"laestadian, apostolic, gay, lgbtq, ex-oalc, ex-llc, llc, oalc, bunner" LEARNING TO LIVE FREE: When a Sin is a Crime — Laestadians & Sex Abuse

Monday, June 11, 2018

When a Sin is a Crime — Laestadians & Sex Abuse

If you are a survivor of sex abuse, you may want to skip this post, as it is likely to open old wounds. Everyone else, please read on.

I posted here about Tysfjord in 2016 when the story broke and have been following the updates since then, much of it in Norwegian, using Google Translate to make sense of them. Many of the victims and abusers in Tysfjord are/were Firstborn Laestadian, the corollary to the Old Apostolic Lutheran Church here in America; both follow the same leaders in Gällivare, Sweden.

I've been following the situation with both horror and hope: horror that so many were hurt, and hope that healing is possible -- not only for the Tysfjord victims but for every family, workplace, church, and community yet to be cleansed by the #metoo tsunami.

When I emailed a relative inside the OALC about my hope that the situation in Tysfjord would compel the Gällivare elders to reform church practices, he responded "they would not try to affect natural affairs, as that would violate the doctrine of St. Paul, as he only allows one subject, to preach Jesus and Himself crucified."

Perhaps there was a misunderstanding? Perhaps not. The OALC may well view its silencing of sex abuse victims as virtuous rather than complicitous.

In April, I received a phone call from a friend who grew up in the OALC, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by an uncle who escaped all consequences in spite of his confession to preachers. Like so many other victims, she was first disbelieved, and then instructed to forgive and forget (if she did not forgive him, the sin would be on her soul). At 27 years old, she had struggled with crippling depression since childhood, and she was calling to tell me of other victims in the church, similarly abused and silenced, some related to her, some not. Her anguish was evident.

What can we do, she asked? Together we talked about possible actions, e.g., bringing a lawsuit for obstruction of justice. Lobbying for a change in the mandatory reporting law to specify lay clergy. Creating a shelter and legal fund to help women in the church to divorce abusive husbands (instead of staying, afraid to lose custody in a church-funded court battle). Filming a documentary on the church. Ultimately we decided to start with a smaller, more achievable project: Youtube interviews of OALC abuse victims. Before I hung up the phone, I told her about Tysfjord, how an entire "Firstborn" community was finding its voice, and why it gave me hope for reforms in the OALC. I mentioned that I was collecting notes for a blog post.

Send me your notes, she said. I emailed them on May 3rd. Three weeks later, she took her own life.

All who loved Kara are heartbroken, and searching for ways we could have helped prevent her death. If you are one of us, may we use that heartbreak to do the work she didn't have the strength to continue.

For the child she was, and the children she loved, I want to believe the tipping point is here.

That point comes, in the words of Tysfjord's Sámi community center director Lars Magne Andreasson, when "the shame of staying quiet about abuse becomes greater than the shame of speaking up."
When the shame of staying quiet becomes greater than the shame of speaking up
The shame of complicity with abusers -- of not protecting the vulnerable -- must prick the awakened consciences in the church. "Faith in the elders" must not be used as an excuse for an individual to avoid personal ethical and legal action. The lay clergy in the OALC are given power most of them did not ask for, and for which few are equipped or educated.

No doubt some preachers are doing the right thing, ethically and legally, if the increasing number of OALC men being prosecuted for sex crimes are an indication (my readers send me news items). But  considerably more "known offenders" remain at large, and the OALC grapevine, and whatever red/yellow/green alert systems any family may adopt, are not preventing their access to victims.

The church leadership in Gällivare must address the systemic problem.

Until OALC elders state clearly that sex abuse is a crime, to be reported to law enforcement and investigated by the state not the church, the cycle of abuse will continue. 

To understand Tysfjord, context is important. For the majority of residents, who are Sámi and Laestadian, the historical trauma of colonization is ample justification for distrusting the state and preferring private, interpersonal resolutions over legal ones. Colonization deprived the Sámi of self-determination, language, land, and culture, and disrupted the social bonds that protected children. Forced assimilation, called "Norwegianisation, was institutionalized from the mid-1800s and within living memory of some Tysfjord residents. How can the state that forcibly separated families be trusted?

“One of the most important reasons why people with Sami background don’t report violence is that they lack trust in the state apparatus. . . (and) the tabooing of sex and body, the silence concerning everything private, and the idea that issues are solved within the family. We find such ideas everywhere in Norway, but there are indications that these taboos are stronger within Laestadian and Sami communities." (Researcher Solveig Bergman, whose 2017 survey indicated Sámi victims of violence are less likely to seek help than Norwegians.)

Laestadianism's exclusivism and gender roles further impede transparency and accountability, making it all the more remarkable for #metoo to succeed in Tysfjord.

A recap:

In 2016, in a community of only 2,000 residents, decades of widespread sex abuse were revealed, sending shock waves throughout Norway and beyond. This came after years of persistence by parents trying to get the attention of authorities, and ultimately, one abuse survivor whose post on Facebook was read by a journalist. That journalist's research culminated in a national newspaper article, which was read by Tysfjord's chief of police, who demanded her deputies conduct an immediate investigation, which revealed 151 sexual assaults over six decades, by mostly male, but also a couple of female abusers. Forty were rapes of young children.

Most of the cases were too old to prosecute.

