Outrage over plans for spiritualist summit

Emotions are running high in central Sweden over plans by an organization with ties to a convicted child rapist to hold a key meeting next year near the scene of its member's crimes.

Mervyn Johnson, the former head of the UK-based International Spiritualist Federation (ISF), was sentenced to five years in prison by a Karlstad court in early 2007 for sexually molesting several girls between 2001 and 2005 at various locations in Västerås, Örebro and Karlstad.

A professed faith healer from the UK who moved to Sweden in the late 1990s, Johnson lured his victims to various locations on the pretext of being able to heal their souls.

Instead the girls, one of whom was only 11 years old at the time, became the victims of rape and sexual abuse.

Despite Johnson’s conviction, the ISF has refrained from clearly taking a stand against its disgraced former leader.

“It’s sickening that this group won’t distance itself from a convicted pedophile,” Karlstad-based spiritualist and Johnson’s ex-wife Mia Ottosson told The Local.

Ottosson had been active in the ISF until allegations against her husband surfaced in late 2006 and she found herself frozen out by Johnson’s supporters within the ISF who accused her of trumping up charges against her ex-husband, whom many other spiritualists in Sweden revered.

“My husband at the time told me it was a worthy organization and I believed him. But those who lead it refuse to take responsibility and take a stand for what is right and wrong,” she said.

The ISF’s Executive Committee has so far neglected to revoke Johnson’s lifetime membership and plans are moving ahead to hold the ISF’s July 2009 Convention Week meeting at a conference centre in Sala, north of Västerås and just a short distance away from where the crimes took place.

“It’s frightening that this might happen,” said Kerstin Zaring from the crime victims support group (Brottsofferjouren) in Karlstad.

Zaring cared for some of Johnson’s victims and sat through his trial and believes that the crimes for which he was tried in Sweden are “just the tip of the iceberg”.

While not involved with the spiritualist movement, she was nonetheless shocked at the apparent power Johnson seemed to wield over the many women who testified in his defence even as he stood accused of raping young girls.

“He has lots of power and control over women,” she said.

“It’s terrifying to know that these women would support him in the trial. I was totally surprised.

Zaring added that she would “definitely” support efforts by those opposed to the ISF holding its meeting in Sweden.

But the ISF’s representative in Sweden, Ulla Alvarsdotter, does not see a problem with the group holding its conference in her home country.

“This is only controversial for some people,” she said.

“The fact that the conference is coming to Sweden has nothing to do with Mervyn’s case.”

However, Alvarsdotter also has a hard time articulating a clear stance regarding Johnson’s innocence or guilt.

“I’ve gone back and forth,” she said, adding that that she does not think Johnson is guilty of everything for which he was convicted.

“If what he did was true, it’s not acceptable…but I can’t say whether the accusations are true or not true because I wasn’t there. Only Mervyn and his accusers can know the truth.”

She also points out that plans for holding the 2009 meeting in Sweden were first laid out in 2005, long before Johnson was charged with sexual abuse.

She accuses Ottosson and others who share her views of stirring up a past which is best left behind.

“People can twist this any which way they want,” she added.

“One could just as easily see the decision to have the meeting here as a way of supporting the women who accused Mervyn. We could be seen as turning away from and ignoring those who were used by him [by not holding the meeting in Sweden].”

However, Eva Söderlund, a previous member of Johnson’s Karlstad-based spiritualist association, rejects any notion that the ISF meeting could be construed as a show of support for the victims.

“When we informed the ISF that Mervyn was in custody, the only response we got was a confirmation that they received the letter,” she said.

“They haven’t ever done anything for the girls. In their newsletter they often ask for people to send their healing powers to Mervyn but they don’t ever mention the girls.”

Söderlund is personally acquainted with two of the victims, who continue to suffer from the abuse carried out by Johnson, and was flabbergasted when she learned the ISF was planning to hold its meeting in Sweden.

“My spontaneous reaction was: ‘What?’…I couldn’t believe my ears,” she said.

While there is little they can do to stop the meeting, Johnson’s detractors in Sweden are already thinking about how best to express their outrage toward the ISF at the time of the meeting.

“There will be demonstrations for sure,” said Söderlund, who estimates the number of attendees would be in the “hundreds”, including those who are not active spiritualists but simply wish to show their support for the victims of Johnson’s crimes.

In mid-May, Söderlund also sent a letter to the ISF denouncing the group for not investigating earlier abuse allegations against Johnson and decrying their plans to hold next year’s meeting in Sweden.

“Foolishly I thought you would change the location when learning about your members’ and the world’s opinion of your tendency to use blind-folds whilst putting your head in the sand at the same time. Your lack of interest in doing what is right and proper turns my stomach up-side-down!” she wrote.

While Söderlund hasn’t received a response, other developments within the ISF suggest that at least some in the organization’s leadership have doubts about Johnson and the ISF’s implicit support of him.

Earlier in the year, ISF vice-president Garth Willey stepped down over the organization’s handling of the matter.

“I find it quite appalling that we did not taken action to remove [Johnson] from our membership list as soon as he was convicted,” he wrote in his resignation letter, portions of which are published on the Paranormal Review website.

“You have allowed your personal feelings to over-ride your sense of what is right and proper for the ISF.”

According to Alvarsdotter, next year’s ISF meeting is expected to draw around 100 participants from 15 different countries, including 10 to 15 from the roughly 30 ISF members in Sweden.

“I’ve already heard from a number of people [in Sweden] who’ve said, ‘Oh wow! This is in Sweden? I’ll be there,’” she said.

But Johnson’s ex-wife contends that ISF supporters represent a very small portion of the spiritualist community.

“Very few spiritualists in Sweden want anything to do with the ISF or Mervyn. We’re talking about twenty or so individuals out of a community that numbers in the thousands,” she said.

Alvarsdotter admits however that ISF membership in Sweden is low, having stagnated at around 30 or so since she took over as the ISF’s representative last year, but she blames the low figures on her inability to focus on recruitment rather than on any lingering resentment regarding the Johnson case.

“I just haven’t had the time” to bring in new members, she said.

She claims that the only people opposed to the meeting being held in Sweden are Ottosson and her supporters.

Moreover, she believes that having the ISF meeting in Sweden will go a long way toward boosting membership by drawing added attention to the movement and making it easier for Swedes to participate.

Söderlund begs to differ.

“By coming to Sweden I feel like the ISF is tramping in my back yard; they’re invading my world,” she said.

“It’s insane and it leaves a bad mark on the spiritualist movement in Sweden and the Nordic region.”