A crisis of the unerring congregation. Up to 100 abusers in Conservative Laestadian congregations in Finland, several abusers never reported to police – caused and/or supported by mistaught Laestadian doctrine of forgiveness and silence. The beliefs are serious risks for children.
The responsible leaders’ excuse for keeping a very tight lid on hundreds of child victims and a myriad of perpetrators, who have not come to light, is “lack of information”. Anyone of the 24 members of the SRK board (they all are men) did not know anything.
Someone else could suggest “lack of freedom of speech”, too.
However: ”We are guilty of all the issues that we have been accused”, said SRK vice chairman Matti Taskila in the press conference in Oulu last week.
Would this be the first time in the history of the Conservative Laestadian movement when the community of the sole-right-faith would confess that the Laestadian doctrine of unerring congregation on the earth would waver?
The leadership of the Central Committee of Conservative Laestadian Congregations (SRK), a biggest revival group within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Finland, admitted last week, that the movement had not managed to handle all cases of child abuse within the movement as it should have.
The confession has raised confusion and public and private debate inside of the revival movement and also generally in Finland about the safety and protection of children in the closed communities, being they religious or not.
Many Laestadian people are dismayed at the means of the leaders and feel that their trust is gone in the SRK board. What kind of doctrines there are in the Conservative Laestadian teaching and actions which may involve that children are subjected to sexual abuse in the Laestadian congregations?
There are approximately over 50 000 children and youngsters under 18 years for the moment in the Conservative Laestadian community in Finland.
Also the Central Criminal Police in Finland has started investigations on the case.In addition to this, there was made a request for crime investigation to the police in April by a private person, too.
SRK’s internal study – which will not be published – reveals that between 70 and 100 people in the movement had been revealed as child abusers since the 1980s. (The SRK press release in Finnish.)
The number of victims is believed to have been somewhat higher, perhaps even several hundreds. Most of the cases of abuse have taken place within families, and some of the crimes happened such a long time ago that they can no longer be prosecuted.
SRK leaders admitted at a press conference that the movement had not always acted in a proper fashion when information on abuse has emerged. However, SRK does not plan to make changes in its leadership in light of the revelations. The trust in the staff in the SRK and in the SRK’s board is still very high, ”100 percent”, says SRK Secretary-General Tuomas Hänninen.
In several of the cases that came to light, the guidance given to those involved was either wrong or contradictory, and the matters were not dealt with early enough by SRK administrators.
The leaders of the revival movement also express regret that in its statements, the SRK has too often forgotten the victims. It says that the intention was never to downplay their status or to protect the perpetrators.
Poverty of information – or forbidden topic, truth to tell?
– We have not had a sufficient overall picture in the matter, says SRK deputy chairman Matti Taskila to explain the situation.
Frankly speaking, this is quite strange statement, because the board of SRK had got professional information about child protection and child abuse for three years ago. Dr. Johanna Hurtig, who is researcher in child protection and is conducting a study on violence against children in religious communities, had been in contact with the heads of SRK since 2008, offering information and relevant views to deal with these crimes. She has collected data on these issues for years. In spite of that she is even personally Laestadian believer, her help became rejected in that time – but now SRK has exploited her results in the internal study.
Roots for the SRK study and press conference has been in the public debate which has emerged after the pilot study of Dr. Hurtig (together with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Finland and universities). The SRK inquiry was sparked also by a controversy over revelations of extensive sexual abuse of children in the Lutheran Church in its entirety and specially its revival movements, of which the Conservative Laestadians are the biggest.
The results of child welfare expert Dr. Johanna Hurtig’s pilot study were published last spring and raised high attention in church and media in Finland. The number of perpetrators in the Lutheran Church and its revival movements was shocking for all in the country. ”This is just the tip of the iceberg”, has Hurtig described the situation.
Even the government was interested in the study. It was emerged needs there to examine whether to be changed something in the Finnish System of Church law.
Helsingin Sanomat has published an special interview of Dr. Hurtig 17 April 2011, also in English.
The internal inquiry into the actions of SRK leaders in matters of child protection was launched in December last year. The Laestadian lawyer Eero Hyytinen has interviewed about 40 managers and leading members of the revival movement. The numbers in the study are based on information given by Johanna Hurtig.
10 – 15 Laestadian lay preachers in court, so far
Of the perpetrators that have come to light, about 30 have had their cases handled in court in the new century, or whose have a legal process pending. Of the alleged abusers, 10 to 15 have been lay preachers in the Conservative Laestadian movement. The movement’s administrators say that any preacher involved in abuse has since lost his position.
