LONDON (AP) — About 1,400 children were sexually exploited in a northern England town, a report concluded Tuesday in a damning account of "collective failures" by authorities to prevent victims as young as 11 from being beaten, raped and trafficked over a 16-year period.
Report author Alexis Jay cited appalling acts of violence between 1997 and 2013 in Rotherham, a town of some 250,000. The independent report came after a series of convictions of sexual predators in the region and ground-breaking reports in the Times of London.
Reading descriptions of the abuse make it hard to imagine that nothing was done for so long. The report described rapes by multiple perpetrators, mainly from Britain's Pakistani community, and how children were trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten, and intimidated.
"There were examples of children who had been doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness brutally violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone," Jay said. "Girls as young as 11 were raped by large numbers of male perpetrators."
Attention first fell on Rotherham in 2010 when five men received lengthy jail terms after convictions of grooming teens for sex. A series of other high-profile cases featuring Pakistani rings also emerged in Rochdale, Derby and Oxford— and communities began to look more closely at their child sex exploitation cases.
Rotherham decided to conduct a formal inquiry and Jay, a former chief social work adviser to the Scottish government, was appointed to investigate. But she told the BBC that she was "very shocked" by what she found.
Police "regarded many child victims with contempt," Jay said, adding that many of the children were known to child protection agencies. Even though earlier reports described the situation in Rotherham, the first of these reports was "effectively suppressed" because senior officers did not believe the data.
"The collective failures of political and officer leadership were blatant," Jay said. "From the beginning, there was growing evidence that child sexual exploitation was a serious problem in Rotherham."
Complicating the reporting was the fact that victims described the perpetrators as "Asian" and yet the council failed to engage with the town's Pakistani community.
"Some councilors seemed to think it was a one-off problem, which they hoped would go away" Jay said. "Several staff described their nervousness about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist; others remembered clear direction from their managers not to do so."
Rotherham has had its problems even before Tuesday's report. It has seen the loss of traditional industries from the 19th and 20th centuries and, though the local economy has grown recently, it is also marked by deprivation and high unemployment. The report said the take-up of "welfare benefits is higher than the English average, as are the levels of free school meals and limiting long-term illness."
But news of the sheer scale of the abuse and the lack of official concern about the problem until it was exposed shocked the country. Charities that deal with abused children were taken aback by the number of victims and by the apparent reluctance of authorities to accuse members of one ethnic group for the violence.
This after all, is a country which prides itself as being a tolerant and integrated society. But the idea that a drive for political correctness might lead to children being raped sat uncomfortably with those who champion the rights of children and seek to protect them from harm.
"Cultural sensitivities should never stand in the way of protecting children," said John Cameron, head of the helpline for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. "It is hard to imagine the damage caused to victims who were preyed upon with almost impunity over many years, because of a reluctance to comprehend or address what was widely happening."
The local council leader, Roger Stone, resigned immediately. Prime Minister David Cameron's Downing Street office said that the lessons of past failures must be learned and those who exploited the children brought to justice.
"This damning report shows the full extent of how the children of Rotherham were let down," said Keith Vaz, the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. "They will never get their childhoods back."