05 Legal/Media Research on Abuse

NOTE: Much of the research material on laws, organizational systems, non-profits, etc., from this page/post has been updated and collected at Futuristguy’s Systemic Abuse Researcher Notes. For details of what that site covers, see the Table of Contents page there. It gives an overview of the main topics and pages, plus a complete list of pages and sections.


  • Spiritual Abuse Article IndexIncludes all series and individual posts on futuristguy writings on spiritual abuse topics, plus links and one-paragraph descriptions. Also includes links to multiple case studies and archives on spiritual abuse.
  • Spiritual Abuse Book Lists – Two extensive lists of primary Christian books on spiritual abuse – categorized and chronological – and tips for how to use each.
  • Spiritual Abuse FAQsSeven years of futuristguy writings on spiritual abuse, toxic organizations, and recovery – put into FAQ format.
  • Spiritual Abuse Legal/Media Research Resource page on technical topics related to spiritual abuse, e.g., non-profit problems, different “thresholds of evidence,” child abuse and mandatory reporting, hostile work environment, “digital dissent,” SLAPP suits, documenting and writing your story of spiritual abuse.
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List of Section Topics

  1. Key Legal and IRS Problems for Tax-Exempt Non-Profits
  2. Filing a Complaint/Referral with the IRS Against a Tax-Exempt Non-Profits
  3. Types of “Threshold of Evidence” Required / Spoliation of Evidence
  4. Child Abuse and Neglect / Child Sexual Abuse
  5. Recording Phone Calls and Conversations
  6. Sexual Harassment / Hostile Work Environment
  7. “Citizen Journalists,” Blog Reports, Digital Dissent
  8. SLAPP and Anti-SLAPP Lawsuits
  9. Documenting and Writing Your Account of Spiritual Abuse

NOTE: This page is meant to be informational and motivational, to give a framework and some key links for starting your own research projects. The content at the linked pages may not be the most current available, so don’t rely solely on their information. Also, the material here is NOT meant to be legal advice. If you have legal issues, see a lawyer who can help you with the relevant local, state, and federal laws.

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1. Key Legal and IRS Problems for Tax-Exempt Non-Profits

Many practices and lapses can cause serious legal and IRS problems for non-profits. For instance, issues with:

  • Personnel, sexual harassment, hostile work environment/bullying.
  • Partnerships, contracts, good will, insurance, conflicts of interest.
  • Financial transparency and accountability, failure to use designated solicited funds for the intended purpose, inurement.
  • Media and communications, social media, intellectual property misuse,
  • Legal and administrative problems such as being out of synch with the corporation’s bylaws; conflicts of interest by board members, staff, volunteers.

Besides the harm these problems can inflict on the people involved, and how they can waste the organization’s resources, some can also potentially put the non-profit’s tax-exempt status at risk. These links explore some of those problems in general, and the IRS website links are key to current information on avoiding problems and maintaining tax-exempt status.

General Articles on Problems for Non-Profits

The Top 10 Legal Risks Facing Nonprofit Boards

BoardSource Leadership Forum 2010 – Part II: Top Ten Legal Risks for Nonprofit Boards. Contains some additional details that expand on the above article on Top 10 Legal Risks.

IRS Manual and General Publications for Non-Profits

IRS Manual Table of Contents

Entire IRS Manual

IRS General Publications for Non-Profits

Compliance Guide for 501(c)(3) Public Charities. Contains a section on inurement, and other important IRS administrative issues.

IRS Website for Charities and Non-Profits

IRS Publication 557, Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization


Organizationally speaking, it is a clear problem when the “servants” become both shareholders (participants) and stakeholders (recipients) in the non-profit. Non-profits gain IRS tax-exempt status in part by functioning in the public interest. When that changes to operating for private benefit, it is illegal. It’s called inurement, and it can lead to the IRS revoking the privilege of tax-exempt status.

Inurement/Private Benefit – Charitable Organizations

On Driscoll, it’s called inurement, and it’s probably illegal.

Additional examples of inurement

This important article on Church Exemption from Form I-990 by lawyer Laura Umetsu examines the issue of churches not being required to submit IRS Form I-990 (though other non-profits are), why that has happened, and how this lack of transparency and accountability creates significant potential for private inurement by church leaders. She makes both legal and practical arguments for why churches should no longer be exempt from this IRS regulation, and suggests reasonable and relatively elegant solutions for fixing the underlying legal structures in this complex problem.