The SRK says that the movement has learned from the mistakes.
– We will use all means to weed out these cases from the movement, Taskila says.
Lay preachers have been sent a letter by the board of the SRK, some efforts are to be made to promote the well-being of families, and awareness of the issue among members of the movement is to be raised. There has also been talk about the causes of the problem.
– We have pondered if there is something in our teaching that brings people to these kinds of acts. When the teaching is right, we have not found anything like this, says SRK chairman Olavi Voittonen.
– There are situations in which forgiveness has had misunderstood, and where people have not been guided to take responsibility before the law, says Mr. Hänninen.
The statements of the responsible persons sounds strange because it is obvious that the Conservative Laestadian’s teaching by definition includes several elements which have generated risks for children’s abuse. One of the most significant is the teaching of secrecy in confession and forgiveness of lay people.
Who has misunderstood and where, when SRK itself and preachers have thaught exactly this doctrine publicly, for all, including children?
Many comments have pointed out the Laestadian doctrines and rules, especially the gender roles. There are no any female members in the Central board of SRK, has never been. All the preachers and all the chairs of local Associations of Peace are men. According to the findings of Dr. Hurtig, the patriarchal and closed structure of the movement has made the problem worse and is degrading the status of Laestadian women and children. Likewise, a Laestadian theologist Dr. Pekka Asikainen has asked whether the wisdom of women has been forgot in the movement and whether women’s stronger role would have prevented abuse.
The perpetrator asks forgiveness for his victim – who must keep quiet afterwards
The Laestadian priest, pastor Johannes Alaranta of the St. Mary’s Congregation in Turku has pointed out, that significant reason to the big amount of the hidden sexual crime is the teaching of secrecy in confession and forgiveness of laity (lay people, ordinary persons who are not in clergy) in the Conservative Laestadian movement. It is not allowed to speak nor tell anyone further about the forgiven issues.
The teaching about laymen’s duty to remain silent in the crime cases is contrary to law.
Mr. Alaranta is writing a doctoral thesis on the obligation of ministers not to disclose what they have heard in the context of pastoral care. He feels that confession and the doctrine of silence are key factors in explaining the dark side of Laestadianism.
– It has been taught that all the Conservative Laestadians, lay people including the preachers would have the same kind of obligation of confidentiality as an ordained minister by the Finnish church order. This is not true. Lay people do not have anything of the sort. These kinds of crimes simply need to be reported.
Alaranta says that under the cover of confession – which is not a sacrament in the Lutheran Church as it is in Catholicism – the Laestadian community can manage to remain silent even about very serious crimes.
Forgiveness can often turn into a weapon, exploited in manipulative way by the child sex abuser.
– The way that it works is that they take the seal of confession literally. When a perpetrator asks for forgiveness for an act, such as the abuse of a child, absolution is declared, after that, the matter is no longer discussed.
This is exactly what those cases have come to light in the Conservative Laestadian movement.
-What makes it especially shocking is that faith is a very important part of the lives of people within the movement, Alaranta says.
-First a person’s sexual inviolability and human worth are taken away, and then, by taking advantage of confession, they take away confidence in that conviction.
Also the investigations of Dr. Johanna Hurtig have demonstrated that the Laestadian perpetrators have nearly in every investigated cases exploited the obligation to secrecy and silence and really asked forgiveness for their victims, children.
This has caused that lot of crimes never became to be prosecuted, and in addition to that, that the criminal has had opportunity to continue abuse even several years, and get several victims, too. The legal time limitation to handle the issue in the court is gone in many cases. The victims have never got any compensation, but often on the contrary they have been subjected to inhumane treatment in the Laestadian community and even in their families.
The Conservative Laestadian doctrine of confession and forgiveness connected with laity (ordinary persons, who are not priests) violates both the Finnish System of Church law, child welfare law, and the criminal code. There is a legal duty to report about the cases or even just suspicions if a child would be in hazard of abuse.
The results of the doctrine make that many of the perpetrators are still free and often high appreciated members in their local congregations (Associations of Peace). This situation compounds pain and distress of the victims, adults and children, who perhaps are subjected to meet their rapists every weekend in the meeting house listening to the sermon. (E.g. the case of ”Minna”.)
It also will demoralize the community, of course, and cannot be any sustainable situation at all in the local Associations of Peace.
SRK leaders admit that they cannot estimate how comprehensive a picture the recent report gives of the overall situation.
– It is very difficult to ascertain the true number. In acts like this, the proportion of hidden crime is considerable, notes Eero Hyytinen, a Conservative Laestadian lawyer who drew up the report. He had benefited the work of Dr. Hurtig in completing the report, as well.
