Police find a man in a car with a bottle of vodka and a 12-year-old girl. Disturbing photos of her are found on his cell phone. He was not arrested.
In another incident, police visit a house where a father is outside demanding his daughter be released by men inside. The 14-year-old girl is found in the house, drugged and under a bed. The father and daughter are arrested for racial harassment and assault. Police leave the house, which still has three men and two girls inside it.
These are but a few of the incidents reported by the Times of London as part of its coverage of a massive child sex abuse scandal in the United Kingdom over the past two years. In the northern city of Rotherham alone, 1,400 children were sexually-abused over a 16-year period by networks of men who gang-raped, kidnapped and trafficked them to other parts of the country. Nearly as disturbing was that local police and government officials had been warned of the problem numerous times—and did little to stop it.
The issue of race and ethnicity made the issue more complicated. Nearly all of the perpetrators were of Pakistani origin, and most of the victims were white. In a country that has had an uneasy relationship with new immigrants, this made for a sensitive story.
Yet that didn’t stop Andrew Norfolk, a Times of London investigative reporter. Norfolk’s groundbreaking reporting on the groups of men that conducted the abuse – and the other adults who failed to stop it, triggered a large-scale government investigation and led several local government authorities to resign. Norfolk, who won the U.K.’s Paul Foot award and The Orwell Prize for his reporting, spoke with Global Journalist’s Pablo Gabilondo about documenting underground pedophilia rings, facing resistance from local officials and being accused of racism.
Global Journalist: How did your reporting on this begin?
Norfolk: It was actually back in 2003 when [a member of parliament from Northern England ] went public with concerns about what was happening with young girls. Mothers of the children had come to her, they had gone to the police, they had gone to social services, and nobody seemed to want to take an interest.
Right from the start the MP was saying, these are young white girls, and these are what she described as Asian-men. We started the story in the Times back in 2003 but it was a story that it was very difficult to conceive of writing.
If you anticipated the outline here and it was correct, the far-right in this country would regard it as their dream story because it presented an idea of innocent white victims and evil non-white offenders. But as years passed, then I began to see that these cases were cropping up in courts around the country: two or three or four men being convicted of offenses against girls who typically were aged about 12 to 15. In the autumn of 2010, I decided that we had to take time to have a proper look to see whether it seemed to be a pattern, a hidden pattern of offending that nobody was acknowledging.
GJ: One of your early articles on this, in January of 2011, noted a pattern in a certain type of sexual abuse cases --- and highlighted the fact 53 of 56 people convicted were Asian – and 50 were of Pakistani origin. Was there backlash to labeling their ethnic background?
Norfolk: Once we decided we were going to have a proper look at this, we felt that the only way we could actually run a story, that was on such a controversial subject, given the ethnicity of many of the offenders, would be to start from a very firm evidential base. I spent three months trolling through court records to local newspapers archives and libraries across the country.
We recorded every single case where two or more men had been convicted of sex offenses that involved children in that age group, twelve to fifteen, but where the first point of contact wasn’t on the Internet, it was in a public place: it was in a street corner, in a shopping mall, in a bus or a train station… I think we came up with about 17 cases from around the North and the middle area of England.
And as you say 56 men [had been found guilty], I think 53 of them were Asian, but when we looked at the names the vast majority of those names, almost 50 of them, were Muslim names, as opposed to Hindus or Sikhs.
And the vast majority of those Muslim names were Pakistani men. And yes, it created a huge outcry, because some people accused us of racism, of trying to create a model that would blame a particular minority ethnic group in this country.
The truth is the vast majority of sex offenses in this country are committed by white men acting on their own. If you look in the family, if you look in an institution like school or church, if you look at online offenses; overwhelmingly it is white men.
This was a very particular model of offending that involved a collective group activity, and we were saying, “look this has been going on for two decades in this country, it has quite deep roots, and nobody has acknowledged its existence.”
The only way you can stop it is if you actually do the research that is necessary to understand why these crimes are happening.
GJ: In a number of your articles, you noted that police and child protection agencies had knowledge of what was happening for a decade or more. Why do you think so little was done?