Restricted/Designated Solicited Funds

From StartChurch: Restricted Offering vs. Designated Offering.

From StartChurch: Are You Misappropriating Church Funds?

From Foundation Group: Are You Misappropriating Your Nonprofit’s Funds?

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2. Filing a Complaint/Referral with the IRS

Against a Tax-Exempt Non-Profits

IRS Process for Filing a Complaint

Read in these references in the order given to understand the flow of the process.

  1. IRS Complaint Process – Tax-Exempt Organizations
  2. Fact Sheet 2008-13: IRS Complaint Process for Tax Exempt Organizations
  3. Form 13909 – Tax-Exempt Organization Complaint (Referral) Form. Note the list of specific kinds of charge that can be filed.
  4. Fact Sheet 2008-14: Examination and Compliance Check Processes for Exempt Organizations
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3. Types of “Threshold of Evidence” Required

~ and ~ Spoliation of Evidence

Thresholds of Evidence

In blogging about spiritual abuse in the U.S., situations can arise which require very different kinds of legal or administrative evidence levels for determining the outcome. People often confuse the standards needed, or merge American democracy or its court system with ideas from the Bible, with common sense and urban legends. So, sooner or later there will be problems about people’s faulty assumptions of what constitutes viable evidence, enough evidence, what supposedly proves guilt or innocence, were there at least two witnesses, did you follow Matthew 18 perfectly, etc. It just gets messy.

It is important to do “due diligence” and be as factual and careful as possible – and be aware of the type of threshold of evidence that is most appropriate for whatever situation you are addressing. Here are three different situations and their thresholds:

Criminal Acts – such as failure to obey governing laws requiring mandatory reporting of known/suspected child abuse. Standard of evidence for conviction: “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Civil Suits – such as defamation, whether it is a frivolous suit designed to shut someone up or to legitimately hold them accountable. Standard of evidence for conviction: “preponderance of evidence.”

Rarely, the possibility of an IRS investigation of a tax-exempt non-profit agency based on a Complaint submitted by a staff or board member, donor, or member of the public. Standard of evidence for potentially moving beyond a Complaint stage: “reasonable belief that the allegations may be true when considered fairly and in light of other reliable information.”

This is a crucial quote on how “preponderance” relates not to the quantity of evidence, but to the quality. I found this definition at Legal Dictionary at Law.Com helpful:

Preponderance of the Evidence. The greater weight of the evidence required in a civil (non-criminal) lawsuit for the trier of fact (jury or judge without a jury) to decide in favor of one side or the other. This preponderance is based on the more convincing evidence and its probable truth or accuracy, and not on the amount of evidence. Thus, one clearly knowledgeable witness may provide a preponderance of evidence over a dozen witnesses with hazy testimony, or a signed agreement with definite terms may outweigh opinions or speculation about what the parties intended. Preponderance of the evidence is required in a civil case and is contrasted with “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the more severe test of evidence required to convict in a criminal trial. No matter what the definition stated in various legal opinions, the meaning is somewhat subjective.

You might also want to check out the Wikipedia article on Legal Burden of Proof for more details on the multi-tiered system of U.S. evidence for trials. Don’t get caught up in trying to identify all of the abusive people and enablers involved, and all their activities, with evidence that ties it all up beyond a shadow of a doubt. Tell your own story, the slice of the perpetration pie that you personally experienced, be a witness to what happened. You don’t have to do the job of the prosecutor, too.

If an IRS investigation is involved, see the entire section on The Review Process in Fact Sheet 2008-14: Examination and Compliance Check Processes for Exempt Organizations. Here is an excerpt:

Upon receipt, research is done to confirm the identity of the organization in question and once this is complete, information is entered into a database to help the IRS keep track of the progress of the review.

An experienced EO revenue agent then performs a thorough technical analysis of the allegation made on the referral. The agent uses a “reasonable belief” standard to evaluate the facts and to determine whether EO should take further action. Before taking action, the revenue agent must determine that the facts create a reasonable belief that the allegations may be true when considered fairly and in light of other reliable information.

