Picture Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Rochdale is a tragedy that could happen again

Lessons have not been learned, and perpetrators are still at large

Artillery Row

On Monday 15th January 2023, a report was published into an independent assurance review of the effectiveness of multi-agency responses to child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester. It reviewed “Operation Span”, and is 173 pages outlining the most terrifying failure of the relevant police and council authorities in Rochdale to act to protect children, overwhelmingly girls, from some of the most evil men in the UK, who raped, poisoned and tortured them. 

She shamed those who were asked to give evidence to the inquiry but refused to do so. 

From 2004 onwards Sara Rowbotham, who led a team called the “Crisis Intervention Team” in Rochdale, began to hear worrying details of abuse from girls who came to them, and started to raise the issue of girls in Rochdale who were being groomed and raped by men on a large and organised scale. They raised an increasing number of cases repeatedly with statutory protective agencies, including the police, and they alleged that they were unable to get any of them to act for many years. Maggie Oliver, a detective constable with GMP until 2016, when she resigned, furious at what she knew, was also a whistle-blower on child sexual abuse in Rochdale. Both these women, who spoke out on child sexual abuse in Rochdale relentlessly, including in the documentary “The Betrayed Girls”, and are vindicated in this distressing report. Malcolm Newsam, the lead author, concluded: “The review was initiated following the serious allegations made by both Maggie Oliver and Sara Rowbotham and we have found through this review their allegations to be substantiated.”

The release of the report on Monday led to a Greater Manchester Police response and a carefully curated public conference. The Chief Constable of GMP, Stephen Watson, expressed regret and determination to prosecute all offenders. Similar sentiments were expressed by the Leader of Rochdale Council Neil Emmott. Sorry didn’t seem to be the hardest word, but rather the easiest.

Sara Rowbotham — now a Labour councillor on Rochdale Borough Council — let out a deep sigh as she took to the media lectern, following these cripplingly apologetic, yet composed, and seemingly well-scripted men. She poured herself some water and declared heavily, “Big day” before her voice broke with tears. She gulped them back inside with obvious difficulty and steadied herself to thank the report authors before unleashing her passionate fury relentlessly upon the heads of those in power, some of whom sat before her, who she felt had abjectly failed girls and their families. Rowbotham’s voice, low and determined, though shaking, spoke of the families of child sexual exploitation victims, who had been dismissed as providing unloving and uncaring home environments:

They were doing their best to protect their children, and had little or no support, and the devil at the door was too powerful.

The devil it seems also had facilitators inside the protective institutions, who should have been listening to these two brave women, the women who worked alongside them, and the child victim-survivors who confided their stories. But those state-funded devils did not listen and the devilish men outside in the community flourished unchecked in their pursuit of girls to rape. 

Rowbotham asked in barely concealed frustration:

How many more times will it take a drama or a documentary, and the ensuing public outcry, to call people and organisations to account? It’s disgusting that we were disbelieved, scrutinised, misrepresented, scapegoated and then publicly and nationally discredited by both the police and local authority. We were blamed and they said it was my fault.

All we were trying to do was to get protective services to do their job. I was described as being difficult to work with. Well, what did you expect? Children were being raped every day, but both the police and Rochdale children’s services told me, and kept telling me, that it had nothing to do with them.

As evidenced in her testimony and the report Sara Rowbotham fought tooth and nail to get help, and subsequently, justice for those girls, alongside Maggie Oliver who followed her to the microphone to tear her pound of flesh from those with state power to protect children but who had failed them. Watching the testimony of these two brave, unflinching and dedicated women, it was not hard to imagine the awkwardly twisting guts of the men who had spoken their carefully crafted words of regret, as they and others in positions of authority were held doggedly to account before the eyes of the nation. The employees of the protective organisations were dragged unnamed, but nevertheless exposed, into the light by two heroic women who have never lost sight of the girls and women they represent, even when those girls were shuffled out of sight and mind by the same institutional agents who should have believed them the first time they spoke up. No wonder these women are furious. 

The men in positions of power aren’t learning lessons, they are only learning how to say words of regret and far too late

Rowbotham discussed the voluntary relationships her team built with the children who were victims of child sexual exploitation, and the information they freely shared of the abuse they had suffered at the hands of violent men, which formed the basis of the report and asked a deeply worrying question,

No one’s ever asked me how we were able to do this. Young people came to us, they even brought their friends, they felt safe enough to tell us even though they knew we would breach their confidentiality, they even came back to us when other services let them down, how can lessons be learned if no one ever asked us how we did that?

She stressed that it was in 2004 that children began to provide information and says,

Everything being done now should have been done then. It’s not like you’re waiting for a new bit of tech to make it possible, all it would have taken is the right people actually giving a damn.

Rowbotham’s deft jabs at authority don’t have the slightest whiff of smug self-righteousness, they contained only white-hot fury and contempt, sharpened to a knife-edge of brutal accusations aimed at those who failed girls. She shamed those who were asked to give evidence to the inquiry but refused to do so. 

After operation SPAN, we were told by Penine Care Foundation Trust to draw a line under it when they knew we had dozens of other cases that needed investigating. We had names, addresses, telephone numbers, and very detailed accounts of very serious sexual assaults against children. Alongside Greater Manchester Police, they only spent time and effort questioning our numbers. Well, they weren’t numbers. They were real children.

It was difficult to hear a woman give testimony knowing that she did all she could to help girls out of the hands of men raping them and faced and has continued to face an institutional mountain of resistance. Rowbotham’s terse condemnation of all those who let the girls in Rochdale down afforded not an inch of forgiveness to them and rightly so. They were offered the chance to be more effective by both Rowbotham and Oliver, and they weren’t. Working class girls, living in poverty, paid the price of their highly-paid indifference. Rowbotham dismissed them all adroitly with her concluding statement,

It’s tiring to continually hear organisations talking about learning lessons from past injustice and appalling practise. I can’t applaud the fact that services are better now, because so they should be.

Maggie Oliver continued Sara Rowbotham’s anger and condemnation sharing the shocking detail that despite the report being commissioned in 2017 nothing was shared with the authors, by Greater Manchester Police or Rochdale Council, until 2021. Maggie is determined to remind those talking of the past failures that the present is still full of institutional failure on child sexual exploitation and accountability has to be forcibly obtained.

Oliver was keen to reinforce the message that lessons have not been learned and poor practice continues:

I would say categorically…that the failures that happened then are still happening now. 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 and it protects the system.

Oliver says that her foundation is, “currently supporting over 371 victims who say they are still being failed by GMP and their voices are silenced.” And she criticised the IOPC as being unaware that the police are “marking their own homework”. She demanded change, “I don’t want in ten years’ time to be standing here again with another report about failures”.

And Oliver spoke alarmingly of an ex-officer of GMP who worked as a specialist in child sexual exploitation, who had been “banging on doors” and trying to get others to listen to her concerns about “a very serious case where many, many children were being abused” and was unable to get anyone to take her seriously. Oliver spoke about perpetrators still running into victims who ere never charged with rape and demanded systemic change and institutional accountability.  

Neither Rowbotham or Oliver were cowed by this occasion, or in front of senior institutional figures sitting before them. They used it boldly to argue for better practice, significantly increased funding, and continued commitment to radical change. They also refused to leave the past in peace. For those girls, and the girls being abused now, there is no peace. 

These two women used a national press conference to continue to eviscerate those who failed girls and I am glad they did not let those men in power skip off comfortably clutching their prepared, fancy, and possibly rather expensive, PR apologies. The report notes that Rowbotham and Oliver wished to be named throughout it. These women are the kind of women who save girls, not pass their trauma around on pieces of paper trying to hide it away from public sight and potential justice. I was so proud of them I cried when they stepped down and took their seats. They gave a loud and angry voice to vulnerable working-class girls who were denied one for many years so that other girls were abused after them. Girls once marked as “difficult”, were represented in that report and at that conference, by deliberately, pointedly, unashamedly difficult women of the very finest kind. 

Strong women must always speak up for women and girls, because the men in positions of power aren’t learning lessons, they are only learning how to say words of regret and far too late. Those words can’t give those girls a safe and happy childhood back. It was stolen from them, and they will carry the weight of such patriarchal failure in their minds, and their bodies, forever. It is a heavy burden.

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