A dubious honour

I studied cases of child abuse in a particular religious community, and most of the experiences that I heard about were related to sexual abuse.

This was because the subject had become public knowledge. Experiences of sexual abuse are also more difficult to uncover than other experiences. Keeping quiet locks away the experiences and makes them feel more intense, especially if no one around you has been able to intervene.

During my research I was told many times that I was courageous. People thanked and encouraged me and they were surprised. Where do you find the courage? You are unbelievably brave!

When I heard this for the first time I was confused and a little embarrassed. I didn’t think that as a researcher I was doing anything especially remarkable. A researcher chooses a subject, decides which perspective and material to approach the subject with, compiles the material and analyses it. Culturally and socially, child abuse is considered to be undeniably wrong. Producing information that is aimed at rooting out this problem rests on the prevailing legislation and cultural understanding.

Did people think that my research subject was unusual as it was targeted at Finnish religion, and its possible hidden and suppressed problems, and moral contradictions? Was I dealing with a taboo by trying to find something evil hidden in something sacred?

I still don’t understand why people thought I was courageous.

Religious communities may be a new angle of attack for research on experiences of abuse, but in art it is a classic, if not exhausted, theme. Books and films have dealt with countless versions of ethical conflicts disclosed during confessionals and have highlighted the cause and effects of religious supremacy.

The courage associated with my research subject seems to be related to the fact that the subject contains political, social and ethical risks. Putting a certain community, its mechanisms and hidden truths under the microscope is risky. Religious communities are separated from the rest of the world, and they are places specialised in a certain way of working – a sandpit if you like.

Nevertheless, my research did not trespass on what is sacred. Finding out that certain people had defecated in the sandpit did not strip God, Jesus or the religious community of their dignity. The community was not tarnished by the fact that cleaning up this excrement became an issue of communal responsibility. However, this metaphor cannot be used to describe the gravity of the consequences.

I am able to meet similar researchers in an international network of researchers studying institutional child abuse. We all produce information on the effects of religious communities on children. With these people, I have been able to share my experiences on how demanding and exhausting it can be to research this subject.

But courageous? No thank you! The very idea that turning your back on the problem waste created by humanity is normal, while getting involved is courageous is very distasteful.


Johanna Hurtig,

Dr Johanna Hurtig,
Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki