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Powerful Courageous Exposé of Spiritual Abuse

by Debra Wingfield, Ed.D., LPC In this excellent, first-hand portrayal of the extremes that spiritual abuse can take, Coral Theill shares the tragedy of her experience in her attempts to protect her children from their abusive father. BONSHEÁ is an extraordinary account of the horrendous injustice to the Warner children and their mother. Coral Theill shares her overwhelming account of how the fundamentalist Church aided and abetted her ex-husband to do the unthinkable, remove her nursing infant from her along with her other children because she refused to submit to her ex-husband’s abuse and control over her life. Coral recounts in detail how the insidious spiritual and ritual abuse was compounded with a multitude of other abuses. These coercive control tactics were perpetrated in the home, the church, and the community by a power-hungry, greed-filled cast. People Coral Theill sought out for help from her abusive marriage used her cries against her to perpetrate one of the most heinous cases of abuse and coercive control I have come across in my work with survivors of domestic violence and coercive controlling abuse. A must-read for anyone impacted by abuse in marriage or relationships. Coral prepares you to fight for your children’s lives when you divorce in the current Family Court system. Advocates, attorneys, judges, and other professionals working in Family Court must read this account to understand the lengths abusers will go to continue to control and torture their abuse victims. I applaud Coral Theill for the courage she shows making light of the dark secrets within the fundamental churches and the collusion of the family court system. Of note are other types of coercive control tactics used under the guise of acceptance by these groups. I noted emotional abuse, isolation, using children, economic abuse, male privilege, threats, intimidation, sexual abuse including marital rape, limited physical abuse due to fear induced control, litigation abuse, court-related professional abuse, and judicial abuse. Coral continues to be stalked after more than 18 years by her ex-husband through the family court system. I highly recommend reading Theill’s exposé of fundamentalist church groups’ use of spiritual abuse.


I have a personal story to tell of twenty years of marital abuse, (mental, verbal, physical and sexual), condoned within some of the fundamental, evangelical Christian movements (cults) that thrive today. My story is also about injustice, the failings of the Oregon court system, and the stigma associated with depression and post-traumatic stress. Anyone concerned with issues of abuse and injustice in America should read this book.

BONSHEÁ Making Light of the Dark shares my search for freedom and light in a society based on patriarchal religion and laws. It openly speaks about the ideas and beliefs in our society which foster sexism, racism, the denigration of human rights and the intolerance of difference. My documentation exposes the dark side of human nature when all people are not valued. A healthy society must have the courage to address these issues, speak about them, examine them and bring them to light. Indifference encourages, "silent violence"-the type of violence I experienced in my home, in the community, religious circles and judicial system. Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel states, "The indifference to suffering makes the human inhumane."

There are not always two sides to every story. Our determination to pursue truth by setting up a fight between two sides leads us to assume that every issue has two sides--no more, no less. But if you always assume there must be an 'other side' you may end up scouring the margins of science or the fringes of lunacy to find it. This explains, in part, the bizarre phenomenon of Holocaust denial, among other denials, and that river flows through lots of courtrooms.

Although, I have many painful memories and experiences from my 20 years of exposure to legalistic fundamental Christianity and Christian “cults,” I am comforted knowing that my soul was on a journey of remembering who I truly was. I believe we all long for freedom from oppression and bondage – that was what my spirit secretly longed for and hoped to experience. I am grateful for each brand new day and the experience of being.

Spiritual abuse is the use of spiritual knowledge to deprive, torture, degrade, isolate, control, or (in rare and extreme cases) even kill others. It is used by evil-minded church and cult leaders, to gain advantage, dominate, or exercise control over others.

The type of trauma individuals experience from cults and their leaders is similar to that described by POW’s. The trauma experienced by cult members results from being powerless and abused day after day, year after year, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually – souls are literally emaciated. The Word of God is used like a thrust of a knife, constantly reminding the cult member (victim) of God’s displeasure and eternal damnation.

Religious cults use covert induction, a type of hypnosis induced without the individual's awareness or consent. Spiritual and mental bondage is often soon realized by those who are under submission. Invasion of privacy is a signature feature of cults. Besides the doctrinal concerns of these groups – the most damaging is the psychological and physical harm, moral injury, and disruption of family ties.

Studies have determined that cults are detrimental to an individual's mental and physical health. Emotional effects include overwhelming feelings of fear, guilt, anger, humiliation, hostility, anxiety, sleeplessness, depression, violent outbursts and suicidal tendencies. Mental disturbances include disorientation, confusion, nightmares, amnesia, hallucinations, delusions, depression and the inability to break mental rhythms and patterns associated with group practices. Many of the women I knew in cult and fundamentalist circles suffered from depression, anxiety disorders and/or mental breakdowns.

The most powerful emotional control tool cult leaders use on its members is fear. The leaders create a phobia indoctrination. A member will have a panic reaction at the very thought of leaving the group (cult). A member will perceive that it is almost impossible to conceive that there is any life or spirituality outside of the group. There is no physical gun held to the member's head, but the psychological gun is just as, if not more, powerful.

