Why The British Allowed The Rotherham Abuse To Fester

The Guardian's Randeep Ramesh tells NPR's Scott Simon about the social and societal forces at work in British culture which might have contributed to the cover-up of the Rotherham child abuse case.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This next interview is about a disturbing topic. Britain has hundreds of towns that must be similar to Rotherham - medium-size, mildly historic. But this week, Rotherham became the word for crime and tragedy. An official report commissioned by the Rotherham Bureau Council by Professor Alexis Jay documents how at least 1,400 children in the town were abused, physically and sexually, by a criminal ring led by five men over 12 years. During that time, police lawyers and social workers repeatedly heard complaints from children and others - they refused to follow up. Randeep Ramesh is the social affairs editor for The Guardian newspaper, and he joins us from the U.K. Thanks for being with us.

RANDEEP RAMESH: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: This - the numbers, the length of time, the willful ignorance - all that is very difficult to comprehend in this case.

RAMESH: Yeah, I suppose Britain's been on a long journey facing up to sort of the more disturbing aspects of some of our towns. You know, somewhere like Rotherham was once a thriving industrial town, it's now a shell of itself - high unemployment, a lot of poverty. And that's not to excuse what happened there, it's just to give you a bit of a flavor of the sort of decay in some of these places.

SIMON: How did this criminal ring operate?

RAMESH: Well, I think in recent years, what we've seen is an acceptance of a new model of pedophilia or extreme exploitation of children - groups of men who befriended young girls and sometimes boys, seducing them with drink and drugs, essentially then raping them and then sort of mentally enslaving them into a life often of prostitution where they're trafficked across towns. That was something - a pattern of behavior which wasn't really recognized until sort of five or six years ago amongst professionals. Then there was this aspect of this crime, which was that no one paid any attention to...

SIMON: Yeah.

RAMESH: ...The people coming forward on the basis that they were poor young girls who were often troubled families and in, you know, the care of the state.

SIMON: Mr. Ramesh, the five men arrested were all from the Pakistani community of Rotherham, and you have written about this, how did that perhaps complicate the situation?

RAMESH: Well, it complicated it because there was a feeling - or at least the report laid bare - this idea that people were afraid to speak out for fear of being called out as racists. Now, that's part of the story. We have a policy here of community cohesion. The government at the time wanted communities to work things out for themselves and have the gentle hand of government sort of prod them into action. But there was this idea that, you know, people couldn't speak out because of this. And unfortunately, that led to the situation - exacerbated a situation where people weren't paying attention anyway.

SIMON: People were flabbergasted about the allegations about Jimmy Savile a couple of years ago, the longtime BBC host. And I wonder if people in Great Britain are turning to each other now and wondering - not to wrench things out of context - but if there's something going on and the way they behave as the nation that aids and abets a kind culture of silence when such allegations are made.

RAMESH: You have to remember that this issue of sexual abuse has almost been, you know, an unspoken thing in British society. And really we don't have many tools for it. There are no public information campaigns, sex education is pretty poor, we don't have the tools available. We probably can't arrest our way out of this problem as one, you know, expert told me. We just have refused as a society to take it seriously, and we're surprised because when we look, we find.

SIMON: Recognizing that there's a sanctified legal process that has to proceed, has anyone been disciplined for what sounds like pretty gross abuse and neglect?

RAMESH: No. And that is a big problem. The Council officials are saying there's not enough evidence or there's not a finger of blame being pointed at any individuals and no individual should resign - its collective. I mean, this is part of the problem of this process is that we don't actually have anybody taking the fall, taking the rap. And, you know, they've put themselves in positions where they're not liable to know the facts. The consequences of that just build up through the years. But you started off with 90 kids in this situation, you ended up with 1,400 kids being left to, you know, the worst kind of abuse.

SIMON: Randeep Ramesh, who is social affairs editor for The Guardian newspaper. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

RAMESH: Thank you.

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