In this light it is understandable that the Central Criminal Police in Finland (KRP) is started investigation on the situation of child abuse in the revival movement.
The Criminal Police has started investigations of the SRK report immediately to find out what kind of matters there are behind the SRK unpublished study, and whether there still would be hidden cases to be prosecuted in the name of justice and Finnish law.
Questions about the lack of freedom of speech
Many questions are raising about that both Johannes Alaranta and Johanna Hurtig have met strong defencive and antagonistic, angry reactions from the board of SRK, even becoming badly blamed in public by the preachers and generally in the national Laestadian community.
Also some others who have more or less openly and publicly expressed their critics towards the SRK teaching and management have met similar pressure. E.g. a freelance journalist Topi Linjama was sidelined out from the position of accompanist in the local Association of Peace, beacuse of his blog’s critical, but also warmly influential reflections and considered opinions on Christianity and spiritual life including Laestadian doctrines.
Johannes Alaranta also got e.g. an exclusion in the service at Kaleva church in Tampere where he was already invited for some months earlier by the local Laeastadian congregation. He has written about experiences like witch-hunt after he started discussions about these issues in his blog.
This bad treatment of the people who have started the critical discussion throws an alarming dark shadow towards the board of SRK and SRK-laestadianism. Resort to pressure and insult seriously undermines credibility and trust in SRK board and leaders.
It comes down to children who are not able to protect themselves. It comes down to pain of the children who are victims of the worst crimes and need help and consolation. Children who are the apple of our Saviour’s eye – and who are given for us to care and keep safe, to insure against all kinds of violence.
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(Author: Lucas; sources: news in Helsingin Sanomat, Kaleva and recent debate in the Internet)
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(Unfortunately, some of the texts are only in Finnish. To translate those articles, please try Google Translate)
Johannes Alaranta: Maallikkosalaripin harhaoppi
Johannes Alaranta: Ripin nk. ”olemus”
Johannes Alaranta: Saako Asioista oikeasti puhua?
Pekka Asikainen: Nyt olisi aika toimia. 24.4.2010.
Conservative Laestadians Confirm Pedophile Suspicions. YLE 7.4.2011.
Delegates at Lutheran synod unofficially discuss child abuse. Helsingin Sanomat 4.5.2010.
Dozens of enquiries over abuse of minors received by Lutheran Church Council. Helsingin Sanomat 21.4.2010.
Investigation in Finnish Lutheran Church reveals least 100 cases of suspected sexual abuse. Helsingin Sanomat 3.5. 2010.
Key figure in Laestadian movement sentenced to prison. Helsingin Sanomat 29.9.2010.
Katja Kuokkanen: All-powerful leader dominates. Helsingin Sanomat 12.1.2010.
Katja Kuokkanen: Incest victim of Laestadian preacher tries to piece his childhood together. Helsingin Sanomat 12.1.2010.
Laestadians admit mistakes in dealing with child abuse issue. Helsingin Sanomat 11.4.2011.
Leading Laestadian figure charged with serious sex crimes. Helsingin Sanomat 2.4.2011.
Topi Linjama: Vanhoillislestadiolaisuuden hiljaisuus ja pelko. Kaleva 29.5.2010.
Tommi Nieminen: The sinners’ circle. Helsingin Sanomat 1.5.2010.
Paul Walsh: Minnetonka church volunteer gets a year in jail for having sex with teen. (OALC Laestadian group.) Star Tribune 20.7.2010.
Marjo Valtavaara: Conservative Laestadians’ lifestyle debate boils over onto the Internet. Helsingin Sanomat 23.10.2007.
Irina Vähäsarja: Shedding light on child abuse among the Laestadians. Helsingin Sanomat 17.4.2011.
YLE uutiset: Lasten hyväksikäyttötapauksia on salailtu. YLE Oulu 7.4.2011.
News on the case from aboard:
Church group admits pedophilia. The Windsor Star (Canada) 8.4.2011.
Finnish church group reports child abuse over 30 yrs . Times Online (Sri Lanka) 8.4.2011. West-Bengal (India) 8.4.2011.
Finnish Christian sect reveals pedophilia cases. The Guardian (UK) 7.4.2011.
Christian sect in Finland says members involved in dozens of suspected pedophilia cases. Chicago Tribune (US) 7.4.2011.
Christian sect in Finland says members involved in dozens of suspected pedophilia cases. Winnipeg Free press (Canada) 7.4.2011.