Spoliation of Evidence

Destruction or withholding of evidence is a serious issue, with potentially severe consequences regardless of whether the forum is a (1) criminal case, (2) civil lawsuit, or (3) regulatory agency action (such as an IRS investigation of a Complaint/Referral against a tax-exempt non-profit organization). It does not matter whether the “spoliation” of evidence was intentional or not. From some of the background reading on this issue, it is clear that digital documents, audio, and video can constitute relevant evidence in any of these legal actions. So, it is imperative to preserve “discoverables” – especially as the destruction or withholding of them may mean the court can interpret that act as “consciousness of guilt” and therefore assume that the evidence went against the case of spoliators. In some jurisdictions and situations, it may lead to criminal charges for spoliation of evidence or perhaps even tampering of evidence.

Wikipedia article – overview: Spoliation of Evidence.

Social Science Research Network – Case law overview – see button on this page to download PDF – Yes, I Destroyed the Evidence – Sue Me? Intentional Spoliation of Evidence in Illinois, by Michael A. Zuckerman (originally appeared in the John Marshall Journal of Computer & Information Law, 2010).

Digital Media Law Project – legal case summary – Saltsman v. Goddard (photos and comments posted online).

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4. Child Abuse and Neglect / Child Sexual Abuse

This section is here because many situations of spiritual abuse also involve issues of child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and other forms of sexual misconduct. If there is an authoritarian and hierarchical approach to leadership in the church or organization, that is often accompanied by an us-versus-them attitude about taking internal problems to outside authorities. Leaders willfully disobey the law by failure to follow mandatory clergy reporting laws on child abuse – as if being a saint means we don’t have to be citizens any longer. Refusal by leaders to follow the law in dealing with known/suspected sex crime perpetrators can mean more potential victims, and those violated have to deal with consequences of that for the rest of their life. The leaders are also themselves at risk of criminal charges, and themselves and the putting the church, ministry, or organization at risk of civil liability and lawsuits.

The Child Welfare Information Gateway is the best source I’ve found for finding the most current information on state-by-state definitions and laws related to a broad range of concerns related to child abuse, neglect, child sexual abuse, and mandatory clergy reporting of known/suspected abuse.

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5. Recording Phone Calls and Conversations

The Digital Media Law Center pages on Recording Phone Calls, Conversations, Meetings and Hearings looks fairly comprehensive on various types of recording situations, and partially addresses some state-by-state laws. Different kinds of situations with recording seem to come up repeatedly in issues of abuse, where someone records phone calls or in-person visits etc. as a means to document conversations and/or encounters. Sometimes the person recording is the abuser (and they’re using this as a tool of abuse), sometimes a survivor (who is documenting abuse), sometimes a reporter or “citizen journalist”/blogger (who is using the data to inform the public). Sometimes the recording device is hidden, sometimes out in the open. Sometimes the setting is public, other times private. So, there can be a lot of different factors to consider.

If you are a blogger, it’s important to understand that things are changing and keep up with case law that has gradually been clarifying the rights and responsibilities of bloggers and how that relates to “regular” journalists.

Anyway, at least before ever recording a phone or in-person conversation, it is best to get familiar with the LEGAL issues involved by checking out the laws in your own state, and you may want to check with a lawyer for confirmation if there are unusual circumstances. The ETHICAL issues are another matter.

Another source: Vegress page with state-by-state compliance on Can I Record Calls in My State?

UPDATES February 28, 2015 – It is important to sort out issues of secret/legal/illegal taping, jurisdiction, and admissibility/inadmissibility of taped evidence. For now, I will just state some of the key problems, and provide some opinions, so you can see the scope of what is potentially involved.

According to XianAtty, in a comment on The Wartburg Watch, “[G]enerally, illegally obtained evidence is inadmissible in court. So, if a person violates their state’s statute by recording a conversation, not only may they find themselves in legal trouble, and hand their opponent a tool to use against them, but they are likely to find that the recording itself is of little use.”

Meanwhile, paralegal Michaela notes on the same Wartburg Watch thread:

There is no hard and fast rule here. SOME illegally obtained evidence is inadmissible. Other evidence is admissible. Examples: A woman being ‘spanked as punishment’ by her Christian patriarchy husband secretly taped him doing it to her. The upshot? The husband was arrested. The video was admitted to court, the husband was found guilty by a jury, and the husband is in prison.

