Unlike physical abuse that often results in bruised bodies, spiritual and abuse leaves scars on the psyche and soul. It is inflicted by persons who are accorded respect and honor in the Torah world by virtue of their role as models of spiritual authority. They base that authority on the Holy Torah, the Written and Oral Law, and see themselves as endowed with a holy trust. But when they violate that trust, when they abuse their authority, and when they misuse power to control and manipulate other Jews, the results can be catastrophic.
The perversion of power that we see all the time in the religious world disrupts and divides families, fosters an unhealthy dependence of members on the leadership, and creates, ultimately, spiritual confusion in the lives of victims.
Just like former cult members, people who have suffered spiritual abuse often describe their experience in terms of “psychological abuse” and “spiritual trauma.”
This theme comes up in Tenach with the false prophets and in the Mishna and Gemara also. Reb Nachman however goes into some detail about the problem basing himself on the Zohar and the Ari. The main idea of Reb Nachman is that a large majority of pseudo teachers of Torah are in fact demons. [That is to say they have spiritual powers and even miracles but those powers come from Satan.]
Which brings us to the basic question of spiritual authority. Who has the authority to teach Torah? How does one go about avoiding the false leaders.
Obviously, the simplest way is to avoid the entire religious world;- lock, stock and barrel. But a slightly better alternative solution is to confine oneself to authentic Lithuanian kinds of yeshiva which go solely by the path of the Gra. That alternative solution has the advantage of being able to learn and keep Torah and be relatively safe from the cults.
One aspect of spiritual abuse goes along with the idea of false trust. --an idea also mentioned by Reb Nachman which he brings from the book of Job "מבטח בוגד". That is most of the Litvak world is really pretty great. But there are people whose entire message to the public is: "We are so great that everyone should give us money." And at the same time seek to enslave baali teshuva to create a kind of slave population of working class to support themselves. They create this image that all people need to do is join up with them and all their needs will be taken care of. Thus comes the trouble that the main characteristic of the religious world is based on the question, "How can we get secular Jews to give us money?"