Norfolk: Well, a real changed happened after we published that first big piece in January 2011, because until then nobody in any position of authority was prepared to talk to me at all. On the record? Off the record? No. They were just too terrified to even acknowledge the subject’s existence.
After we published that story people started ringing me. In 2012, I took possession of a huge number of confidential documents from one particular town, and that was Rotherham, in the north of England. Th[ey] laid out, when we analyzed them, a 10-year period where consistently police intelligence reports and social services case files were going into great detail about what was happening to girls who were 11, 12, 13 and 14.
They were holding meetings and they were saying that it was such a shame and how terrible it was, but nobody was doing anything to actually put it to an end; nobody investigated and prosecuted the men who were grooming and sexually abusing these young girls.
Why they didn’t do it? It’s an answer that to this day you will get 101 different answers. I genuinely believe that at the start it was a real ignorance of the horror of what these girls were getting sucked into.
Because at the start the young teenagers they are thinking they are going to be treated as they are grown ups and they really are: they are excited by the idea of a man who is a few years older and often good-looking, who has got a car and is offering cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and rides. And they think they are in control.
And then very soon they are getting lured into a world were they are being taken to houses to circle parties. They were being routinely subjected to quite horrible sexual abuses of one man after another. These children were basically being passed around: groups of friends, groups of relatives, groups of work colleagues and they were sometimes even taken from one town to be abused in another area. I don’t think the authorities quite wrapped their heads around how horrible it was, and the lasting damage that was going to be done to these children.
When they did begin to realize that, the independent inquiry that was published in August this year suggested that there was a very real concern about how this terrible crime was going on. The perpetrators were being identified consistently by the victims and by the frontline workers as being part of a tiny section of the population, because the Pakistani Muslim population in Rotherham is less than 4 percent of the population of that town.
[They were debating] “How do we cope with community cohesion? How do we cope with the implications if we start going in and say there was a real problem here?” I think there was a terror, not just in Rotherham, [but] all across the country, for police forces and others in treading what seemed like a cultural minefield.
The final most important factor I think is simply there was, unfortunately, something close to contempt for the girls who were often from quite trouble backgrounds and disproportionally came from the [government’s] care system.
I think some middle class professionals in our country thought it was acceptable for things to happen to girls like those, that they would not have dreamt as being acceptable [for] their own daughters.
GJ: How are children in the care of the more vulnerable to sex trafficking?
Norfolk: The challenge is the systems that were in place to protect these children were almost nonexistenct. You had men driving up to these institutions, parking the cars, ringing the girls on the mobile phone and the 13-year-old girl was answering, walking out of the house, getting into the car, being taken away and put into a room with five men.
And after they had that pleasure with that poor kid, she was being put into the car, driven back to the children’s house, and nothing was done to stop it.
GJ: Two of the leaders of Rotherham’s local government and the regional police commissioner have resigned because of your investigation. Are you satisfied with this?
Norfolk: I think they were individuals who were in a senior position in the council, also with the local police force as well, who had significant responsibility for a lack of action when concern had been brought to their attention over a period of years.
They are by no means the only individuals who have culpability for this. Far more important in terms of the 1,400 victims who have been identified in Rotherham is that the men who actually targeted them…should finally be brought to justice. Because no matter how inadequate the child protection services were in that town, the man who really needs to be asked about his action is the actual abuser.
GJ: Tim Loughton, a conservative member of parliament, said a couple years ago that Rotherham’s scandal was just the “tip of the iceberg.” What do you make of that?
Norfolk: The actual model of abuse, the idea of men who seem to think is acceptable to target and threaten girls that way, that pattern exists across every community in this country that has a Pakistani Muslim population.
We are obviously not talking about the majority of the population in that community. What would be unthinkable with the Muslim girls is somehow committable with white kids, because they are regarded as worthless. And yes, I don’t feel sorry for Rotherham that this has come out and they have been the object of worldwide attention, but I think there are many other authorities which are thinking, ‘thank goodness we haven’t gotten an independent inquiry to look in our books over the past 10 years.’