Another example: An ex-wife was repeatedly accused by her ex-husband of hitting him during the times they were exchanging the children. He was screaming on the tape that he made “stop hitting me”, etc. She secretly taped him and her video showed that while he was screaming she never laid a hand on him. He was arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and got jail time for that stunt.

I can think of countless other examples in the states (federal and state cases) where judges have admitted secret tapes as evidence. Again, it depends on the case and the judge.

Also, in response to a question about whether it is illegal to secretly tape people or if that is inadmissible in court, Michaela comments: “It honestly depends on the state, it depends on the case, and it depends on the judge. I have seen plenty of tapes get admitted into evidence, say in domestic violence cases where a batterer doesn’t realize the victim is secretly taping him.

KRT notes:

This depends on jurisdiction. To give an example, you MUST include information on jurisdiction for it to be valid. It is not blanket, and it does not depend on the case or the judge, but upon the laws of the particular jurisdiction.

In jurisdictions where only one party needs to be aware of the recording, that obviously means that all other parties may or may not know. The party who is aware can be the very one making the recording. You would label this as *secret*, and perhaps it is, but the secrecy is not the key, but the relevant laws of the jurisdiction in which the recording takes place.

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6. Sexual Harassment / Hostile Work Environment


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7. “Citizen Journalists,” Blog Reports, Digital Dissent

Digital Media Law Project

The Digital Media Law Project – previously called the Citizen Media Law Project – is an absolutely essential resource for anyone engaged in online publishing, whether about spiritual abuse or other topics. Be sure to see at least the Legal Guide page and the Research & Response page, and go from there.

Their case overview pages are also very helpful, not just for the content but also for an example of how to put together a summary of a spiritual abuse case study. The sections they use include: Summary (dates, key people, status of the case), Parties, Description (plus major updates and key links), Details (information on categories that are the equivalent of “tags”), and Court Information and Documents (downloadable documents that are in the public record).

For instance, here is their summary for the Beaverton Grace Bible Church v. Smith defamation lawsuit, where a pastor sued five people for alleged defamation and loss of reputation related to their online comments about him being spiritual abusive.

The Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect happens regularly in situations of spiritual abuse and alleged cover-ups. The Streisand Effect is when attempts to suppress or censor media reporting actually end up creating more media interest and attention. It’s named after Barbra Streisand, who sought to have satellite photos of her Malibu home removed from the internet. But, given her celebrity status, her attempts to suppress the photos actually led hundreds of thousands of people to view and/or download them.

In the realm of spiritual abuse documentation online, it is important to keep in mind that this topic is a matter in “the public interest.” Those who would suppress reporting on it will have difficulty arguing it is a private matter. But, it is in the general public interest because spiritual abuse is far more widespread than previously realized. So, any specific incident that seems to involve “malignant ministries” becomes newsworthy. So, the attempts to stay out of the news may just amplify the interest in putting the story front and center online and keeping it there.

Digital Dissent


These resources will look at the use of social media and other technological tools of the internet era that parallel the traditional tools used in social activism and investigative reporting.

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8. SLAPP and Anti-SLAPP Lawsuits

SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. These are civil suits whose purposes are generally designed to silence or intimidate opponents. SLAPP suits are often frivolous and insidious, used by individuals or entities with “deep pockets” – ample funds to outlast and outlawyer their opponents. Defamation/SLAPP suits can happen to people who express their opinion about a spiritually abusive person or organization, and so is highly relevant if you choose to speak out or write about spiritual abuse.

The following paragraph from the wikipedia article on Anti-SLAPP gives a helpful overview of the SLAPP type of defamation lawsuit.

Other widely mentioned elements of a SLAPP are the actual effectiveness at silencing critics, the timing of the suit, inclusion of extra or spurious defendants (such as relatives or hosts of legitimate defendants), inclusion of plaintiffs with no real claim (such as corporations that are affiliated with legitimate plaintiffs), making claims that are very difficult to disprove or rely on no written record, ambiguous or deliberately mangled wording that lets plaintiffs make spurious allegations without fear of perjury, refusal to consider any settlement (or none other than cash), characterization of all offers to settle as insincere, extensive and unnecessary demands for discovery, attempts to identify anonymous or pseudonymous critics, appeals on minor points of law, demands for broad rulings when appeal is accepted on such minor points of law, and attempts to run up defendants’ costs even if this clearly costs more to the plaintiffs. [Retrieved February 2013.]

