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“A wall of silence”

The Swiss canton wanted to close the free church school in Kaltbrunn because of abuse. As files now show, the parents prevented it.

by Enrico Kampmann

The long silence continues. After it became known in the summer that there had been serious sexual assaults and systematic abuse of children at the Christian School Linth (CSL) in the past, the public prosecutor’s office has already suspended the proceedings.

Most of the offences are now time-barred. As far as the suspicion of rape and sexual acts with children is concerned, a case was opened against unknown persons. However, since none of the victims filed a complaint, the public prosecutor’s office lacks any clues to investigate further.

The silence of the victims continues a thread that has been running for decades through the history of the Evangelische Gemeinde Hof Oberkirch (EGHO), the free church to which the Christian school is affiliated. This is evidenced by files on a failed licence withdrawal procedure of the school from the year 2000. Based on the Publicity Act, the editorial office has been given access to them.

“A school of our own”

Until 2019, the EGHO called itself Mission Kwasizabantu (KSB) Switzerland. KSB is the former mother organisation of the free church, which originated in South Africa and was also highly controversial because of abuse allegations. At that time, the Christian school was also still called Domino Servite School (DSS). As can be read in the files, this was explicitly created by the followers of KSB Switzerland with the aim of having “their own school” for their children.

In 1995, the school and boarding school began operating. Four years later, in May 1999, Jens Nissen, journalist and former member of the German branch of KSB, wrote a letter to the St.Gallen authorities. On several pages, Nissen reported on systematic violence against the school children, on the harshest punishments for minor offences, on perfidious surveillance structures within the KSB community.

In February 2000, a discussion took place between the then head of the Office for Elementary School Felix Baumer and the school management. According to the minutes of the meeting, the then president of the mission Ernst Brüll* “swore” “that he would never hit a child”.

Today we know from the statements of one of his victims to this newspaper that he regularly beat the children with belts and sticks until they could hardly walk any more. In addition, according to the investigation report, there are indications of “severe sexual abuse” by Brüll.

In May 2000, the Volksschulamt informed the school that it would apply to the Education Council to withdraw the school’s licence “because the welfare of the minors accommodated was no longer guaranteed”. Two weeks later the school submitted a comprehensive statement.

Eight months later, in January 2001, Baumer surprisingly informed the school in a letter that the Education Council was now refraining from taking precautionary measures. There was “no immediate danger”.

The decision had consequences. Because the school was not closed in 2001, everyday abuse continued until at least 2002, and several sexual assaults and at least one rape by a teacher occurred between 2002 and 2010. This is confirmed by an investigation report commissioned by the school itself.

How could it come to this? Why did the canton make a complete U-turn in the permit withdrawal procedure within a year, although it had at least been aware of the beatings and the psychological terror through Jens Nissen?

The ex-chocolate king interferes

In the above-mentioned statement by the DSS, the leadership of the Free Church pursued the same strategy it used 22 years later towards this newspaper. It threatened legal action, tried to discredit the source of the accusations and showered its counterpart with a plethora of statements intended to prove that all insinuations were baseless.

The statement comprised eight pages and ten enclosures with a further 23 pages. It was signed by the then President Jürg Läderach. Läderach is the former head of the family-run chocolate company of the same name and still one of the leading figures in the Free Church. According to former members, Läderach is largely responsible for the financing of the EGHO. His wife was the vice-principal of the DSS at the time of the trial.

In their statement, Läderach and Brüll denied Nissen’s accusations “completely” and described them as “baseless”. Nissen was an untrustworthy and discontented person who had “sworn revenge on the school and the mission”. However, the EGHO’s 2022 investigation report shows that any allegations made by Nissen were true and the situation was even worse than he knew.

“On behalf of the parents”

Two of the enclosures to the statement are particularly interesting. The first is a letter of assessment from the school, written by Samuel Kislig. The statement says that Kislig is an “outside, completely independent expert”. The former secretary of the Education Department of the Canton of Bern praised the school in the highest terms.

However, minutes of a meeting of the KSB Switzerland held in 1994 in the “meeting room of the Läderach family in Ennenda” show that Kislig was to be commissioned to “develop a concept” for the DSS. It is also striking that the funeral service of Kislig, who died in 2021, took place in the church of the EGHO in Kaltbrunn and that, according to the obituary, he also lived in Hof Oberkirch, or on the grounds of the free church.

Against this background, Kislig’s independence may be doubted. And thus also the credibility of the other enclosed letters, which according to Brüll and Läderach showed “without exception” “how cheerful and motivated the students and also the teachers” were.

Even more appropriate to understand why the school was not closed is enclosure number ten: a letter to the head of the Volksschulamt, Felix Baumer, written on behalf of the “Parents and Initiators of the Domino Servite School Switzerland”. The parents address Baumer with the following words: “Can it be in Switzerland that the voice of one person (an outsider) is given more weight than the opinion of 36 co-sponsoring parents?” They felt “viciously attacked” by Nissen. And further: “We as parents are 100 per cent behind these teachers.”

The list of signatories also includes the names of the parents of Martin Widmer* and Marlen Weber*. Both were among the victims who told this newspaper about the abuse they suffered at the hands of the Free Church – long before the letter was written.

No solid evidence

The canton did not succeed against the parents’ concentrated will to keep open the school where their children were abused. Hans Ulrich Stöckling remembers the proceedings well. At the time, he was a cantonal councillor and head of the Department of Education. As such, he presided over the Education Council, which took the decision not to close the DSS. He says today: “We had a guilty conscience, but no solid evidence.

According to the files, a cult specialist was consulted and, according to Stöckling, the parents and the school administration were also questioned. An ombudsperson was also appointed to whom the children could have turned. Nothing came of it. “It was a wall of silence.

Jürg Raschle, now Secretary General of the Department of Education, was head of the legal service of the Department of Education at the time. He confirms that extensive investigations were carried out with the support of the regional school inspectorate. However, beyond Nissen’s accusations, no solid evidence of abuse was found.

Raschle recalls a case from the same year at the Sonnenberg Institute in Vilters, where schoolchildren were also subjected to massive physical violence by teachers and school management. There, the parents filed a complaint and within a few days the school was temporarily closed, the school management resigned and a teacher was suspended. At the DSS it was different. “The free church and the school were a closed system, including the parents.

Jens Nissen, who started the proceedings, had predicted it. He wrote in his letter of May 1999: “Presumably the children (and parents) in the DSS have already been brought into line and possibly put under pressure not to give anyone any information.” The KSB tends towards “totalitarian structures”. For years, the “importance of obedience” had been preached from the KSB pulpits and that “criticism is of the devil”.

Today, more than two decades later, the wall of silence continues to surround the buildings of the EGHO and the CSL on the hill Hof Oberkirch. But through the testimonies of a few courageous victims and through files unearthed that were gathering dust in the St.Gallen state archives, it is slowly cracking.

*(names known to the editors)

This article was published in the St. Galler Tagblatt in Switzerland on November 10, 2022. The newspaper has kindly made it available to us.

Translated by