Vulnerable girls were “left at the mercy” of paedophile grooming gangs in Rochdale for years because police and council bosses were too slow or reluctant to act, a damning new report says.
The 173-page review, covering 2004 to 2013, sets out multiple failed investigations by Greater Manchester Police (GMP) and apparent local authority indifference to the plight of hundreds of young people – predominantly white girls from poor backgrounds.
Despite “compelling evidence” of groups of Asian men carrying out widespread child sexual abuse in Rochdale from as early as 2004 onwards, the report says the children's unwillingness to make a formal complaint was repeatedly used as an excuse for not investigating.
Both Rochdale Council and GMP have apologised for their failings and have insisted that improvements have since been made. GMP Chief Constable Stephen Watson said the report's findings were "shocking, stark and shameful", telling the victims: "We have failed you."
However, Maggie Oliver, a former detective constable who left the force in disgust over the scandal said not one senior officer or official has been held responsible, adding: “I want them to be held accountable for this criminal neglect."
What we know
"Successive police operations" launched during the period were "insufficiently resourced to match the scale of the widespread organised exploitation within the area", writes the report's co-author Malcolm Newsam CBE.
“Consequently, children were left at risk and many of their abusers to this day have not been apprehended," he adds. In instances where police did attempt to investigate, the report highlights a number of glaring oversights.
In 2009, GMP secretly took the aborted foetus of a 13-year-old grooming victim, without seeking her or her family's consent, in order to carry out a DNA test which failed to find a match with identified suspects. The foetus was placed in a freezer at Rochdale Police station and forgotten about until a "routine property review".
Watch: Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham says grooming report was 'hard to read'
The report says the girl, known as "Child 44" continued to be abused, was at risk of being taken away to Pakistan.
She eventually gave evidence at a 2012 trial involving multiple male co-defendants, prior to which she described being threatened by groups of men, including at least one incident involving a man with a gun. When asked how police responded to the intimidation, she said: “They didn’t. They just said lock your door.”
The girl was "particularly distressed" to learn the man who groomed her into believing she was his "girlfriend" and impregnated her aged 13 was only found guilty of conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with a child, and not rape. He received an eight year sentence, was out on licence less than four years later and ended up coming face-to-face with the girl in a supermarket.
The review also points to another child who said: "There’re some girls they’ve got who they put in a cage and make them bark like a dog or dress like a baby."
It also highlights how a girl known as "Amber" had been "promoted" by her exploiters to coerce younger children into sexual activities, but was being threatened with violence herself and was still a victim of grooming and exploitation.
Despite this, police arrested her over her new role and she was later bailed to live with a man who had already been arrested on suspicion of child sexual exploitation. GMP and the CPS's joint decision to name her as a co-conspirator in court was described as a "deplorable further abuse of a CSE survivor".
In response to the report, which follows similar reviews by the same authors for Manchester and Oldham, authorities have insisted they have made major overhauls since then. GMP has since launched further investigations, which have so far resulted in the conviction of 42 men involved in the abuse of 13 children, with more trials scheduled for later this year.
Following the publication of the report about the non-recent response to CSE in Rochdale, we know victims and survivors of sexual abuse may be reminded of the trauma they have suffered. GMP can be contacted via https://t.co/nVASuz8siq or by calling 101. In an emergency, dial 999 pic.twitter.com/bRlbfBnAdO
— Rochdale Police (GMP) (@GMPRochdale) January 15, 2024
“This report is hard to read. It gives a detailed and distressing account of how many young people were so seriously failed," said Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham. "That said, it fulfils the purpose of why I set up this review in the first place. It is only by facing up fully and unflinchingly to what happened that we can be sure of bringing the whole system culture change needed when it comes to protecting children from abuse."
Chief Constable Watson said the force has "data to assure ourselves and communities that we have and are making progress", adding that since nine men were convicted following the Operation Span grooming probe in 2012, there have been a further 135 arrests, 432 charges, and 32 convictions.
What we don't know
Despite assurances by the police and other authorities, questions still remain over accountability for those in charge during the height of the scandal.
At a press conference on Monday, Maggie Oliver suggested a culture of cover-up was still a major issue, adding: "We have more communication for sure, but we do not have a system that supports victims, that listens to their voices, and when they do challenge the system, the organisation closes ranks."
Oliver has since founded The Maggie Oliver Foundation, a charity supporting adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, which she says is currently supporting over 371 victims today, "who say they are still being failed by GMP", suggesting the scale of the problem is still yet to be acknowledged.
Despite the report being commissioned in 2017, she said there was "nothing shared" by police and the council until the end of 2021 because "they were pushing back and pretending that these things hadn't happened". She added: "They didn't want the truth to come out."
The report identifies "at least 96 individuals who potentially pose a risk to children", but that this is only thought to be "only a proportion" of the true number of abusers who are still yet to face justice.