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.