"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.

  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.

    2. I have personally asked preachers at the OALC what would be done with a sex abuse case and they told me they would report it to the police. 2 weeks later in another locality a man did get arrested. I also was told to teach my children to immediately come for help if they have been abused. Like warn them as soon as they can understand the English language. I think it is wrong to paint a picture as if our preachers and elders are condoning this sin.

  3. I love this. Thanks so much for yanking the shades open and for doing your part to expose this human rights violation. I am happy to share my story (and stories) and can be contacted at jenny at my company name (see handle) dot com. I will always join this fight every time. #metoo #neveragain #enough

  4. I have been told that in the LLC it is now being spoken of as well..but when I was a kid it wasn't, and a friend of mine growing up..his family went to the church elders for advice and were told not to bring their kids in to counseling.
    I thought I was a lone victim...since then I have talked to a number of people I grew up with who also are survivors. Most are still in the family systems and still have direct ongoing contact with their abusers...even as those abusers have gone on and abused other kids. The idea of forgiveness is wonderful..except when it covers evil

    1. The LLC gave lip service to doing the right thing regarding sexual abuse about five or so years ago. There were presentations, discussions, and maybe even some outside experts invited to speak if I remember correctly.

      No real action came from it. Molesters are still sitting in the pews in anonymity. Speakers who have covered up molestation are still preaching even though they have committed crimes by not reporting molestation. And if the rumor mill is correct, molestation is still covered up through forgiveness and not reporting to the authorities. Everything is as it was.

      The only change that has occurred is that some young parents are more wary about where they send their kids for sleepovers and they are having healthy conversations with their kids about sexual abuse. I know that if children from these families are abused, they will tell their parents and their parents will inform the authorities before talking to anyone else.

      There was an effort underway to change LLC culture on the topic of sexual abuse after the initial discussions. I think the plan was talk to the kids in depth about it at camps, shine the light on chronic abusers so parents would know who to keep their kids from, and the abusers would lose the protection of anonymity. Actions that would have made a real lasting difference in the subculture of sexual abuse within the LLC.

      I'm not certain of this, but rumor has it that those plans were squashed by an LLC minister who has spent decades covering up abuse going back to the 1980s. The minister in question should be in prison, he is a criminal after all. Ministers are mandated reporters and not reporting abuse to the authorities is a serious crime. But since this man is who he is, he is still preaching, along with a few others that have done the same thing.

      I think all the turmoil in the LLC right now might be coming from a few ministers who are compensating for their guilty consciences for covering up sexual abuse. They must feel terrible in private moments for forcing victims to forgive abusers full well knowing that the abuser will abuse again, and that what they are doing is against the law. Children in one of these ministers own family have been repeatedly abused by the same person and he has covered it up. They should do the right thing and confess to their sins against the children, their families, the congregations, and God, and ask for forgiveness. People would forgive them and they would feel a lot better, and the cycle of abuse in certain parts of the church would end.

      The primary problem is that the people who could do something about this issue pretend like its not their problem, and the people who would do something are not in a position to expose these problems and fix them. Hopefully it gets better as time goes by.

  5. This blog has focused on adult-child sexual abuse but research shows that sibling sex abuse is five times more prevalent than adult-child abuse. The average age of the abuser is 12-15 years old and presumably male and the victim is most often 9 years old and most often female. Sibling sex abuse is still one of those taboo subjects from what I recall but it was actually fairly prevalent. Once again the dirt is pushed under the rug by the 'forgiveness of sins' but the psychological damage remains and never heals. This blog is starting to shine the light on what appears to be a rather common sordid behavior. My guess is that sibling-sibling sex abuse festers at the core of many church member's core beliefs. Once again I would reiterate that core childhood emotional experiences such as severe guilt, anger, fear and repression often lie at the core of the Laestadian's emotional issue. My guess is that many of the original Laestadian Church divisions have at their root some type of sexual abuse. Old AP

  6. I’m 28 and still a member of the OALC I know for many years things were “swept under the rug” but I also know that so often it’s being spoken on at church now. I feel as if 2-3 Sundays a month they speak on it and have very much said that it needs to be and will be reported to the law as soon as it’s brought to their attention or anyone else’s. It’s a shame to that all the blame gets put on the preachers when it’s not always a case of them hiding it but it’s also some parents covering up the truth of sexual abuse, because their own wrong understandings. We are all faulty in some way and the word of god can so easily be mistaken. This is also where they preach along the lines of self righteousness and taking certain words or scriptures too far. I do believe that these things are all changing across all OALC localities, and everyone will soon become more and more aware that we do not condone sexual abuse, we are not taught to hide it and there will be more and more cases coming out and predators being locked away for this. I’m thrilled that people are using their voices and the truth is coming out, it just pains my heart to see our church getting so publicly ridiculed when truth be told this is in thousands of religioins, churches and faiths across the world. I know change has to start somewhere but it’s worth mentioning others as well.