A man in his 40s from the small but traumatized community of Tysfjord in Northern Norway was sentenced on Monday to five-and-a-half years in prison for sexually assaulting five women. His case is the first of at least 150, after a police investigation finally uncovered a culture of abuse and assault in Tysfjord stretching back to the 1950s.
The man convicted on Monday has denied all criminal charges against him and claimed either that the sex he had with plaintiffs was consensual or that assaults never took place. He was indicted on charges of attacking six women, while news bureau NTB reports he ended up with convictions in five cases and was ordered to pay compensation to his victims from NOK 25,000 to as much as NOK 185,000. His defense attorney claimed the man was “shocked” by the court ruling and would appeal.
He had come in contact with his victims by advertising alleged powers of healing, predicting the future and driving away evil spirits. His assaults were carried out during so-called “treatment” sessions. Prosecutors had sought a seven-year prison term but seemed pleased with the court’s conviction and sentencing.
“The court ruled in line with all the main points of the prosecution,” state attorney Jorild Steindal told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). The sentence was believed to be milder because the man is slighly mentally retarded.
The case is part of a huge backlog of pending court action after 11 men and women from Tysfjord shared their histories of sexual abuse with newspaper VG in June 2016. That unleashed a barrage of other cases of sexual assault in Tysfjord after police launched an investigation and publicly apologized for not having done so earlier. The oldest assault investigated by police was committed in 1953 and the most recent this year, most of them hushed up for years in the remote and sparsely populated area of Nordland County.
“There are some very serious cases, including rapes of children,” Nordland police chief Tone Vangen told newspaper Dagsavisen earlier this month. “The youngest victim was four years old when she began being assaulted. We have spoken with 82 victims, while 92 people have been or are suspects in the case.”
Vangen said many of the cases are so old that the statute of limitations has run out. “But the police concluded that even though many of the cases extend far back in time, we had to examine all of them,” Vangen told Dagsavisen. “The cases had to be brought forward and handled.”
She described a small community made up of isolated societies, with various groups that had little interaction with one another. Some people belong to indigenous Sami groups, others to religious groups known as læstadianske, many of which felt a “strong need,” Vangen said, to protect themselves and keep families together. They may have earlier been looked down upon by others, had little confidence in the authorities or in the police.
“We have also been told by victims in assault cases that their attackers had sought out a religious milieu to be forgiven, and that their assaults were thus brought up and dealt with in that manner,” Vangen said. “And the victims thought there was nothing more they could do.”
Building up trust
Even after their extensive, if delayed, investigation that resulted in at least 150 cases of serious sexual assault, police worry they’re merely the tip of the iceberg. Vangen hopes that the police investigation, “and our message that we’re taking the victims’ cases very seriously,” will build trust among the groups involved. “We have a very strong desire that the lulesami milieu will start trusting the police, believe that we’re there for them, and that we work to protect all groups in society,” Vangen said.
She has apologized that the police hadn’t launched a major investigation of assaults earlier. She stressed that police have much better methods of working with sexual assault now than they did even 10 or 20 years ago.
Vangen worries, though, that similar cases can crop up in other small and isolated communities around Norway. “The fact that the cases in Tysfjord have been so suppressed and hidden, and that it took so long for them to surface, is unusual,” Vangen said. “At the same time, I think more communities can be as vulnerable as Tysfjord. Sexual assault isn’t just a problem in Tysjord, it happens everywhere.”