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Group calls for probe into violence, sexual abuse of kids in religious communities

Finland should establish an independent commission about the issue, following the example of other countries, according to the director of the Support for Victims of Religions group.

Anonyymi henkilö selkä kameraan päin.
Nelli told Yle the traumas she experienced during her childhood still cast a shadow over her life as an adult. Her name was changed in this article to protect the identities of her siblings. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle
Yle News

When Nelli* was a child, she often hid under a pile of dirty clothes at her home.

This was her secret place, she told Yle. It was where she went whenever her father or mother began to behave in a threatening manner.

She said this happened a lot as she grew up. Her parents hit and beat their children for very minor reasons: the spilling of a glass of milk, if play became too boisterous or if one of the kids was crying.

The abuse did not end there, as Nelli was also sexually abused by her father for years.

This included inappropriate touching as well as making comments of a sexual nature, which continued on a regular basis throughout her childhood until she was a teenager.

Nelli has not filed criminal reports about those painful events in her childhood, but Yle has seen a healthcare record which refers to the violence she experienced as a child — as well as her religious background. She grew up in a family in the conservative Laestadian Lutheran Church.

She said that even though more than a decade has passed since the abuse finally ended, the events left deep emotional and psychological scars which she still carries with her in adulthood.

*Nelli spoke to Yle about her experiences on the basis of anonymity as she wanted to protect the identities of her siblings. Her real name and background are known to Yle.

Independent commission needed to tackle problem

Violence committed against children within religious communities has not been extensively studied in Finland, and cases of abuse are not recorded on the basis of religious background.

So, it's not known whether such cases occur in religious communities more often, less often, or to the same extent as in other corners of society.

Authorities should investigate the matter thoroughly, according to Joni Valkila, Executive Director of the Support for Victims of Religions (Uskontojen uhrien tuki in Finnish, or UUT) group.

The organisation supports people from religious communities who are in need of help, as well as their loved ones.

Child sexual abuse within Nelli's former religious community, the Conservative Laestadianism revival movement, has received extensive media coverage over the past decade. The coverage was prompted by a 2011 study, into cases and suspicions of paedophilia and incest within the community. Work on the study was carried out by child welfare researcher Johanna Hurtig from the University of Tampere.

Meanwhile, Valkila said he's confident that such abuse is committed in many other religious communities as well, pointing out that there have been multiple reports of sexual abuse across the world, including in the Catholic Church and among Jehovah's Witnesses communities.

An inquiry published last October found that clergy members of the Catholic Church in France had sexually abused around 216,000 children since the year 1950.

In Australia, an investigation by national broadcaster ABC revealed that members of the Jehovah's Witnesses had concealed the sexual exploitation of children for decades.

"There is no reason to assume that this problem would not be more widespread within religious communities in Finland too," Valkila said.

Cycle of abuse and apologies

In general, sexual abuse tends to be a hidden crime. However, within religious communities, Varkila believes there is an even greater risk that cases of abuse or exploitation will be suppressed or ignored.

He added that this can be due to factors such as the close-knit nature of religious communities, a feeling of loyalty to the community and a strong culture of forgiveness. People often feel that the reputation of the church must be maintained at all costs, Varkila said, and that any suspected cases of sexual exploitation can be resolved within the church and between families.

"The abuser apologises for the act, it is forgiven and then it may be thought that the matter has been settled, even if it should be brought to the attention of the authorities. This may lead to the crime being repeated or even prompt abuse of new victims," he said.

Valkila noted that the sexual exploitation of children in religious and secular organisations in Australia has been thoroughly investigated since 2012, by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The issue has also been tackled in the United Kingdom by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse as well as in Germany, also with the establishment of an independent commission.

Valkila said a similar commission should be established in Finland in order to force religious communities to face the hidden problem.

"Society has a special responsibility to protect children from violence. The work would require some resources, but in the end, it will be cheaper to tackle this problem than to have to pay for exploitation victims' therapeutic costs and disability allowances," he said.

