Norwegian police have documented 151 cases of sexual abuse, including child rape, in Tysfjord, a small community of 2,000 people, north of the Arctic circle. The offences that were only recently uncovered occurred over decades – between the 1950’s and 2017. How could such serious sex crimes go unchecked for so long?
My experience in representing survivors of sexual abuse in small communities is that there are often common patterns and themes.
Victims often know their abuser. This will come as no great surprise because the majority of sexual abuse occurs within a family setting which inevitably has consequences. There can be a physical and psychological impact, but for the victim, the abuse can become part of their everyday life, and the abuser will attempt to normalise what is happening. There may be grooming, and there may be threats. All of this encourages a culture of silence which is symptomatic of child abuse.
When the victim in a small community is of an age or feels able to speak out, who in that community can they go to? They will be fearful of the consequences because the abuser is part of that community, and life will have to go on after that disclosure has been made.
I have observed time and time again cases where the child has spoken out and complained to a parent or other trusted adult, only to be disbelieved and then to find out many years later that the child had been telling the truth.
Along the way, the victim has had to carry, not only the burden of abuse but also that sense of having been dismissed. The Tysfjord case demonstrates just how damaging the consequences can be, not only for the victims but their families and the community. The age range is ten to eighty, and it is thought that many have suffered considerable psychological harm.
Only a minority of offenders can be prosecuted and so for many of the Tysfjord victims, they will not see justice being done. The community has to learn to live with the consequences of a legacy of child abuse. It will have not only the victims of past abuse in its midst for years to come but also those responsible for child abuse and also the attendant issues of strained relationships.
All societies have to understand why sexual abuse happens and to try and learn from the knowledge gleaned. One of the issues in the Tysfjord case was that many of the native Sami people did not trust the police or authorities which has echoes of recent cases in the UK. The UKCSAPT (UK Child Sex Abuse Tribunal) took evidence from many survivors who expressed distrust. The challenge is an on-going one because those with child welfare and safeguarding issues will always question whether enough is being done to ensure that the vulnerable are always listened to.
The Independent Jersey Care Inquiry in its report made a series of recommendations designed to ensure that children and young people have a voice, and are listened to. By doing so it is the aim to ensure that the vulnerable are not left powerless, and action is taken to protect them. Tysfjord and Norway are embarking on a soul-searching journey as it begins to deal with this and much should be learned from those who already have done so.