In Focus: Icelandic National Church’s Council of Specialists & Sexual Violence

 In In Focus

The Icelandic National Church has faced scrutiny since the mid-90’s, due to its poor handling of the sexual assault accusations of its priests. In 1996, bishop of Iceland Ólafur Skúlason was accused of sexually assaulting a woman numerous times.

The church’s response to try and dismiss the case didn’t go well for quite a lot of people, who ultimately decided to leave the church. Although attempts have been made to improve its stance towards victims, the number of registered people at the church had fallen dramatically and continue to do so. At the same time, more sexual assault cases linked to the church have come up.

Initially pagan, then Catholic, finally Lutheran
The Icelandic National Church, known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, is the nation’s officially established Christian church.
The nation’s population comprised primarily of fishermen and farmers who depended a lot on a traditional faith-based lifestyle. Modern changes to the Icelandic society have had a profound impact on the nation’s dependence on churches, with increasing diversity of religion.

The National Church is still, to this day, kept up by the national budget, including the salary of priests. This has been a hot debate among Icelanders, as polls show a staunch support for completely separating church and state, primarily among younger people. Less than 70% of the population belongs to the church, with the numbers dropping every year. Although regular Sunday services are poorly attended, festivals and Holiday-themed events are still fairly popular. The National Church is headed by the Bishop of Iceland, who is currently Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir, the first woman to hold the position.

Dismissed assaults
Back in April 1996, then bishop Ólafur Skúlason was accused of sexually assaulting a woman. She discussed this with her local minister, who decided that they ought to hold a meeting with another minister, Karl Sigurbjörnsson, who would later become the bishop of Iceland.

The trio agreed to keep the matter from the public eye, opting instead to write a statement that would be presented to the bishop, in which he would publicly apologize for his actions. He didn’t agree to the terms and the case was dismissed.

More women followed, accusing Ólafur of sexually assaulting them. All their cases were, however, dismissed. Later reports indicate that the priests likely believed the women to have been making the accusations to further Halldór Gunnarsson’s agenda, a priest who was very vocal against Ólafur.

Years passed, and Karl Sigurbjörnsson became the bishop. Shortly after Ólafur’s death in 2008, his own daughter spoke publically about how her father had sexually abused her since she was a young girl. It became a huge controversy in Iceland, resulting in a large number of people resigning from the National Church due to its handling on the matter. In 2010, Karl wrote about the subject and declared that the National Church would take all sexual assault matters very seriously, apologizing on behalf of the church.

A council of church specialists as opposed to the judicial system
What is apparent in all these matters is how the church has offered its churchgoers to refer to its own council of specialists to handle any difficult case, as opposed to going public by using the Icelandic judicial system.

In 1998, the National Church founded the Academic Council on the Handling of Sexual Offenses, a special division that would specifically handle all sexual offense cases. Very recently, the council became a hot topic when it denied Fréttablaðið’s request to explain the 27 cases it had dealt with for the past decade.

Fréttablaðið’s sources reveal that at least four children are among the victims. The church’s response was that of these cases, ten had been finished with everyone’s approval.

Yesterday, Fréttablaðið learned that the council had been dealing with three different sexual assault cases linked to the same priest, Ólafur Jóhannsson. He had been sent on leave this summer in order to get help from a psychologist. This isn’t the first time he had been dealt with the council.

Asked about the latest charge, Ólafur told Fréttablaðið that it wasn’t sexual assault. “This involved a woman whom I had considered an acquaintance of mine in some way. I hugged her and gave her a kiss on the cheek. That’s what happened. I believed it to be all right but it clearly wasn’t. It’s totally absurd to call it sexual assault in my opinion. It was an innocent kiss on the cheek.”

Dögg Pálsdóttir is the chairman of the council’s complaints board. She believes it to be just like any other administrative committee. “Of course, we have a certain research obligation in which we give both parties a chance to turn over evidence if necessary.”

In Focus is a series of articles intended to shed light on contemporary issues in Iceland, keeping readers informed on subjects and matters present in the national discussion.

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