Nine years earlier, in 2007, desperate parents held a meeting in Tysfjord where local authorities were informed of the scope of the problem. The reaction was disbelief. Nothing more. Victims reporting to church leaders were likewise met with disbelief, or told to forgive and forget. Some of the families in Tysfjord developed their own system of protecting kids: families were assigned red, yellow, or green depending on how safe it was for children to sleep there, or even to visit. Red meant danger of rape or molestation.

It was not until a national newspaper published the article in 2016, and the police chief found it compelling, that interviews began. One thousand of them. Two cases have ended with convictions so far and more are in the pipeline. (The full police report, in Norwegian, can be found here.)

One of the victims said that when she was a teenager in the village, young people told each other about sexual abuse, but adults would not listen. 
"We were called whores and liars." (Nina Iverson, BBC news story)
When Tysfjord's Firstborn leaders were asked to comment, they initially said that preachers conduct their own investigations into sex abuse allegations, and report only when deemed necessary. This was met with outrage.
"The preachers have no prerequisite for making such assessments. It is the police's task." (Former Tysfjord sheriff Kenneth Nilsen)
"I strongly respond to the statements from the church in Tysfjord . . . everybody has a duty to report suspicion of child and youth abuse." (Norwegian Child and Equality Minister Solveig Horne)
The following month, the church issued another statement (here, in Norwegian) disavowing their former release. In a church where "nothing changes," something had changed.

The elders in Gällivare surely know the unintended consequences of certain practices, that the "forgive and forget" tradition effectively colludes with rapists and pedophiles, allowing them to maintain access to the victim. A child is even less likely to report abuse to an adult if she knows she may be required to meet with her abuser and "talk to the preachers," often alone, without her parents.  This is truly inexcusable.

Now imagine a child being required to embrace his or her abuser and say the ritual words granting forgiveness and asking repentance. What did the victim do, to be required to repent? She tempted him. She sat on his lap. She didn't resist enough.

How many victims were compelled to forgive OALC pedophiles before a parent -- often a "worldly" or one whose standing in the church was already compromised -- ignored the advice and filed charges?

State law in America is sadly less protective of victims than Norwegian law, but telling a victim of crime not to report to authorities is illegal everywhere. It's called obstruction of justice.

Will it take a lawsuit against the OALC to change this practice?

Kara thought so.

The average pedophile molests 260 victims during their lifetime. Over 90% of convicted pedophiles are arrested again for the same offense after their release from prison.

"like other sexual orientations, pedophilia is unlikely to change. The goal of treatment, therefore, is to prevent someone from acting on pedophile urges — either by decreasing sexual arousal around children or increasing the ability to manage that arousal. But neither is as effective for reducing harm as preventing access to children, or providing close supervision." (Harvard Medical School)

How many pedophiles remain in the OALC community's good graces, attending church and gatherings, while their victims drifted into isolation, mental illness, drug use, suicide?
Kara's abuser attended her funeral. He sat in the church that protected him, and rejected her, that allowed him access to other victims even after he confessed.
Let that sink in. Do you see anything remotely Christian about that?

According to the Norwegian news service NRK, "tens of victims and their supporters" received threats of violence and reprisals after speaking up. Here in America, we should expect no better. But change is coming.

The municipality of Tysfjord has apologized for its neglect. The Norwegian government pledged monetary support (over $1 million) to increase cultural competence among service providers, to build trust. Big name musicians gathered in Tysfjord and performed, gratis, at a concert affirming Sámi mihá (pride). There were unexpectedly large numbers who attended an interfaith (Lutheran and Laestadian, that is) service in the Tysfjord church. Sámi journalist Kenneth Haetta and three others were awarded the Fritt Ords Prize for their reporting. (Listen to this English-language BBC report on the process of healing.)

Lars Magne Andreasson is optimistic:
"We've come to the point where we dare to have the conversation."
It's past time for American Firstborn, and those who have left the church, to have that conversation. In our homes and if necessary, in the courts.

If you would like to be interviewed for Kara's Youtube series, please send me a note.

It's time to speak truth to power.


  1. Bruce Morén-Duolljá6/12/2018 05:56:00 AM

    This is a nice, informative blog post that captures the essence of the situation here in Divtasvuodna/Tysfjord.

    Just some points of clarification:

    Lars Magne Andreassen is the director of Divtasvuodna's/Tysfjord's Saami community center, Árran. Árran is not a general community center.

    Divtasvuodna/Tysfjord is a municipality, not a village. It is a relatively large geographical area composed of two major towns, several smaller towns/residential areas, a variety of small neighborhoods and isolated properties. These different areas are divided by mountains and fjords.

    1. Thank you for the clarification.

  2. Just so you know, sexual abuse is spoken against at the OALC. Not sure why you think it isn’t or hasn’t been. I know it has been brought out in the last few years for sure. And it is encouraged to go to the law ASAP.

    1. Thanks for commenting. As you seem to be an insider, would you mind sharing your locality?
      Some communities are known for being more progressive.

      For my part, nothing would make me happier than knowing my nieces and nephews — and their children — are no longer at risk, that sex crimes are no longer being swept under the blanket of “lustful thoughts and desires,” that victims are no longer blamed and shamed for their own abuse, that wives are no longer told to stick with abusive husbands.

      As I said in the post, some preachers are no doubt doing the right thing.

      And yet, I continue to hear from abuse survivors. Did they have the bad luck of talking to the “wrong” preacher?

      If the OALC truly wishes to reform, communication must come from the Elders in Gällivare and apply to every church member and every preacher.

      Like the new “white” dress code for confirmation, but ACTUALLY IMPORTANT.

      Trust me, I would rather not spend one more minute of my life on this.