Sweden: Abuse, filter bubbles and carefully selected truths
Jenny Küttim, acclaimed journalist & head of investigations at SVT, publishes "Truth Bearers", a review of Jehovah's Witnesses & the mechanisms of closed groups.
Photo: Adam Syundman/SvD/TT

Sweden: Abuse, filter bubbles and carefully selected truths

What does it do to a person to realize that they grew up being lied to? To understand that you have been manipulated, teased about certain things while other information has been withheld?

Some probably stay in the lie because it is the only thing they know. But that is not how Jenny Küttim reacted – she became obsessed with the truth and developed a special sensitivity to pseudoscience and lies. She simply became a very good journalist. Her breakthrough came when she, together with Hannes Råstam, solved the Quick-tangle, a case which she took to court with Dan Josefsson after Råstam’s death. Today she is the investigative head at SVT.

Originally published in Swedish by Anna Andersson on Aftonbladet.

The lies she grew up with came from Jehovah’s Witnesses, the community that absolutely does not want to be called a cult. She had promised herself never to examine that environment but now she has done it anyway and the result is the book The Truth Bearers.

Jenny Küttim’s childhood was difficult in many ways, marked by violence and abuse – it was not something that happened within the walls of the church, but it did nothing to help. Little Jenny Küttim was still one of Jehovah’s most devoted soldiers, actively and seriously participating in knocking on doors as a six-year-old, and informing on both siblings and other children in the congregation who swore or had glitter in Lucia’s hair at school.

She left Jehovah’s Witnesses as a young woman, but some family members remained. They are allowed to have contact because she left before she was baptized; otherwise they would have had to shun her completely and she would never be heard from again. One can thus understand that she did not want to direct her professional searchlight towards this particular community. But five years ago, she received a box of letters sent to her anonymously. These were so-called elders’ letters, which are issued from the group’s leaders to the “elders” who govern each individual congregation.

In modern bureaucratic Swedish, they would be called unusually detailed governing documents – about everything from finances to members who do not behave. There may be instructions on how to deal with infidelity or inappropriate dress. Or how to look after pregnant women before giving birth to ensure they have completed blood cards where it appears that they do not want to receive blood transfusions in the event of any complications. Or how to act if a man abuses his wife.

“She realizes that in this religious group
there is obviously a separate, parallel legal system.
Jehovah’s laws take precedence over those of Swedish society”

According to the letters, everything criminal must be investigated – but by the elders, not by the police. According to Küttim, they see themselves as pastors, they investigate sins, not crimes, and they also refer to the duty of confidentiality at all costs, even if the police should be involved. It is also the elders who hand down any verdict.

If you read The Truth Bearers yourself with ever larger eyes, it becomes very clear that Küttim grew up with these values. But the letters make her realize how extremely top-down the society is – not only do instructions go out, there are also reports in the opposite direction about individual members, literal sin registers (the experienced digging reporter mentions in passing that individual members should be able to request these according to the law on GDPR). She realizes that in this religious group there is obviously a separate, parallel legal system. Jehovah’s laws take precedence over those of Swedish society.

It makes Jenny Küttim free herself from her old promise to herself and start working. Everything should be on the table, about the religious society but also the darkest parts of one’s own childhood.

She focuses on those with the weakest voice: children who are sexually abused. She is not the first, because in 2002 revelations were made in the US and the UK and in 2003 by SVT’s Mission Review, which stated that the community protected pedophiles, much like the scandals we see in the Catholic Church. In Australia, a commission has examined the problem. But is there really a “pedophile list”, ie pedophiles that the community has somehow handled internally but not reported to the police? Many claim, according to a report, that it contains 23,000 names.

It honestly gets quite messy. Küttim moves across several schedules and places, in her own history and that of others. She finds victims, talks to apostates who have left, and those who have not – it is heartbreaking to realize that there are those who have completely stopped believing in Jehovah’s teachings but who remain because otherwise they will lose all those they love. She finds a pedophile and searches for his victim, and she meets activists who are fighting for the community to stop protecting criminals. When the Quick deal is recapitulated, I sigh first, but then it turns out that it has relevance in an unexpected way here as well.

But even if it is sometimes difficult to keep up, it is certainly not uninteresting. In fact, The Truth Bearers is about some of the most difficult issues of our time. It is a book that can be used in the debate about what a victim of abuse can tell the public. Here are filter bubbles and carefully selected truths – the problem of environments where one deliberately cultivates a distrust of the greater society. There are clear elements of honour issues here. And not least the basic question of how we best safeguard society’s democratic values.

Since 2007, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been a “registered community” in Sweden. It is not in itself a difficult thing to acquire registration, but it is a prerequisite for being able to apply for government grants. They have done this several times, but have been rejected as they were not considered as a group living up to the prescribed democratic criteria – but in 2019 not only did they acquire their right in the highest court but they also received damages for previous rejections.

According to Küttim’s minutes, the community’s representatives have argued that everything that is perceived by members as rules and coercion is not at all – it is a matter of faith. And the state does not have the right to value the beliefs of different societies. Defectors’ testimony about a theocratic government, where the woman is subordinate to the man, a strict view of homosexuality, about not being allowed to be educated at a higher level (it creates a “critical attitude”), about their teaching to distance oneself from society (for example, not having the choice to vote) did not help.

What Jenny Küttim has to say about Jehovah’s Witnesses and children being sexually abused is, of course, important, and her confrontation with both her own background and that of the community is genuinely courageous. But the book raises bigger questions than that. In Sweden, people should be free to choose their lives, including what we want to believe in. But to be able to make a choice, you must know the alternatives. What obligations do we as a society have to ensure that children can do so? What rights does the family have? How do we best protect a child’s freedom of choice? In this way, The Truth Bearers points straight into the heart of the matter.