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Ugly truths surface in Iceland’s national church

During the two weeks that I was away, a major issue reared its ugly head in Icelandic society — namely attempts by the Icelandic National Church to silence allegations and reports of sexual abuse within the church.

At the centre of the maelstrom is a matter involving a former bishop of the church, one Ólafur Skúlason, now deceased. Fourteen years ago, in 1996, four women came forward and alleged that Hr. Ólafur had harassed / abused them sexually. Only one of those women, Sigrún Pálína Ingvarsdóttir, chose not to remain anonymous and she fought a heroic battle in the Icelandic media and elsewhere, during which was subject to a smear campaign and other sordid attacks. Hr. Ólafur vehemently and arrogantly denied all allegations and even went so far as to press charges against the three women [one of them withdrew her allegations] for defamation of character. In the end he was advised by the State Prosecutor to withdraw the charges. To cut a long story short, the matter went nowhere, and Sigrún Pálína eventually left Iceland to start a new life in one of the Nordic countries.

Meanwhile, the church took the stance of “hear no evil, speak no evil” — and a group of deans even went so far as to sign a declaration of support for the bishop. Hr. Ólafur stayed on, but wound up resigning about a year or two later, for “unrelated” reasons.

I remember the matter well, followed it closely at the time, and was utterly in awe of Sigrún Pálína for her heroism and courage in fighting the good fight when everything seemed to be working against her. And personally I never wavered in my conviction that Hr. Ólafur was guilty as sin — you could see it just by looking at him. I was one of many who officially withdrew from the National Church at that time — a formality that requires you to fill out a form and de-register. I did not want to be associated with the sort of dishonesty and deceit that, in my view, was very obviously practiced there.

Cut to the present. Just over a week ago, a letter surfaced from a former organist in one of the churches in which Ólafur Skúlason was a minister, before becoming bishop. The letter was written in June of last year and describes an incident back in the 1970s whereby the organist walked in on Hr. Ólafur in a room where he appeared to be raping a young woman. The organist subsequently became a confidante of Hr. Ólafur, and writes among other things in the letter that he [Ólafur] clearly had “sexual desires or longings that manifested in sexual deviation.”

In the wake of this, Hr. Ólafur’s daughter, Guðrún Ebba Ólafsdóttir, requested a formal meeting with the executive council of the National Church. Initially it looked like it would take weeks for that meeting to be scheduled [“sometime in the fall” was the original statement]; however, the council saw fit to come together in order to listen to her. After the meeting, Guðrún Ebba told the media that she had “described my experience of my father” — meaning, as was later revealed, that she gave an account of serious sexual molestation that she had had to endure by him.

Her intention, she says, was to “ensure that a sexual offender can never again rise to the highest position of power within the church.”

That woman, like Sigrún Pálína, has all my admiration and respect.

And now, the church and current bishop, Hr. Karl Sigurbjörnsson, are dealing with the fallout. Suffice it to say that they are not doing a good job. The bishop has repeatedly stuck his foot in his own mouth, most notably last weekend when he tried to whitewash himself of any blame by claiming that Sigrún Pálína had pressed charges against Hr. Ólafur back in the day, but that the Special Prosecutor had refused to take the matter further. The truth, of course, as stated above, is that Hr. Ólafur was the one to press the charges — Sigrún Pálína pressed no charges — and the State Prosecutor advised Hr. Ólafur to withdraw them. Hr. Karl was one of those involved in “attempted reconciliation” between Hr. Ólafur and Sigrún Pálína back in 1996, and the fact that he could err on such an significant fact speaks volumes about his outlook and attitude, then and now.

In the meantime, confidence in the National Church is plummeting, and now — as in 1996 — there is a wave of withdrawals from the church. There is also a loud demand for an investigation; Icelandic society seems ready to deal with the truth, at last. There has been talk of a “truth commission” being appointed to investigate these and other hush-ups within the church, although in an interview on Kastljós last night, the current bishop said that this would be “complicated”. What exactly is so complicated is unclear — the last I knew, the truth was not complicated, but rather frightfully simple.

Last but not least, it is fantastic to see Sigrún Pálína finally being vindicated and receiving the justice she so deserves. May the truth prevail.

ADDENDUM: It’s just been brought to my attention that one of the other women, Stefanía Þorgrímsdóttir, actually did appear under her own name back in 1996. She, too, was subject to a smear campaign — her own brother was interviewed and basically said that she was delusional and always had been.

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  • JD August 24, 2010, 2:39 pm

    Shame to hear of yet another series of scandals involving church leaders, coverups and demonizing the victims. All too familiar these days. Surprised that Iceland has a “national” church.” Hallgrimskirkja is Lutheran, right? Is that the “national” or “official” religion? Any discussion about disconnecting the church from the government?

  • mary August 24, 2010, 2:47 pm

    We are going through all this shocking stuff in Ireland also.
    Not wishing to make light of the subject, should you leave the catholic church you are deemed a ‘pervert’!

