burden of continuing a loving relationship, they’ve unfriended me on Facebook, because they want to make sure that they are all there for their kid or their friend in the cult. And that if, in the cult, they knew well I’m also friends with Ken Garrett, who wrote this book about you and or something like that, that would destroy the whole thing. So, I really treasure the fact that when they make that decision, kind of keep me at a distance because I’m the anti-cult church guy. And I don’t want to be the buddy of the dad whose daughter’s in the cult saying, yeah, we really love you. This is the dad’s job and the mom’s job. So, when a person moves into that kind of demonstration of love and kindness to the cult member, I think it involves an aspect of loyalty and character protection and not gossiping, that you don’t go to your small group at church and talk about the latest thing they’re doing. You just begin to protect the dignity of your cult, your cult member friend, or whatever, and begin to employ a strategy between you and the Lord Jesus, of storming the gates of this hell, and you’re all alone, you got to do it.
JULIE ROYS 27:49
And in doing so, you’re disrupting the narrative of what they’re told about you, right? And what they’re expecting. So, the whole dance is disrupted, and that creates a dissonance. Again, love right? And I mean, it comes down to love, it comes down to love. We’re known by our love, people. Repentance comes by kindness leads us to repentance. We forget these things, I think sometimes. And so, so important.
I just want to end by asking you, we haven’t talked a lot about this other than your pastor’s response when he found out that your daughters were molested. But I know, this has been a long legal process. At one point, you’re pastor, Mike Sperou is how it’s pronounced, S P E. R O U. Yeah, he was convicted of molesting a minor. But then because of a Supreme Court ruling, this got overturned and now you guys are waiting. He’s out there, pastoring a church right now.
KEN GARRETT 28:49
Yes. Right. Yeah.
JULIE ROYS 28:50
And you’re hoping that he will get behind bars again. Just if you can tell us what’s happening and what you’re hoping with the whole legal case right now?
KEN GARRETT 29:00
Sure. Well, just a brief timeline is charges were filed in 97. And the police really fumbled dropped the whole thing. And then they were refiled by the girls by seven victims in 2013 or 14. He went to trial in 15 was found guilty by an 11-1 jury of sexual assault felony assault on a minor. And it was one remaining girl who fell into the statute of limitations for Oregon. So, they got him on that. And they sent him away on a 20 year sentence to the Oregon State pen. It was appealed. Because in the course of the trial, the girls were all referred to as victims. And the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that that wasn’t fair. It made the jury think that it was a foregone court agreed upon concept that they were victims. Maybe they weren’t or whatever. So that appeal was overturned. And we went to court again, and he lost again, okay? On like an another 11-1 or something and went back to prison. And then the Supreme Court argued, okay, so that was Supreme Court vs or Louisiana, Louisiana versus Ramos, I believe it was, in 2020 is when the ruling came out. And that basically invalidated the court system of the two states of Oregon and Louisiana, that a non-unanimous felony jury decision was not to be accepted. So, and ours was 11-1. So and this, the non-unanimous jury has racial histories, especially I think, in Louisiana, and probably here in Oregon. And so, I understand their reasoning on it. And I don’t at all, you know, feel horrible about that. But we were non unanimous.
So, in July of 2020, it was in the middle of COVID. His conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeals in Oregon. At the court appearance where it was officially overturned, at the very same court within about 20 minutes, the deputy DA refiled charges. And he said, I’m not going to let a serial pedophile skip around on this. So, charges were refiled. And we are back to court now in May, just in a few months here. So, it’ll be our third major trip to court. And I have no idea you know, what’s at stake for him. Whatever it is, I’m sure he’ll start working at a I don’t know, I just don’t know how the DA and defense attorneys are going to go on it. But it is scheduled for three weeks of court again in Multnomah County in May. And he is out now pastoring his church, I think there’s a couple of dozen people left. They’ve disappeared from social media over the last couple of years. I imagine their lawyer, an expensive defense lawyer. I imagine he said, look, I’m sure you guys really believe in what you’re doing. But you look like you look guilty. So, no more postings no more we’re the only ones. So they’ve been dead silent on all social media. I have no idea what’s going on with them. Highly doubtful that they’re having church worship services with any people attending any new people or anything. They’re just hanging out basically giving over their lives to the abusive pastor.
JULIE ROYS 32:52
Wow! And I know from reading your accounts, that there’s some parents of some of the abuse victims that are still apart?
KEN GARRETT 33:00
Yes. Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Still parents there. Yeah, they have cut off themselves from their daughters and in court call their daughters liars and won’t speak to them. And it’s absolutely tragic and amazing. And we left before our girls were teenagers, but the ones who stayed the families who stayed the pattern was the girls left, they left through usually a relationship with a boy that wasn’t very good. And it was kind of out the bathroom window and runaway and nobody cares you’re gone. And the boys left through joining the military and going to Iraq. That’s how they got out. And o, to this day, there are families there and parents there who are completely estranged from their children and believe their daughters are lying. And they know they’re not, of course, but their emotional welfare in the cult depends on them saying those things. So that’s where that’s at.
JULIE ROYS 34:08
I can’t imagine the emotional roller coaster of living that sort of drama and having that a part of your life. But I pray in the midst of that, that there’s been healing for your family. I mean, the fact that you’re in ministry today, and that you’re ministering to so many abuse survivors, is a testimony to the grace of God.
KEN GARRETT 34:33
Yes, yes. Thank you. That’s true.
JULIE ROYS 34:36
It’s encouraging to me. I’m sure it’s encouraging to a lot of people who are listening. So, thank you, and God’s blessing on you and what you’re doing.
KEN GARRETT 34:45
So appreciate you Julie, thank you very much.
JULIE ROYS 34:50
Again, thanks so much for listening to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And just to reminder that we’re able to do this podcast and all of our investigative work at The Roys Report, because of support from people like you. And for the month of January, we’re offering Ken’s book, In the House of Friends, to anyone who gives a gift to The Roys Report. To give just text 22525 and the word REPORT. Or go to JULIEROYS.COM/DONATE.
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3 thoughts on “Escaping & Healing from Abusive Churches, Part 2”
Great sequel, especially discussion about righteous anger. Would like to hear from this guest again in about one year to learn about court case and how his family has accepted the criminal justice system’s decisions.
Thank you for airing this episode as it really ministered to me. I was around 14 when I went to a pastor at my church and told them I was being sexually abused. He told me to go see the school counselor. He was the first person I had told and he did nothing. I went to the school counselor and they called the police and had my perpetrator arrested. Many years later when I talked to that pastor he told me he didn’t want to deal with it because his wife had been sexually abused also.
But, here I was, a 14 year old teenager, and I had just got saved and the pastor did nothing. I appreciated this story so much because, it validated my own anger at the issue, but also sheds light on what many pastors do today.
I can relate to 90% of his story. It happened to me too and I’m recovering from the aftermath of narcissistic abuse during mine and my family’s time in the inner circle of a really horrible pastor. He is narcissist.
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