Yle interviewee Nelli also said that she needed therapy to deal with the aftermath of her experiences.

"I experience a constant, gnawing feeling of inferiority"

She said that in her childhood home, the act of forgiveness — which is strongly associated with the Laestadian religion — was used a lot, especially in situations where violence or abuse had occurred. The parent apologised to the child, the act was forgiven and the same violence then happened again later, Nelli recalled.

But, her father never apologised for the sexual abuse, she said.

Nelli added that at least some people outside of the family home within their religious community, knew about her situation to some degree, but the abuse and exploitation continued for years.

She left the Conservative Laestadian revival movement years ago, Nelli told Yle.

However, building a new life after leaving home and the religious community was very challenging. She also began therapy soon after her departure. But it was only after she drifted into — and managed to escape— an abusive relationship that she began to fully understand the abuse she endured as she grew up.

"The therapist asked me why I had let someone treat me so badly in a relationship, and then everything started to come out," she recalled.

Although Nelli now has a good family life, the past still represents a dark shadow on her life. She still sees a therapist.

"I have terribly low self-esteem and a lot of problems dealing with emotions. I experience a constant, gnawing feeling of inferiority," she said.

Story continues after the photo.

Anonyymi henkilö talvisella tiellä.
Nelli said she has big challenges in trusting people, and cannot fall asleep on public transport such as trains or buses because she is always wary of her surroundings, as she had to be during her childhood. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

Nelli also said that she would like more attention and investigation to be made in Finland to the abuse of children within religious communities.

In her experience, and especially in large families, money is often tight and parents have a lot of things to worry about.

"It is often said that children are a gift from God. The harsh fact, however, is that pregnancy is no longer a gift when the burden is so great that it cannot be borne," she said, adding that such factors were also elements in her childhood home that created an abusive environment.

She added that she hopes that schools, for example, would make more effort in checking if children of large families are doing well. She also noted though that of course not all large families have problems.

"There are people in my circle of friends who have had good childhoods," she said.

Yle also approached Matti Taskila of the Central Committee of Conservative Laestadian Congregations (SRK) for comment, but he said it was not possible to take a detailed position on an individual. However, he said he hoped that Nelli gets all the help she needs.

He also said that, based on Nelli's case, he would not like to generalise that this happens more broadly within the religious movement.

Finland "well behind" other countries

Finland's public health authority THL and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health jointly drafted an action plan (in Finnish) to tackle the issue of child abuse, which has been expanded to include religious communities.

However, according to a ministry specialist, Marjo Malja, there are no current plans to look into the extent of child abuse within Finland's religious communities, although plans are still in the early stages.

"It's conceivable, but I can't say for certain. This is certainly a good thing to discuss in our steering group," Malja said, adding that so far the two organisations have gathered information on the topic and considered the plan's objectives.

One of these goals, Malja said, was to encourage religious communities to draw up clear guidelines about what to do when incidents of child abuse are reported or noticed.

The ministry also requested a review of compiled international data surrounding violence against children within religious communities. That research was carried out by Tiina Murdoch of JAMK University of Applied Sciences in Jyväskylä.

She said the review and other research confirmed some of the same issues raised by Joni Valkila of the Support for Victims of Religion, including that child abuse is not unique to one religious community, but likely to exist within many.

She added that Finland is well behind other nations when it comes to dealing with this sensitive topic.

"The matter should of course also be investigated in Finland," Murdoch said.

Nelli said that she has accepted the trauma caused by her childhood experiences will follow her for the rest of her life, but those experiences have also provided her with a great deal of appreciation for ordinary life.

"I certainly consider ordinary, everyday life to be much brighter than many others do. My background is responsible for that," Nelli concluded.

If you have been the victim of sexual abuse, you can contact Victim Support Finland (Riku) or Mental Health Finland (Mieli). The Finnish branch of the international Save the Children organisation can also provide help and advice, while the nationwide support association Suomen Delfins helps adults who were the victims of abuse as children, among other services.

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