  • Hildur August 24, 2010, 2:48 pm

    According to Sigríður Pálína, Karl (the current bishop) did everything in his power to keep her quiet. He even tried to use her mother’s illness as a reason to not make the allegations public.

    http://www.visir.is/sigrun-palina–karl-og-hjalmar-reyndu-ad-thagga-nidur-i-mer/article/2010588814505

  • Hildur August 24, 2010, 2:50 pm

    And oops, it seems that we both made the same mistake of referring to Sigrún Pálína as Sigríður Pálína. My apologies.

  • alda August 24, 2010, 3:20 pm

    Hildur — Oops! duly noted and corrected. Takk!

  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson August 24, 2010, 3:21 pm

    JD, this is the status of the church in Iceland according to the constitution:
    “Article 62
    The Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the State Church in Iceland and, as such, it shall be supported and protected by the State.

    This may be amended by law. “

  • alda August 24, 2010, 3:30 pm

    JD — as Sigvaldi says, there is indeed a national church in Iceland and yes, the official religion is Lutheran. There is, however, much discussion these days about separating church and state.

  • Gunnar August 24, 2010, 4:52 pm

    Here’s hoping this will finally lead us to sever that fucking embarrassment from the Icelandic state. More so than any other part of our flawed first attempt at a indepentent state, the national church is a demented fossil that has no place in modern society.

  • Michael Lewis August 24, 2010, 5:03 pm

    ” I never wavered in my conviction that Hr. Ólafur was guilty as sin — you could see it just by looking at him ”

    A sound basis for jurisprudence if ever there was one 😉

    Have any of the individuals been found guilty, in a court of law, of any of the crimes alleged against them?

  • Michael Lewis August 24, 2010, 5:06 pm

    “There is, however, much discussion these days about separating church and state. ”

    Which they are in essence already? So if the Lutheran church is disestablished, you have presumably the Icelandic equivalent of a name change, from ‘Church of Iceland’ to ‘Church in Iceland’. And, not much else would change?

  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson August 24, 2010, 7:10 pm

    Michael, the church of Iceland is a part of the state, the officials are paid by the state and the affairs of the church are administered by the Ministry of Justice and Human rights.
    If there was a seperation the church would become financially independent (as the Catholic churches and other smaller churches and faiths already are) but they would also claim all the former church property (a large percentage of the country used to be church property in the past) and solving that could be difficult.

  • Joerg August 24, 2010, 7:44 pm

    This sounds very familiar. There has been a number of incidents of this kind in Germany, too, involving church leaders trying to cover up for their personnel in cases of abuse of minors. We even had a catholic bishop, a particularly reactionary die-hard, who had to step down as a consequence of charges of sexual harassment. I’ll never understand, what these church institutions are good for, anyway.

  • RK in Los Angeles August 24, 2010, 8:09 pm

    Alda I was also one of those who officially withdrew my membership of the National Church. This all took place within a few months before I left for L.A. It was one of the last things I did before I moved (I intended to return home within a couple years). Its pretty crazy to observe all this – again – and now from a distance.

    I received my confirmation from Sr. Ólafur. I was actually just commenting on this to my mother earlier this morning, how he always gave me the creeps. I avoided attending his classes preceding the confirmation ceremony because of the bad feeling I got around him. Because of my bad attendance he considered expelling me which would have meant I would have been the only kid that year in my class not to receive confirmation. I dont know why he didnt, I think they are not allowed. During the ceremony you are supposed to recite a verse (or whatever its called). I remember I chose something about the lost lamb, I think what appealed to me about it was the idea of it being ok to be different as well as the general concept of forgiveness. I will never understand why but he refused to let me recite that. My guess though is that it wasnt sexy enough for the event as Sr. Ólafur liked to put on a good show, his masses were very theatrical as his character/persona. Since I wasnt allowed to speak the one I wanted, I basically let him pick one for me. I cant remember what it was but to me it was meaningless.

    The irony of the current situation is that the same people who hushed this back in 1996 are now declaring that you cannot convict a man that is not around to defend himself, when its clear that those people made it impossible for the victims to pursue justice when they still had time. Now its too late, the man is dead. There will be no justice in this case but the case of those who helped cover up for it can still be brought to a conclusion. I really hope to see that happen this time.

  • sylvia hikins August 24, 2010, 10:11 pm

    I recently read that the Church in Iceland receives financial support from the state? I find that incredible in modern society. Is that true and is the amount made public?
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • hildigunnur August 24, 2010, 10:24 pm

    Not one of the church musicians in Iceland doubted that Sigrún Pálína’s accusations were correct – at least none I knew of (and those were and are many).

    I signed out of the church a year and a half ago because of different reasons (blogged in icelandic about it at the time) but I’m almost sorry I can’t do it over again now.

  • Bromley86 August 24, 2010, 10:39 pm

    describes an incident back in the 1970s whereby the organist walked in on Hr. Ólafur in a room where he appeared to be raping a young woman.

    Organist, moral compass. Moral compass, organist.

    Seriously, is there more to this? How can anyone note that someone appears to be being raped and not report it?

  • Yona August 24, 2010, 11:21 pm

    Are the bureaucratic state run churches of Europe a dismal failure not to mention the Lutheran denomination? Apparently they are above civil law?
    Where pray tell are the checks and balances that protect the public from clergymen drunk with their own power oblivious to right and wrong!! Unbelievable!

