Report Details 'Horrific Abuse' Of Children In U.K. Town

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More than 1,400 children suffered sexual abuse in a small English town from 1997 until as recently as last year. The report says local authorities were aware of the problem for years but did nothing.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People across England are absorbing news of child sexual abuse. Now that's a subject the country has had to debate before but rarely like this. And we should warn you that many people will find this report - which lasts about four minutes - disturbing. In this instance, we're not just talking about cases of sexual abuse from years ago. In fact, according to the authorities, it's continued up to the present day. Also, officials who had the power to stop these abuses were repeatedly told what was happening and did nothing. NPR's Ari Shapiro is covering this story from London. Ari, what was the abuse exactly?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: It is hard to wrap your head around the scale of it. At least 1,400 victims - likely many more - and some were as young as 11 years old. I won't go into graphic detail about the things they were subjected to but even the general outlines are very harrowing. These children endured rape, beatings. In some cases, they were trafficked to other cities in northern England. At the moment, this does not appear to be a centralized organized crime ring but rather groups of young men within a town called Rotherham in northern England. That's a town of about a quarter-million people.

INSKEEP: And if we're talking about 1,400 victims, we're talking about something that went on for quite some time. How did it finally come to light?

SHAPIRO: An independent inquiry ended yesterday with a detailed report laying out all of these events. The woman who led the investigation, Professor Alexis Jay, used to be the chief social work advisor to Scotland. And as she described the details in the report you could hear the shock in her voice, not only at what the victims endured but also what she called blatant failures by police and politicians to respond.

ALEXIS JAY: In most cases, especially in the early days, the evidence was disbelieved, suppressed or ignored. Child victims were often blamed for what happened to them while no action was taken against the perpetrators.

SHAPIRO: And Steve, there were actually three other reports before this one that were all rejected by authorities who did not believe their conclusions, which is what makes this more than just another tragic story of child abuse. The way the system failed these kids was egregious. For example, the report describes instances of girls who were given alcohol or drugs by their abusers. Police arrested the victim for drunkenness while the abusers were left alone.

INSKEEP: Why? Why would authorities act like that?

SHAPIRO: The report gives a couple answers to the question. One is that people refuse to believe something this systemic and widespread was happening in a place like Rotherham despite all the evidence that it was. Another answer is that there was a racial element to this. The report says the abusers were of Pakistani descent. And police and politicians - many of whom were white - were afraid of inciting ethnic tensions or being accused of racism if they tried to tackle the problem. I spoke with David Niven who used to chair the British Association of Social Workers. He told me the U.K. and much of the Western world is just in deep denial about child sexual abuse and refuses to acknowledge the signs. And he said when you lay a racial issues on top of that, he said he was sadly not surprised to learn that police and politicians ignored a problem of this scale for so long.

DAVID NIVEN: That's a hell of a lesson to be learned. You've got to try and climb that hurdle if the abuse of children, especially, is involved because otherwise, you're going to lose things - you're going to lose children.

INSKEEP: Well, what's happening now to the authorities who did not intervene?

SHAPIRO: As of now, one person has resigned - the leader of the local counsel stepped down. Clearly, the problem here was more widespread than just one person. So other people apologized yesterday and said they will take every step necessary to prevent this from happening again. But today, there are a lot of calls for more widespread consequences.

INSKEEP: Ari, thanks.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro. News.

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