Typically, an anti-SLAPP motion is filed to counter SLAPP defamation lawsuits, and protect defendants from frivolous lawsuits. As of late 2014, there still was no national anti-SLAPP law in place. However, many states have some version of an anti-SLAPP statute. Filing an anti-SLAPP “motion to dismiss” would be considered a routine legal response in a defamation lawsuit like this.

For a very instructive “grand tour” of SLAPP and anti-SLAPP issues, read the Memo in Support of Special Motions to Strike, written by Linda K. Williams. She was the lawyer for several of the defendants in the 2012 lawsuit where Charles O’Neal and Beaverton [Oregon] Grace Bible Church sued Julie Anne Smith and four other defendants for $500,000 over alleged defamation for posting negative Google Reviews of the church and labeling him as spiritually abusive. Ms. Williams is an expert on anti-SLAPP issues, and often has to provide the Court with detailed case law reviews because the procedure is still so rare in its application.

Important Anti-SLAPP Websites

California Anti-SLAPP Project. Many states have used the California Anti-SLAPP laws as the basis for their own laws. This site is a tremendous resource for understanding the general legal issues, constitutional principles, and case law involved. Very helpful, even if your state has no Anti-SLAPP law yet, or one that differs from California’s.

Public Participation Project – State Anti-SLAPP Laws. Contains a map so you can quickly see the states that do/don’t have Anti-SLAPP laws in place, plus an extensive state-by-state listing of laws with links to the specific state code sections referenced.

First Amendment Project – The Anti-SLAPP Resource Center.

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9. Documenting and Writing Your Account of Spiritual Abuse

Barbara Orlowski’s 20-question survey provides an essential framework as you begin thinking through the before, during, and after periods of the abuse and recovery processes. This survey was the basis for her research project for her Doctor of Ministry degree. It would be helpful to at least look at her questions to see the flow of how they work together – it is a well-constructed survey, and can be immensely helpful in processing your experiences. I was part of the survey group, and my response took me about a week to compile, since I’d been in four major spiritually abusive situations and therefore needed to respond to many questions for each setting. But it was one of the most helpful exercises I did in thinking through those incidents systematically and constructively.

Suggestions From My “futuristguy” Blog

Is It Time To Tell My Story? Suggestions for spiritual abuse survivors on how, when, and why in sharing their accounts of abuse and recovery.

Many people are now writing or commenting on spiritual abuse survivor topics. Given the damage to our souls wrought by such so-called “discipleship,” it is no surprise that some of what we write demonstrates anger, sarcasm, innuendo, curses, and harsh or vulgar language. However, if this does perhaps help us in our venting about abuse and abusers, it can also prove “triggering” – not edifying – for others who read it. So, in the following post, I offer some practical advice on Writing Respectfully and Defusing “Triggers” that I have learned over the years in my research writing on abuse, violence, and social action.

For advanced suggestions on writing your story, see Tutorial #9 on Transformation. This tutorial covers a series of critical thinking skills and tools for detailing events and discerning the times, with the ultimate goal of moving beyond our current paradigm and past factors that shaped it, and pursuing a future that is both possible and preferable. It contains a list of spiritual abuse investigation and archive sites, many of which present the stories of individual survivors – especially from very specific church denominations or ministry organizations.

Archives and Case Studies

If you are interested in some examples of my writing about complex issues involving aspects of spiritual abuse, check out the following archive sites and blogs. These show how I used various of the above principles in creating as comprehensive of a “case” as I could about allegations of abuse of spiritual authority. I often built the entire historical narrative by starting with just a basic timeline of major events, a list of “key players,” and a few main source documents. Factual details and the overall context got filled in by bits and pieces from items in the bibliography. Logical issues, gaps in evidence, overgeneralizations and other problems became more evident as the factual narrative got longer and stronger, and as some well-reasoned comments on blog articles and news reports pointed out inconsistencies. In some cases, parts of the archive/site were done by teams, but I did the majority of the writing/editing. See the first page or the “About” page for an overview of the archive/site.

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