  • alda August 25, 2010, 12:18 am

    RK — very interesting. Thanks for sharing that.

    Bromley — Indeed. But that’s the way it was, in the Icelandic church as in many others. Denial and systematic silencing. In this particular case, the organist convinced himself that Ólafur had been comforting the girl, whose face was swollen from crying. But probably admitted the truth later when all those allegations were made.

  • Nat August 25, 2010, 4:37 am

    I remember hearing about that, I did a psychology paper based on this. I to, admire her strength and courage. then him having the balls to bring the ladies down for defamation of character , he did that to show them he still had power over them, thats why one backed down. Alot of abusers do that “to strike fear” but she refused to be a victim and took action.
    Everywhere you hear alot of churches around the world are having this problem, it’s crazy and whats the Pope, state or other officals doing to prevent this, nada, besides protecting their molesters and rapist and giving them promotions. WTF??

  • MarcVdB August 25, 2010, 3:02 pm

    We must not forget that the position of the church in society (and society as a whole) has changed tremendously in the past 100 years. Though modern ideas have shaped the younger generations, the old networks, attitudes and customs don’t go away all that easily.

    Some ugly truths are starting to come out now, truths that one dared not to speak of. I can only imagine the fear and psychological shock the organist must have felt when he stumbled upon such a truth. You have to remember that most probably this was a deeply religious person, not only linked to the church by faith, but by employment as well. And all this in a relatively closed society where some powerful people can make your life hell.

    I would not want to justify what the bishop or the organist have or haven’t done. They will be judged by their gods/their relatives.

    But it may be a good time to look at the tools they have used to get their way. How was the justice system abused? How were newspapers complicit in all this? What about compensation for the damages caused? Ultimately everyone understands the language of money, and the church may be more vigilant about the actions of their priests if they can be held responsible financially if they fail to act approprately according to Icelandic Law.

  • Pauline McCarthy August 26, 2010, 3:24 pm

    After reading all these comments it reminded me to sign my son up for the Borgarlegt (sp?) ferming / citizens confirmation run by the humanist group siðmennt. My elder son went through that confimation 4 years ago. I was so dissapointed going to so many confirmations and asking the child “So, do you believe in Jesus and the Church” and all of them said “No!” and then admitted that they only did it for the presents. For those who don’t know the Icelandic Confirmation at the age of 14 is the right of passage into adulthood and the kids get lots of really expensive presents and money, it is more like a Bar Mitzvah.

    RK I was shocked to hear that the Bishop disallowed you to make the reading of your own choice, but hey ho that is the way of religion and controlling the masses or in your cased controlling a wee lassie.

    So my Patrick will be all decked out in his full highland kilt gear and pronounce that he will be a good Icelander and then head off for the party and presents 🙂

    Re the Icelandic state church. If the state seperated from it it would collapse. In the catholic church they hand round the plate for donations which keeps them going but there is not that tradition in Iceland and the chuches are only full for weddings, funerals, births and confirmations. If you go along on any regular day there are few worshipers. I had not thought of the church claiming the many properties so perhaps they could live off the rent of that?

    My huband told me a story the other day of a priest going to visit a woman who had died the day before to bless her and came out of the bedroom with a will she had just signed giving all her property to the church. I don’t know if this story is apocraphal but I believe things like that did happen in the past, hopefully not today.

  • RLJ August 27, 2010, 10:34 am

    “And personally I never wavered in my conviction that Hr. Ólafur was guilty as sin — you could see it just by looking at him.”

    Thank goodness there are no jury trials in Iceland. I’m not defending the man (I have no evidence one way or the other), but this statement is exactly why juries wouldn’t work here (not sure they work better anywhere else, but at least elsewhere there is a fighting chance the juror won’t already have heard about the allegations).

    This is an issue from 1996; why is it rearing its head now? Paranoid, I may be (I’ve lived here long enough for it to take hold), but didn’t this all shoot into the press just days after the Church refused to take the budget cut ordered by the ministry? Might the Powers That Be be seeking the support they need to disestablish and stop funding the church? When I mentioned this to an Icelander, she was shocked at my “conspiracy theory.” But when all is said and done, the wildest conspiracy theories in Iceland don’t even come close to how decisons are really taken in this little land.

    Such seems to be the penalty for refusing to submit meekly to the budget decimations. Who’s next?

  • JD August 27, 2010, 5:47 pm

    Why now? Because “now” is always the right time to remove the cloak of religious protection from civil crimes. Here’s a very recent unveiling from Northern Ireland. Three kids were among the victims of this 1972 bombing. That didn’t matter to the police or Catholic Church. Their main purpose is to protect the institution. At all costs.

    http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/08/real-life-illustrations.html

  • Ulfar Gudjonsson October 14, 2011, 3:20 am

    When I was young, I had a choice between Olafur Skulason and Fridrik Ólafson. My gut feeling went against 90 % of the kids. I choose Felix. My gut feeling was that Olafur Skulason was not a genuine person. I went with Felix and I am proud of it…….Ebba is a heroe, I would like to nominate her as the next relegious leader of Iceland……………