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Moment that mattered: A report finds at least 1,400 children were sexually exploited in Rotherham

Meeting of Rotherham council's cabinet at Rotherham town hall to discuss a response to a report by Professor Alexis Jay that outlined details of exploitation over a 16-year period of girls who were raped, trafficked, threatened with extreme violence and ignored by the statutory authorities in Rotherham.

“My initial reaction to the independent report was one of astonishment at the sheer number of children exposed to horrific abuse between 1997 and 2013. I had imagined the figure might be a few hundred. As I read it I realised how strong the findings were, how strong the criticism of the local authority and the police was and how much courage the author [Professor Alexis Jay] had in clarifying that the vast majority of the perpetrators were of Pakistani heritage in a town where the Muslim population is less than four percent.

In the weeks after the report came out, the far right turned up and set up camp in Rotherham. They held a big rally, but they’ve now largely gone. Local people are very angry, but I sense it is directed more towards the authorities for their inaction than the community from which most perpetrators come. I haven’t heard of any community tensions there between white people and Pakistani Muslim people, which is heartening.

In 2003 I moved back to Yorkshire from London to be north-east correspondent for The Times. I did a little story on a Labour MP who became the first mainstream person to speak publicly of her concerns about this model [of abuse]. I didn’t pursue the story further, in part because of an awareness that this would be the dream story for the poisoned agenda of the far right. But something pricked my conscience and made me feel I hadn’t properly tried to find out what was happening.

Over the years there had occasionally been prosecutions of men in the North and the Midlands. Their offences were similar: girls aged 12 to 15 – initially contacted on the street – would get sucked into a horrific world of alcohol, drugs and sexual exploitation. In 2010 I heard about the conviction of nine men who committed an offence against a 14-year-old girl. It was nine Pakistani men from the north-west. That’s when I said to my editors in London, ‘Something’s happening here. You need to give me some time to do some research on it.’ They gave me three months.

We did a trawling exercise through court records and old library cuttings. We knew the story would be controversial so we needed a firm evidential base. We ran an initial story on 17 prosecutions from 13 different towns and cities over the past 15 years. Within a couple of days, I got the first call from somebody from Rotherham saying, ‘This happened to my family.’

It was the story of a 13-year-old girl reported missing by her mother. The police had received a call from a woman who had heard a young girl screaming next door. The police found the kid drunk and almost naked. She was with a group of adult Pakistani men. They arrested the girl for being drunk and disorderly and left the men alone. That was the first time I realised something’s going on in Rotherham. The breakthrough came in 2012 when I was given 200 confidential documents that laid out the whole picture of more than ten years of the authorities knowing exactly what was happening in Rotherham and failing to act.

One reason why the abuse went on for so long was a genuine failure on the part of the authorities to understand what was happening. They saw young teenage girls from tough and dysfunctional backgrounds who were seemingly choosing to spend time with these adult males. They saw them as silly lovesick teenagers. They had no concept of the psychology of this grooming process, in which a child wants to be treated like a grown-up, and is excited by adult pleasures like alcohol or a boyfriend who seems to have a sexual interest in them. What they couldn’t see was how horrific the next step was, alienating the kid from family and friends and, once they were hooked, taking them to a party where their sense of being in control would pretty quickly vanish.

There was concern over the racial factor. One police officer told me that the worst thing is to be accused of being racist. It was the early 21st century when the first hard evidence began landing on the desks of council and police leaders. 9/11 comes along and there’s a lot of Islamophobia. It was put in a box because it was too difficult to deal with.

The sexual exploitation hasn’t ended. Services are much more attuned to recognising it and dealing with it. But this crime will continue to happen until we understand why it’s happening and why it’s so prevalent within a small minority of a particular community. I have some thoughts about why this may be, based partly on conversations with brave Pakistani Muslims. One possibility might be an attitude to the age of consent. In Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, tradition and Sharia law are more relevant than state law. Sharia says it becomes permissible to marry at puberty. The perpetrators do not see themselves as paedophiles.

The report has made it easier to talk about these issues. I was recently at a meeting of the Professional Muslims Institute, and I was incredibly heartened to hear speaker after speaker say, ‘These men are in our midst. There is evil in our community that we have to root out.’ That openness to discuss it, to acknowledge it, wasn’t there before.

I will take away from this a lifelong admiration for the strength of young women who have been able to come out the other side. Sadly, many have been broken by it. But there are also kids who’ve been made to feel worthless who – often with a lot of help – have managed to come out and say, ‘It wasn’t my fault. I am going to live my life. I’m going to talk about what happened to me because I don’t want it to happen to others.’ My admiration for these women knows no bounds”

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