Photo of "Wings of Love" half-way house on Killingsworth in Portland, Oregon where Coral Theill lived in the spring of 1994. Photo Credits: Debbie Dresler

During the period of my breakdown/depression in the spring of 1994, my husband, Mr. Marty Warner, and his pastors left me at the "Wing's of Love" half-way house on Killingsworth in Portland, Oregon, to punish and "break me" (their words) to the will of God. "The house was a shelter for ex-cons, street people and prostitutes. It was filthy and infested with rats and lice. My husband’s debt-free estate, at this time, was over a quarter- of- a million dollars. It was a frightening experience during the period of my illness/breakdown for my “abuser” ex-husband, his Christian cult leaders and religious supporters to be in charge of my “recovery program.” Three months earlier, I had a D & C due to my 3rd miscarriage from being raped by my husband. I was helpless and physically and mentally incapacitated during this time due to my breakdown and partial stroke.

Cults are a product of fear. Neale Donald Walsch writes these beautiful words, "Fear is the energy which contracts, closes down, draws in, runs, hides, hoards, harms. Love is the energy which expands, opens up, sends out, stays, reveals, shares, heals. Fear wraps our bodies in clothing; love allows us to stand naked. Fear clings to and clutches all that we have; love gives all that we have away. Fear holds close, love holds dear. Fear grasps, love lets go. Fear rankles, love soothes. Fear attacks, love amends. Love never says no."

I have noticed one underlying theme for many individuals who become involved in extreme fundamentalist and legalistic groups and cults. They have been involved in one of many life’s scenarios and/or tragedies, whether it be as the abused or the abuser, infidelity, unwed mother, runaways, loss of job or loss of a loved one, etc. Cults appear to attract these people at vulnerable times in their lives and project shame, guilt and fear.

In other words, cults capitalize on an individuals’ experience of crisis, shock and trauma. They are proselytized by cult members, indoctrinated into rigid/legalistic thought patterns through covert induction. Shunning is a cruel and inhumane practice within many church groups and cults. It is a form of “silent ridicule.”

In an honestly motivated spiritual group or organization the individual is always encouraged to exercise free will and arrive at their own conclusions. If someone genuinely cares about your well-being, they will not try to control, manipulate, exhort, threaten or convince you to adopt their way of thinking.

Allowing others to make choices for you allows them to create your worth, and when they do, they always make it too small.

I agree with author James Redfield. He writes, "A group consciousness which speaks constantly of separation and superiority (our religious and legal systems) produces loss of compassion on a massive scale, and loss of compassion is inevitably followed by a loss of conscience.”

I believe our goal should not be eliminating religion, but illuminating the tactics by which it commands obedience and discourages doubt so that people can recognize these and reject them. It is more important that we all make up our own minds, use reason to guide us, and do not passively rely on faith or authority of religious leaders. Rather than keep our thoughts in captivity, we should set them free to explore wherever they wish - to seek out different viewpoints, to question fearlessly, and most importantly, to expose all ideas to the fire of testing. The ones worth being kept will survive. Humanity has a vast potential to accomplish things as yet undreamed-of, but blind faith will never take us there. If we are to become aware of the dangers that beset us and enter into a future where we can realize this potential, this is the way we must learn to live.

Vulnerable people are drawn to churches. Perpetrators target vulnerable people. Churches must acknowledge this reality and act on it.

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Debra Wingfield, Ed.D., L.P.C. – Author, Trainer in Interpersonal Violence Intervention/ Treatment

Dr. Debra Wingfield is an expert on the topic of Domestic Violence through coercive control which manifests in corrupt family court when Protective Mothers lose custody (or are forced to share custody) of their children to abusive fathers. With over 40 years training therapists and counseling children and adults who experienced child maltreatment and family violence, Dr. Debra Wingfield now educates and trains professionals across multiple disciplines, mental health, advocates, Attorneys, and community members on the impacts of domestic, Coercive Control, and family violence.

Dr. Wingfield is the author of From Darkness to Light: Your Inner Journey, a workbook to help adults heal from child maltreatment and family violence; Through a Child’s Voice: Transformational Journaling for tweens and up who experienced child abuse and family violence. Her Eyes Wide Open: Help! with Control Freak Co-Parents helps protective parents assess and heal from domestic violence/coercive control. Dr. Wingfield is currently writing Evidence Uncovered: Non-physical Domestic Violence Allegations – Coercive Controlling Violence (CCV) (expected publication early 2017). This book is designed to enlighten members of the legal profession and Forensic family law professionals about the multiple patterns of Coercive Controlling Violence (CCV). These patterns often lead to legal separation and child custody/parenting time disputes. This book grew out of the change in the Colorado best interests of the child statutes effective July 1, 2013. The statute calls for updated tools and skills for legal and Forensic court professionals to integrate into these cases. Subsequent to passing this statute, AFCC (Association for Family and Conciliation Courts) adopted guidelines (2016) for child custody evaluations to include assessing for interpersonal violence.

Dr. Wingfield is a former affiliate faculty member at Regis University where she taught psychology and counseling courses. She developed and taught a Domestic Violence Counselor training curriculum at the University of Southern Colorado, now Colorado State University-Pueblo. Dr. Wingfield currently offers virtual training through House of Peace. Dr. Wingfield was a practicing counselor from 1975 – 2000 with families with child abuse and neglect issues, adults and children from all dysfunctional family types, and domestic violence victim/survivors, child witness/victims, domestic violence offenders, and delinquent youth. She holds a Master of Art's degree in Counseling and Organizational Psychology from the University of West Florida (1975), and Doctor of Education degree in Counselor Education from the University of Northern Colorado (1993). She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and former Certified Domestic Violence Treatment Provider in Colorado.

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