Into the lion’s den

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ETH alumna Karin Iten, prevention officer of the diocese of Chur.
ETH alumna Karin Iten, prevention officer of the diocese of Chur.

Karin Iten knows there are limits to human knowledge - and limits to what we can accomplish. But that hasn’t stopped this ETH environmental scientist and agnostic from taking on the seemingly impossible task of bringing about a culture change in the Catholic Church.

From studying poisoned rivers and polluted soil to taking samples from litter-strewn meadows, environmental scientists are used to working in contaminated areas - and Karin Iten is no exception. This ETH alumna is in no doubt that she works in a "toxic" environment, yet her respirator mask is nowhere to be seen. And instead of rubber boots and a hazmat suit, she is kitted out in red leather shoes and a jet-black leather jacket.

Employed by the Catholic Church’s office in the Canton of Zurich, Iten works as a prevention officer in the diocese of Chur. She battles a toxic combination of spiritual manipulation, sexual exploitation and the abuse of power, which together form a very different kind of trinity. Much of this has deep roots - in the Holy Scriptures, in a pyramidal hierarchy topped by men in long robes, and in the Church’s claim of authority over people’s lives and what comes after. Does this mean a tendency to abuse power is built into the system?

This has certainly been a fundamental problem for some religions, according to Iten. "Especially if they claim to profess the one and only eternal truth. That link between authority and spirituality indicates there’s something wrong with the system," she adds.

System is a term that Iten uses a lot. She adopted it as a key concept decades ago when she first came to the institution that now lies just outside her office window. Students are clearly visible on the Polyterrasse, enjoying a little autumn sunshine. Is it simply an ironic twist of urban planning that ETH Zurich lies just a few metres above the Catholic Church’s office for the Canton of Zurich? Or concrete proof that knowledge tops faith? Iten, who loves this view of her alma mater, laughs: "I would say: doubt and humility rank higher than faith."

Hence her description of herself as an agnostic rather than an atheist - because what conclusive proof do we really have? "Knowledge has its limits, too," muses the 51-year-old, reflecting the scientific approach and mindset she learnt at ETH Zurich. In 1997, she was one of the second cohort of students to study environmental sciences at the university, learning "to question things and to take a connected, interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving". This was also where she grasped the concept of how systems learn: through networking, internal diversity and external stimuli, she says.

During our interview, it quickly becomes clear that the person providing the stimulus here in the diocese of Chur is Iten herself: "Every system should include people who are willing to take an out-of-the-box approach." As a secular, agnostic scientist, Iten is about as far out-of-the-box as it gets in this environment. "I’m a woman who says what she thinks and challenges the status quo," she says. So how did she end up working somewhere that runs so counter to her nature?

Iten grew up in the city of Wil in the Swiss Canton of St. Gallen. Her parents were both Catholics from central Switzerland, but she rarely went to church, and faith played no role in her daily life. Instead, young Karin was absorbed by the environmental debates of the 1980s. Keen to help save dying forests, she briefly got involved in a local environmental campaign before starting her degree at ETH. "But it wasn’t the technical solutions that caught my attention at university," says Iten.

Her interest lay in how we connect with nature - and how we treat it. It was in the lecture halls and seminar rooms of ETH that Iten, now in her mid-twenties, discovered something that would stay with her through every stage of her career: "the quest for a mindful use of power, for moderation. Humans are incredibly powerful - the key is to exercise that power within reasonable bounds."

To begin with - during her internship in development aid in Madagascar, and while writing her thesis in Mali - this quest for moderation and prudent intervention was embedded within a larger context. But, as the years passed, the focus of Iten’s search gradually narrowed from environmental education to substance abuse prevention and, finally, to the prevention of sexual exploitation and the abuse of power.

Her most recent position was at the specialised advice centre Limita, where she spent 11 years as co-lead before becoming its managing director. She was in charge of developing measures and strategies to prevent sexual exploitation in organisations. Her decision to apply for the post at the diocese of Chur came after much hesitation - and incredulity on the part of her family. What ultimately swayed her was her conviction that it would allow her to take her work to the next level while exerting the greatest possible impact. "I ended up in the church because my work on sexual exploitation and power was bound to lead me into the lion’s den," says Iten. "And that’s exactly the kind of environment where you need to be able to prevent the abuse of power."

’Every system should include people who are willing to take an out-of-the-box approach.’

Iten was confronted by systemic failings and a stagnant brew of power and spirituality that engendered abuse. For decades, reformers had struggled in vain to make headway in the Catholic Church; many had become jaded and thrown in the towel. By the time Iten entered the fray in 2020, it felt like tilting at windmills. So, was she ready to be a Doña Quijote? Iten prefers to describe her role as one of action rather than conflict. "Acquiescence and aversion to change go hand-in-hand; culture change is never easy," says Iten diplomatically. "But real transformation requires a subversion of the existing order. You need to shake things up!" she adds on a more rebellious note.

This is a classic example of the two Karin Itens. On the one hand, there is the networker who talks about resonance points in the system and achieving goals in collaboration with others. This is the woman who took just two years to persuade all seven cantonal churches in the diocese, including Bishop Joseph Bonnemain, to sign a code of conduct on a use of power that would prevent spiritual abuse and sexual exploitation. The woman who describes herself as naturally reserved, a believer in cooperation, dialogue and negotiated solutions.

Then there is the second Karin Iten, whose red-and-black outfit is anything other than heavenly, and whose glittering nose piercing gives her the air of a cool aunt that teenagers might like to sweep them off to a rock concert. This is a woman who clenches her fists when she argues for plain speaking in the Church. You can see the defiance glinting in her eyes when she makes these kinds of statements, and the thick eyeliner under her eyes seems to underline her determination to challenge the Church system.

It is this Karin Iten who says that she has "eft her comfort zone to help a toxic, rigid organisation chart a new course", and that "the abuse crisis offers opportunities for change, which is a prerequisite for prevention". She has publicly criticised the bishop for standing idle as dedicated individuals are worn down by Church structures. And she has defiantly countered his insistence that actively practised homosexuality is inconsistent with the tenets of the Catholic faith: "In the context of sexuality, you can’t separate what you are from what you do."

For Iten, what matters is maintaining a balance between the two sides. It’s another stage in her quest for moderation and the appropriate use of power - her own, in this case. So, what does the future hold? "Right now, I’m staying put," she says. But might she be tempted back to the field of sustainability? To return to her roots in the battle against climate change? That ship has pretty much run into a brick wall, says Iten with a wistful smile. But the glint in her eyes tells a different story: "Back into the fray? You bet!"

About the person

Karin Iten studied environmental sciences at ETH from 1990 to 1996. Having begun her career in development aid, she subsequently spent seven years working in addiction prevention before moving to Limita, an organisation dedicated to preventing sexual exploitation. A keen nature lover, Iten lives with her two sons in Weesen on Lake Walen. As well as working part-time for the Catholic Church, she also works for Infosekta, a consumer group that provides information about sects.

This text appeared in the 22/04 issue of the ETH magazine Globe.

Vinzenz Greiner