Finnish Christian sect reveals pedophilia cases. Forbes.com 8.4.2011. (US)
Finnish church admits child abuse cases. Times Live , Johannesburg (South Africa) 7.4.2011.
Finnish church group reports child abuse. The StarPhoenix (US) 9.4.2011.
Finnish church group reports child abuse over 30 years. DNA Daily news & Analysis (India) 8.4.2011
Laestadianer i pedofilhärva. Sveriges Television 7.4.2011.
Jussi Rosendahl: Finnish church group reports child abuse over 30 yrs. Reuters 8.4.2011, and Los Angeles Times (US)
Scandals cause ’loss of trust’ in church. The Province (Vancouver, Canada) 7.4.2011.
Utbredd pedofili inom finländsk sekt. Svenska Dagbladet 7.4.2011.
is a conservative Lutheran revival movement which was started in the middle of the 19th century and is named after the Swedish-Sami botanist and priest Lars Levi Laestadius. The doctrine is characterised by Pietistic and Moravian influences. The term “Laestadian” is used as an umbrella to refer to all churches and groups with a clear succession of belief from his teachings. Different groups follow his ideas in various degrees, and they have created more or less strict lifestyle rules (what is considered a sin). The number of Laestadians worldwide is estimated to be between 144 000 and 219 000 (Wikipedia).
Laestadians are the largest revival movement in the Nordic countries. The biggest groups live in Finland with about 130 000 members. In Sweden they are thought to number 10,000 – mostly found in the north of the country around the Torne Valley. Laestadian movement has churches and congregations also in the US and Canada.
The deeply conservative faith broke into three branches – The Firstborn Laestadianism, Reawakening, and Conservative Laestadianism – in the beginning of the 20th century. The groups are shattered again in the 20 Century, in Finland and other countries, and today is counted 19 Laestadian groups but about 15 groups still active. Some Laestadian groups, e.g. the Conservative Laestadian congregation in Finland (SRK ry.) consider themselves the one, true Christian church, and preach that all other Christian churches (including other branches of the Laestadian tradition) are not true Christians.
Conservative Laestadianism in Finland is the biggest Laestadian group. It is also the biggest revival movement inside of the Church of Finland, with about 100 000 members.
In fact, it is quite strange that the Conservative Laestadian revival movement works inside of the Lutheran church, for it’s excluding attitude towards the other memebers of the national Christian church. The priest who get their earnings at work for the curch of Finland would not say this openly in the sunday worship in the church that the other members in the congragation are not true Christians to be saved. But afterwards they teach this when they preach in the Laestadians’s meetings at local “Rauhanyhdistys” house.
Conservative Laestadians’ central management is The Central Committee of Conservative Laestadian Congregations (SRK ry.) leading 188 local “Associations of Peace”. The local congregations have over 34 000 members. It is not compulsary to formally join the association.
The community will grow rapidly in the next decades in case that people will stay in the Laestadian faith. They are most committed with their doctrines, lifestyle and community compared with the others revival movements in Finland (Salomäki 2010). Today there are over 50 000 children and young people (under 18 years) growing in the Conservative Laestadian families in Finland.
As the movement is so big today, it has remarkable power and influence not only in the church but also at the political, public administrative, religional and cultural level in Finland, and also in the national media. Especially in the northern Finlad are towns where there everyone who’s anyone is a Laestadian. The future will show how the active young Conservative Laestadian’s generation will act and influence in the society and in the national church.
Laestadians are taught to consider a sin television, cinema and movies, dance, rhythmic music, performing arts such as concerts, theatre and opera, also alcohol, hair dye, make-up, ear rings, birth control, premarital sex, divorce and homosexual relationships, and many other sins (list of sins in Finnish). Especially in the Conservative Laestadianism the believers have to follow those lifestyle rules, or “providential advice”, or “congregation’s advice” as they modestly call them, decided by the preachers and the Central Committee of the SRK (those rules doesn’t include the Bible nor the Lutheran Catechism).
Laestadian asceticism is distinguished from many other fundamentalist Christians in that just few of the norms are officially “proscribed” openly, banned by any official decision. Actually, in Finland justa bans of birth control, television, singing in choir , working as performing musician and concerts are results of the official decisions of the management of the Conservative Laestadian revival movement. (The Central Committee of Conservative Laestadian Congregations).
Rather, Laestadians do control eachothers themselves, they are on the look out for eachothers, and they employ a reinforcing system of social feedback to encourage abstention of the banned behaviour. The ultimate threat is ostracisism, i.e. segregation, exclusion from fellowship in the common congregation. The board of the congregations maintains this social control in keeping with the beliefs of the church.